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Xavier v. tOSU: Preview of a Cage match

The last time these teams met it was decided by the referees, this time it needs to be decided by a Xavier team desperate to win.

NCAA BASKETBALL - Justin Cage
He can’t beat you fairly, Justin
Photo via Getty Images

Forgive me, if you will (or even if you won’t, this is happening) a personal rant. I despise Ohio State. I hate their stupid football team that acts like it should be a professional team. I hate the fans of that football team who insist that their team is yet to be defeated in a fairly officiated game and display a dogmatic level of allegiance to a school 95% of them didn’t attend and couldn’t locate without Google Maps.

I hate that everyone in Ohio assumes you are a Buckeyes fan. I hate the hatred of Michigan, the objectively better state. (And I say that as someone who deeply loves NE Ohio.) I hate not using the letter M, the bizarre sense of superiority coming from a state school, Hang On Sloopy, O-H, the band, and the utterly asinine pronunciation of the word “the.” I passionately hate all of it and I hope their football team loses every game from now until the heat death of the universe. Now, on to what you (don’t) pay for.

These two teams have met before. On the 17th of March, 2007, the #9 seed Xavier Musketeers took on #1 seed Ohio State. You don’t need storylines in the NCAA tournament, but this game had a good one. Thad Matta, Xavier’s former coach and the one who had taken the Musketeers farther than they had ever been, was coaching the Buckeyes. Coaches change teams all the time, but Matta had sworn not to leave Xavier hours before doing exactly that. Coaching against him was upstart Sean Miller who, compared to Matta, left Xavier with an abundance of class. The Musketeers had been stabbed in the back, and this was their chance to take vengeance on the man who had done it.

Down four at the half, the Musketeers roared back and led late thanks to the heroics of Justin Cage. For 38 minutes Xavier’s undersized center danced, spun, and weaved his way around Ohio State’s highly touted soon to be NBA flop Greg Oden. Cage was on a mission to the tune of 25/6/1 on 8-8 from the floor and 3-3 from deep. With nine seconds left, Cage snared a defensive rebound with his team up two. Greg Oden, clearly frustrated, simply threw Cage out of bounds against the stanchion. For reason that would be debated endlessly were Xavier a media darling, the officials only awarded a common foul. A clearly dazed Cage made one of two from the line, Miller chose not to foul, and the rest is barely repeatable history. The programs have not met since. Tonight, they do.

There is a different power dynamic now. Ohio State is still the premier team in the state, something their fans will take no end of delight in incessantly mentioning, but Xavier is no longer an upstart. Xavier’s three missed NCAA tournaments represent a serious blip, not anything vaguely resembling the norm. The teams now play in comparable conferences. This isn’t just David v Goliath.

Except tonight it kind of is. Xavier is struggling so far this season. Two wins have only papered over some rather obvious cracks. The Musketeers aren’t even a top 100 team so far this season, Ohio State is 71st and just put an absolute beating on Bowling Green. Ohio State is healthy, nationally ranked, and expected to be a contender in their conference. Xavier is missing their best player, not in the national picture, and probably the fourth best team in their conference. Once again, the Musketeers enter the underdog.

Team fingerprint:

Ohio State’s offense is very good because they shoot the ball inside very well. If KenPom were to award his player of the year this morning, it would go to EJ Liddell, who is shooting nearly 70% on two point field goals. Liddell’s teammates are no slouches inside the arc either, knocking down 58.3% of their attempts as a team. The Buckeyes aren’t great from deep, but they don’t take many threes. They’re also even worse than X from the line. Still, the inside game, excellent offensive rebounding, and an offense that takes care of the ball make them very formidable.

Defensively, OSU isn’t quite on the same level. They’re actually quite bad. Right now, Ohio State’s defense is 187th in the nation in efficiency. The Buckeyes have gotten absolutely torched from behind the arc and have really struggled on the defensive glass. The Buckeyes are ok at forcing turnovers, defend in the paint better, and force turnovers at a mediocre rate. Their defense, on the whole, is not inspiring.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Jamari Wheeler Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
"6'1"", 170" Measurements "6'5"", 198"
5.7/3/4 Game line 20/6/4.5
33.3/50/83.3 Shooting line 43.8/31.3/87.5
A Penn State transfer, Wheeler is on the team largely to distribute and knock down open shots. He has yet to connect from inside the arc, but his 4-8 mark from deep and 12 assists to 1 turnover make that largely irrelevant. He's low-usage, high-efficiency on offense and a tenacious on-ball defender. This is a matchup Xavier has to win; Paul Scruggs's size should give him an advantage here.
Meechie Johnson Jr. Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Freshman Class Senior
"6'2"", 172" Measurements "6'4"", 192"
8/2.3/1 Game line 4/5/1.5
35/31.3/83.3 Shooting line 20/25/0
Neither of these guys is out of the blocks well this year in terms of scoring the basketball, but both are capable defenders. This would be a really good time for Nate Johnson to snap into form for Xavier. The Muskies' backcourt has a meaningful size advantage that could come into play on the glass if Key and Liddell are carving out space when shots go up.
Justin Ahrens Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
"6'6"", 195" Measurements "6'6"", 207"
8/3/2.3 Game line 17.5/6.5/2.5
50/53.8/60 Shooting line 50/30/71.4
An absolutely deadly shooter. Ahrens boasts a career 42% mark from distance and takes 10 threes for every 1 two he attempts. He's almost exclusively a catch-and-shoot guy, but he'll kill teams that give him too much space. On the other end, it's not clear he's got the size to entirely contain Colby Jones.
E.J. Liddell Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Junior Class Junior
"6'7"", 240" Measurements "6'8"", 210"
22.3/6.3/3.3 Game line 6.5/9/1.5
59.5/38.5/60 Shooting line 18.8/25/83.3
Liddell is currently the KenPom POY leader. He can score from all three levels and is a monster on the glass, especially on the offensive end. He draws a ton of fouls, though he can be a little prone to foul trouble himself. Hunter's toughest work will be keeping him out of deep post position; anyone else who realistically draws the assignment may be vulnerable on the perimeter. A tough matchup.
Zed Key Center Dieonte Miles
Sophomore Class Sophomore
"6'8"", 245" Measurements "6'11"", 231"
12.3/7/0.3 Game line 4.5/5/0.5
66.7/0/71.4 Shooting line 57.1/0/25
Key was a solid piece in limited minutes last year, and early this season he has made a jump by remaining very efficient while seeing an increase in minutes. He's a traditional big with zero career attempts from three. He's an excellent rebounder, especially on offense, and protects the rim respectably without fouling much. He has 1 assist on the young season.

