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Xavier v. Duke: Phil Knight Invitational preview

After Xavier cleared the first hurdle, bigger and tougher challenges await. Duke is every bit the challenge Indiana was, and it’s not on friendly turf.

NCAA Basketball: Phil Knight Legacy-Duke at Oregon State
These frickin guys.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier’s first goal in this weekend’s tournament was to get by Florida. If they could accomplish that, they take the opportunity for bad losses off the board and set themselves up for one or two more shots at a really big win. Mission accomplished there; the Muskies are 1-0 in Portland and have the chance to swing at some pretty big targets in the next few days.

The first of those is Duke. The Blue Devils are, along with Gonzaga, the top name in the tournament. They’re currently 5-1 and their only loss is to Kansas by a mere 5 points on a neutral site. Despite that, they’re not unassailable. They were down 6 with 10 and change left before they closed on a 17-8 run to keep the Beavers at bay.

Team fingerprint

Offensive rebounding. Duke is not a great offensive team. They’re 248th in EFG% and 243 in FT%; they don’t shoot especially well from inside or beyond the arc. They are an excellent free throw shooting team, though that’s not as effective as it could be since they don’t get to the line so much. They’re a little above average in ball security, but their bread and butter is putting the ball on the rim and going up and getting it.

Duke’s defense is very good. They’re solid but not spectacular at forcing turnovers, but they shut down the glass well. They force really tough shots, especially from beyond the arc. They’re especially impressive in keeping opponents off the line; they’re in the top 10 in defensive free throw rate fairly easily. They’re also really close to running the slowest defensive possessions in the country. This is a good unit.


We’re on a quick turnaround between games here, so we’re going to speed run this portion of the preview.

Freshman big man Kyle Filipowski is a legit seven-footer anchoring the team. He averages a double-double, clobbers the glass at both ends, and is a good rim protector. He’s not shooting particularly well, with a 48.6% EFG%, but he doesn’t turn the ball over much and gets to the line a ton.

Jeremy Roach is a senior who runs the point. He’s a pretty average player who has always been solid but unspectacular. He’s having a little bit of an issue with ball security this season. His running mate in the back court is 6’5” freshman Tyrese Proctor. He’s a good defensive rebounder who has a horrible 30.9% EFG%. To his credit, he’s not using a ton of possessions.

Alongside Filipowski in the front court are freshmen Mark Mitchell and Dereck Lively. Mitchell is 6'8", 220, and harvested huge production against the soft early portion of the schedule. His ORtg falls to 75 (compared to a season average of 120) in KenPom A+B games. Lively is 7'1", 230. He's not a stud on the glass and he doesn't shoot a ton, but he has been efficient in low usage. He defends the lane well but fouls too much.

Spelling the bigs is 6'10" Northwestern transfer Ryan Young. He struggled against Kansas but has otherwise been crushing the glass and scoring at a high level. He won't step out and shoot it, but he's a cool 21-28 from inside the arc.

Jacob Grandison and Jaylen Blakes provide depth farther out. Grandison is a big wing transfer from Illinois; he's okay on the glass and no great shakes as a defender. He is a career 38% shooter from deep who hit 41% from out there last year. Blakes is a sophomore combo guard who is off to a hot start at 42.9% from three. He has decent defensive numbers so far.

Dariq Whitehead is a 6'7" forward who made a late season debut, but he has been a high-usage gunner in moderate minutes in three games this year. His ORtg is pretty miserable, but he clearly has a green light. I don't know what to expect from him and I won't pretend.

Three questions

-Can Xavier's bigs meet this test? Freemantle and Nunge have been solid early on, but their defensive rebounding has been an issue and the depth behind them has been conspicuous by its absence. Duke is 9th in the nation in average height, Filipowski is the hub of the team, and their three guys 6'10" or above each have ORtgs of at least 120. Either Nunge and Freemantle need to be transcendent and immune to fatigue, or someone else has to step up.

-Has Duke been tested? The Blue Devils have played one team with a KenPom better than Jacksonville's 149, and they're 0-1 in that game. That was a see-saw battle that Kansas took over down the stretch; everything else has seen Duke have an obvious talent advantage. Are their numbers inflated by soft competition, or will they play to their stats against X?

-Can the bench provide anything? The 5/3/0 in 32 minutes Xavier got from their reserves with Kunkel starting against Florida isn't going to get it done against Duke or in the long term. This team has to go more than 5 dudes deep. It currently doesn't look like it does. With 4 fouls in 11 combined minutes from Hunter and Miles and Edwards still absent, the front court especially looks thin.

Three keys

-Gang rebound. Duke is the number one offensive rebounding team in the nation. Xavier has struggled in allowing second chance points all season. If they don't keep Duke off the offensive glass, nothing else matters.

-Push the tempo. Duke has used its defense to slow down the game all year. The fastest game they've played has been their 72-possession loss to Kansas, though honesty compels me to disclose that they also won two 72-possession buy games. I don't think they're comfortable defending in the open court when they rely so much on their monstrous big men.

-Attack constantly. Despite having some huge dudes, Duke doesn't block a ton of shots or play super stingy two-point defense. Xavier can't afford to be cowed into settling for threes. This teams strength all year has been in passing up long jumpers to work through the post and the paint. Whether it's posting bigs or slashing from the perimeter, that has to keep up today.