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Xavier v. Ball State: preview, matchups, keys to the game

The game before the game we're all looking for.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Toledo vs Ball State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

"The next thing that matters is the only thing that matters."

That, like many other things you'll hear from a coach, is a platitude based in reality. You and I and probably everyone in the program have had one eye on the Shootout since Xavier finished the job against Oklahoma State. The Muskies are now 7-1 and sitting at 30th in NET, having handled almost every test the non-conference schedule threw at them. This Saturday, they host intracity rival Cincinnati.

Before that, though, they take on Ball State tonight. BSU has staggered to 3-4 in the early going. Their resume includes 2 Q4 wins and 1 in Q4; their best result is holding off an okay UMass team at a neutral site. With losses to Florida International, Western Illinois, and Georgia Southern, the Cardinals have not proven to be a formidable opponent.

Team fingerprint

Ball State shoots 42% of their shots from behind the arc and hits 42% of those attempts. They are an excellent three-point shooting team. Paradoxically for a team that hucks so much from deep, they're also 13th in the nation free throw rate.

Beyond that, they're bad. They're about average in turnover rate and 259th in grabbing just 25% of their own misses. They shoot just 48.5% from inside the arc and 66.7% from the line. It all adds up to the 189th-best offense in the country per KenPom.

Their defense makes their offense look sensational. They are 305th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They're just about average at defensive rebounding, which is the thing they do best. They're hovering around 300th in defensive free throw rate, forcing turnovers, and defensive EFG%. They completely concede the three-point arc in terms of both rate and accuracy and are only marginally more resistive inside it. There isn't really anything they take away defensively, which I guess explains why their overall ranking is so bad.

Whichever end they’re on, Ball State loves to play fast. Defensively, they’re always trying to get the opponent to run their stuff as fast as possible, and on offense they’re looking for the first good look they can get. On the whole, they’re the 60th-fastest team in the nation, and they want to get you out and make you run.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Demarius Jacobs Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'2", 185 Measurements 6'5", 198
7.3/3.6/2.6 Game line 12/3.8/4
64.3/53.3/77.8 Shooting line 39.1/31.4/73.9
This guy doesn't shoot much, but when he does he's the 2nd-best shooter in the nation by raw EFG%. He is posting a career high assist rate at 19.1%, but his ball security numbers are pretty bad. He's a solid defensive rebounder for his size, but he can be prone to foul trouble.
Luke Bumbalough Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Junior Class Senior
6'1", 180 Measurements 6'4", 192
13.7/3.4/3.4 Game line 14.6/3.5/1.3
43.3/45.7/63 Shooting line 53.2/48/78.6
Bumbalough leads the team with 21 made threes. He's only 8-21 from inside the arc, and he's not a very good free throw shooter. He has similar numbers to Jacobs and better ball security. He doesn't make much of a statistical impression on the glass on either end or on defense.
Tyler Cochran Small Forward Colby Jones
Junior Class Sophomore
6'2", 220 Measurements 6'6", 207
9.4/5.4/2.9 Game line 12.7/9.7/3.4
47.7/42.9/75 Shooting line 52.5/33.3/67.7
Around the perimeter, Ball State is giving up at least three inches of height in each position. He has only shot one three a game, but he's possibly the team's best defender and also very active on the offensive glass. He is also prone to foul trouble.
Miryne Thomas Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
6'8", 200 Measurements 6'8", 210
9.7/4.9/1.6 Game line 5.4/6.1/1.4
41.1/33.3/57.1 Shooting line 24/16/83.3
Probably the closest thing the Ball State starting lineup has to a post defender, though he does average more than 5 fouls per 40 minutes. He blocks a respectable amount of shots - think Colby Jones more than Dieonte Miles - and defends the glass well. He has hit 10 threes on the year, which isn't bad. He also turns the ball over a ton, which is bad.
Payton Sparks Center Dieonte Miles
Freshman Class Sophomore
6'9", 240 Measurements 6'11", 231
9.3/6/0.6 Game line 3.7/3.1/0.3
46.8/0/67.7 Shooting line 56.3/0/36.4
A big lad who carves out space on the offensive glass on the regular. He has 4 assists to 12 turnovers and 18 personal fouls on the year. If he isn't grabbing a board and going back up with it, his effectiveness is limited at this point. He's a solid free throw shooter who gets to the line fairly often.