Reserves

Guard Malaki Branham was a Xavier target in recruiting, but now he's averaging 7.3/3.3/2.3 off the bench at OSU. At 6'5", 180, he has used his length to be disruptive defensively early on, though his offensive game has lagged a bit thanks to a .391/.400/1.000 shooting line. Kyle Young is maybe the first true big off the bench. He's crushing the defensive glass and shooting 6-7 from inside the arc on his way to 6.5/6/1.5 per game.

Justice Sueing is a versatile 6'7", 215-pound forward whose status is still unknown for the game due to an injury he has been nursing. He does a lot for OSU and scores efficiently from all over. His absence would be a hurter.

Farther down the bench, Eugene Brown might find some spot time on the wing and Joey Brunk is a depth piece who can score it a little as a big.

Three questions:

- Can Kyky Tandy play? Xavier needs offense. Kyky Tandy at least brings with him the promise offense deferred. Xavier needs three point shooting. Tandy is a career 35% shooter behind the arc. Kyky has also not taken his warmup off this season. Perhaps it has been a recovery from bronchitis that has kept him sidelined, but this would be a great game for the young man to find his wind, remind Coach Steele that he exists, and at least have the chance to make a difference.

-How does Xavier defend? Steele used the length and athleticism of Dieonte Miles to huge effect down the stretch in the Kent State game, switching ball screens to neutralize Sincere Carry. Ohio State's biggest threat is their forwards, though it should be noted that smothering guards is a good way to keep tough matchups in the paint from ever materializing. It's unrealistic to think that there's one simple solution in play here, but how Xavier approaches defensive assignments and strategy will be a key inflection point of this game. Get it wrong early and this one could run away and hide before there's time to correct.

-Does X have actual depth? Jack Nunge and Adam Kunkel are two non-starters who Steele appears to trust to impact games off the bench. Dwon Odom has not gotten the run he did last year, nor has he made much of an impression in his limited opportunities. Kyky Tandy and Ben Stanley have yet to log a minute, though health and fitness concerns have hovered around both. The team looks to be about 7.5 guys deep right now, and that's having just faced two low-major opponents. There's a lot of basketball yet to look forward to this year; Xavier could use for another player or two to force his way onto the floor against high-level competition.

Three keys

-Play even in the paint. EJ Liddell is a legitimate All-American candidate and Zed Key is a big lad who has had his way in the paint this year. Jerome Hunter, Dieonte Miles, and Jack Nunge are not being mentioned for national awards at this point, but that's not what Xavier needs tonight. They just need those three guys to be tough enough to keep OSU from having their way in the paint, especially on the offensive glass. Key and Liddell have been turning second chances into easy baskets all year; Xavier needs to hold the Bucks to one-and-done on the offensive end. Coach Steele framed it as a question of toughness in the press conference. Xavier may not dominate the paint, but they can't afford to concede it.

-Make some jumpers. I've not exactly split the atom here. OSU is holding teams to 43% inside the arc but allowing them to shoot 39% outside of it. X has a lot of guys who have decent three-point resumes but have been underperforming this year. That likely needs to change tonight. Since opening the season 4-5 from deep, Xavier is 10-51 as a team. That is so unsustainably miserable that it will hamstring any efforts X makes to win this or any other game against decent competition.

-Leverage key perimeter matchups. Paul Scruggs is big, he's tough, and he's motivated. Colby Jones appears to be in the early stages of the breakout everyone predicted for him. OSU doesn't have perimeter players who match up with the size and skill those two guys offer. There's no such thing as going to the well too often; those have to be matchups Xavier wins, and they have to stay on them relentlessly. In front of a capacity crowd at Cintas with a chance to bag the team's biggest non-conference win since the Chris Mack Era, these are the two guys to take Xavier across the line.