So here we are. After two games in Maui, Xavier are at literally the worst spot possible results wise. Much and more has been said about their performances the past two days, the decision making, the focus (or lack thereof) on the defensive end, the meteoric rise of Elias Harden: Sharpshooter, and the merits of a group of players that can look tantalizingly close to a good team at times before shooting it all in the foot. All those are details to the backdrop of the situation today, though. The fact is, Xavier has a chance to take some small semblance of momentum from this event and grab a win over a top 100 opponent and that merits seeing this game as an opportunity, even in the context of larger disappointment.
Illinois started this season in resounding fashion by actually blowing out Evansville instead of, ya know, letting them hang around until the last media timeout. Since then, they have been the backdrop for the rise of Mac McLung, hung tough with Gonzaga, and kind of gotten hammered by Iowa State. They, like Xavier, will be looking for some small positive to end this trip to paradise on.
Brad Underwood’s teams typically make their mark on getting good shots and getting their bad ones back. The problem is that Illinois misses a lot more and gets a lot fewer back than his Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State teams did. This year the Illini have struggled shooting the ball and compound their issues by both being bad at getting to the line, and not converting particularly well when they are there. They are a very young team and are playing their 4th top 100 opponent in a row, so a bit of this was probably to be expected.
Defensively, they sell out going for steals and are currently 6th in he country in turnover rate. Their problems come when their opponents do shoot, because they surrender a 60% mark from inside the arc and give back over a third of misses. I guess the ideal matchup then would be a team with ball security issues that loves shooting jumpers OH MY GOSH IF WE DON’T GET THE BALL INSIDE AGAINST THESE GUYS I AM GOING TO LOSE IT. They also foul a ton and don’t block many shots.
Running the point for Illinois is Trent Frazier, who is more of a shoot first point guard. They put the ball in his hands and ask him to both score and distribute, the former of which he does a better job at. He went for 29 against Gonzaga, but was not able to get it going as well against Iowa State, going for 15 points on 6-17 from the field. He also has 8 steals in the three games he has played this season, so that is something to look out for.
His backcourt partner is the extremely efficient but rarely used Da’Monte Williams. Seriously, he only shoots on 8% of their possessions when he is on the court. He also is prone to grabbing the occasional steal and had 9 boards against Gonzaga, but again he has 4 times in 50 minutes of basketball in Maui, so his defensive contributions lose some punch when every trip is essentially 4 on 5.
Ayo Dosunmu is a freshman wing from Chicago who has shot the ball very well from outside this season. He had 43 points in their first two games on 17-29 from the field, but found Gonzaga a bit steep of a learning curve in his third collegiate game. He had 13 against ISU and still sports a 53% mark from deep to go with some respectable steal numbers.
The guy who is listed as the 4 is 6’5” Aaron Jordan, who does most of his offensive work beyond the three point line. He is a Senior who has grown into a prominent role after rarely featuring his first two seasons. Jordan does get active on the defensive glass, leading the team in defensive rebounding rate, although this is not a good defensive rebounding team. He shot 44% from deep last year and is posting a 43% mark so far this season, so he is definitely a candidate to stretch the defense for the Illini.
The Center is Georgian (the one in Europe) big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, which is a harder name to say than Jones or Hankins in my opinion. He is 6’9” and likes to work at both the rim and in the midrange. He actually scores better on jumpers than he does at the rim, but does pull down 11% of his team’s misses when he is on the floor. He had massive foul trouble against Iowa State, but had 17 points against Gonzaga on 17 field goal attempts. He can also be a bit turnover prone.
Illinois gets significant minutes from their bench, the lion’s share of them coming from Andres Feliz and Kipper Nichols. Feliz is a guard who comes out and tires to get steals and create chances for his teammates, although that turns into fouling and turning the ball over more frequently than he would probably like. He has an 83.8 ORtg on the year and has gone for 6 points on 9 shots with a 2:3 A:TO and 7 fouls in 36 minutes in Maui. Nichols, at 6’6”, provides some size and is the team’s preeminent shot blocker. He takes care of the ball on offense and picks his spots from both inside and outside, but is rarely option 1 on offense. Also likely to feature is 6’5” freshman Alan Griffin, who has impressed with his scoring ability in 25 minutes this week. He does not affect the game in many facets just yet, but he has shown he can score the ball and had an efficient 11 against Iowa State.
- Can this team compete for 40 minutes? Xavier has looked excellent for stretches this season, and the first 10 minutes against SDSU may have been their best stretch of the year. It really doesn’t matter, though, if you spend the next 20 minutes hand the game away, which is precisely what they did. There has still not been a game this season where Xavier has been consummately blown out, which is a comfort only until you consider that they also saw IUPUI and Evansville hang around well into the second half. At some point, the team has to put together a complete performance, but the longer they wait to do so, the more chances for wins that will matter come March slip by.
- Can Xavier exploit the post? Illinois is very bad at defending inside the arc. There is just no getting around it. With a 5 minute overtime coming up, Auburn was ripe for the taking down low, with their two biggest players fouled out and the guy who was in on 4 fouls. Xavier never exploited the matchup down there and faded like cut grass as a result. 40 minutes of old school Big East bully ball from Jones and Hankins is the recipe for Xavier today. The question is whether or not they use it.
- Can Tyrique keep himself on the floor? Going hand in hand with the last question, Jones has been a man possessed this season, basically beating Evansville solo at times. The problem is that he is still fouling at a rate that would make Jalen Reynolds blush. Illinois lets opponents to whatever they want on the offensive glass and, good as Hankins is, there are few players in college basketball that are as effective at hoovering up their team’s misses as Jones is. X could use a big game from the big man, but that can only happen if he doesn’t run afoul of the, to be fair to him, completely arbitrary whims of the referees.
- Take care of the ball. Currently Xavier is right in the middle of the pack as far as DI teams go turning the ball over. They were a rolling disaster in the process of happening against Auburn, chucking the ball to the Tigers on over a quarter of their possessions. Illinois can’t get stops without steals and their defense goes a long way toward creating their offense. Simply put, if Xavier turns the ball over like they did against Auburn, they can probably expect the same result.
- Set the tempo. Illinois wants to create turnovers so they can run, which is how they get a lot of their offense. If Xavier can make them play a half court game, it will force them to rely on their shooting, which has not been overly spectacular.
- At least act like you care about defense. Another game, another Xavier opponent living off their ability to get open threes at will. SDSU went 11-27 from deep and got back 40% of their own misses. How a team manages to not be in position to challenge the arc or get rebounds is beyond me, so it is probably a good thing I am not the one being paid to fix it. Coach Steele is, though, and it is the most glaring issue with this team to date.