Reserves

Jalen Windham is the team’s second-leading scorer with a 10/1.7/1.1 game line. He’s a 6’5, 180-pound wing who is a bit of a chucker, sporting a .346/.406/.778 shooting line; he’s just 5-20 from inside the arc. He’s mostly catch-and-shoot and doesn’t do much else on either end. Freshman Jaylin Sellers is the other bench guard; he posts 5.6/1.3/0.3 per game and has 5 starts, though he came off the bench last time out. Two thirds of his attempts and 14 of his 17 makes come from inside the arc.

The first forward of the bench is Mickey Pearson, who averages 6/3.4/0.9 per game. He’s 6’7”, 210 and is a very good defensive rebounder. He’s shooting .432/.364/.500 on the year. Basheer Jihad is a 6’9”, 220-pound freshman forward. He’s a solid rebounder and a decent shot blocker, but the number that jumps off the page is his 6-9 number from behind the arc. His minutes are limited right now by foul trouble; he picks up 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes.

Three questions

-How does the lineup shuffle out? Coach Steele said last practice was Zach Freemantle’s best of the season, and that “he’s starting to look like the old Zach.” That’s bad news for opponents, but it also might spell the end of Jerome Hunter’s time as a starter. Jack Nunge’s presence has been harder to ignore when filling out a lineup card, and farther down minutes have dwindled to a stop for Kyky Tandy and Ben Stanley. Dwon Odom and Adam Kunkel are making their cases, but Scruggs, Johnson, and Jones are demanding playing time with their production. Too many good players to manage is a good problem to have, but it can be a problem nonetheless as a coach works to get the best out of his team.

-Can Nate Johnson stay hot? Probably not this hot, obviously, unless you think he’s good for 60% from deep the rest of the way. Something in the 40-50% range doesn’t seem like it’s implausible from Johnson, and that would be incredibly key for Xavier. The Musketeers have a stout lineup, but they need a game-breaking shooter to open things up for the slashers and post players. Johnson’s accuracy may be the key to the season for X.

-Who controls the pace? One place where it appears Travis Steele has made strides as a coach is as a game manager. People loved to bag on his ability to make in-game adjustments, but he seems to have been pulling the right levers this year. More pertinently, he has shown the ability to get the pace to a place where it favors the Musketeers. Both of these teams like a high tempo, but it will behoove Xavier to be able to cool the game off if Ball State starts knocking down their shots.

Three keys

-Defend the arc. We could do one key, really. Ball State is 340th of 357 D1 teams in percentage of points scored on two-point shots. They are a superb three-point shooting team, and they rely on it. If Xavier does not run them off the arc, they have a chance to shoot this game somewhere interesting. That is, bar something like another malfunctioning lock on the Xavier locker room, their only hope.

-Protect the ball. Ball State is not good at forcing turnovers at all, but Xavier sure is good at providing them. The Muskies did an okay job with the ball against a tough opponent in Oklahoma State; this is a game in which they should be finishing in the single digits in total turnovers. Anything beyond that is a warning light about this team’s ball security.

-Finish and move on. Xavier led Norfolk State 26-7 and Central Michigan 25-4. That is how a team with serious tournament aspirations handles buy games. This same Xavier team has beaten Niagara by 3 and needed a 16-2 run to see off a Kent State team that was within a bucket at the 10-minute mark. Everyone reading this preview is already thinking about the Shootout already; Xavier needs to play like they aren’t.