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Xavier v. Virginia Tech: preview, matchup, keys to the game

A pair of teams attempting to bounce back from their first loss of the season battle for third place in the Preseason NIT.

NCAA Basketball: Maine at Virginia Tech Ryan Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

One neutral-site loss does not define a season. Xavier was away from home for the first time all year Wednesday night and they looked distinctly disoriented. The Muskies came out of the locker flat in both halves and - bar one stretch late in the first half in which they controlled the game - never seemed to have their heads above water against Iowa State. By the time the final horn came, it was a mercy.

Virginia Tech also came to the Preseason NIT with a perfect season still technically within reach. Their hopes were dashed just as comprehensively as Xavier's, though arguably less embarrassingly. They put in a game performance against a very talented Memphis team, holding their own for 35 minutes before giving up a 14-2 that functionally ended a game they wound up losing by 8.

Nobody wants to return from an MTE empty-handed, but that fate is going to greet one of these teams. A season isn't defined by one game, but it can be defined by the ability to bounce back from adversity. Xavier has a chance to show their mettle tonight.

Team fingerprint

The Hokies sport the 28th-best defense in the nation per KenPom. They force opponents to play in the half court, forcing one of the ten slowest tempos on the defensive end. In the half court, they're brutal to break down, sitting at 8th in the country in EFG% against. They also land just inside the top 100 in defensive rebounding percentage and TO rate, so free opportunities aren't easy to come by. They do all this without fouling, too, ranking 29th in defensive free throw rate. Teams shoot just 18.8% from deep against them, a mark that is tops in the country.

On offense they'll play a little quicker but still no faster than the national average. They don't get to the glass or the line very well at all, but they make up for it by shooting the frickin lights out. They're knocking down more than 40% of their three-point attempts, a success rate I can't even conceptualize. They're solidly above average from inside the arc and their ball security is excellent.

Only a quarter of their minutes come from the bench. This is a top-heavy roster.

Players

The two leading scorers pose a solid inside-out threat for the Hokies. Keve Aluma (12.7/5.5/1) works in the paint and shoots 57% from inside the arc while also getting on the offensive boards at a good rate. Nahiem Alleyne (12.3/3.7/2.8) is shooting 40% from 3 and is second on the team in assists. Both of these guys also knock down their free throws and get to the line regularly. Continuing the theme of baller names in the starting five, Justyn Mutts, Storm Murphy, and Hunter Cattoor round it out and bring different threats. Mutts boards hard at both ends, leads the team in assist rate and shoots 58% from 2. (Thunder)Storm Murphy is scoring well from all over but is dragged down by a lot of turnovers to start the season. Hunter Cattoor is shooting a reliable 37% from 3 and has attempted less than half as many 2s so far. He’s not the focal point but he takes care of the ball and spreads the floor.

The first guy off the bench is Darius Maddox who is shooting an obscene 68% from 3 and 54% from 2 on the year. He’s only hit double digits once this season so hopefully he doesn’t explode for 30. John Ojiako comes off the bench and rebounds like a mad man. His offensive game is fairly limited but he keeps a lot of possessions alive on the glass. David N’Guessan is shooting well on limited usage while Sean Pedulla distirbutes well and avoids shooting for the most part.

Three questions

-Were all the guards sick? We know Adam Kunkel was under the weather, but Nate Johnson and Paul Scruggs both caused nausea against Iowa State whether or not they were feeling any of their own. This characterization isn't entirely fair to Dwon Odom, who played well, but every other member of Xavier's back court (assuming you call Colby Jones a wing) combined for 4-20/2-9/1-2 shooting and 10 turnovers. I hope they were feeling under the weather.

-Does this team have any depth? Jack Nunge is perhaps the best bench weapon to exist since the FA voted to allow substitutes before the 1966-67 season, but beyond him it's tough sledding. Dwon Odom is finding his feet a bit after a slow start but still struggling with turnover issues. If Adam Kunkel is still having tummy trouble, the remaining three players who have come off the bench at all - Ben Stanley, Cesare Edwards, and Twitter favorite Kyky Tandy - have a total of 39 minutes of play between them on the season.

-Is Jerome Hunter playable? We've written at length about how much Hunter does that doesn't show up in the scoring column, but... he shot 3-12 from the floor Wednesday, including 0-6 on threes, none of which were particularly promising at any point between his hand and the floor. He's rebounding well and playing good defense, but he has some turnover troubles and his field goal attempts are gifts to the opposing defense. Xavier attacks 4-on-5 with him on the floor.

Three keys

-Shake up the rotation. Virginia Tech shoots the three well but doesn't shoot a ton of them; can the Muskies run with two bigs? Paul Scruggs was not comfortable running the show last time out; can Dwon Odom slot into the lineup and push Colby Jones to the four? Would whatever Kyky Tandy or Ben Stanley has to offer be preferable to watching Jerome Hunter rifle jumpers off just the glass? Not all change is progress, but I'm not sure how much more of the same thing we saw Wednesday I can watch.

-Play with some energy. Xavier was out-toughed and beaten to every 50-50 ball against Iowa State. When the shots aren't falling and the half court is brutal, that's a recipe for the disaster we all witnessed. The Muskies have to get back to what Coach Steele calls playing to their identity, and they have to do it quickly. This team - especially without Zach Freemantle - is not talented enough to sleepwalk through anything.

-Force the paint. The 3-21 Xavier posted from beyond the arc Wednesday dropped the team to 27.3% from deep on the year. That's basically pointless. Excluding only Adam Kunkel, the team lacks any shooter in the top 400 in the nation in three-point percentage. Jack Nunge, Dieonte Miles, Colby Jones, and Dwon Odom are all shooting over 60% from inside the arc and land in that top 400 bracket. Virginia Tech has a legit rim protector in Keve Aluma, but he can be foul prone. More to the point, it was a lot less fruitless and frustrating to watch EJ Liddell block 8 shots than it was to watch the team fire 21 almost universally hopeless threes against Iowa State.