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Xavier v. Southern: preview, matchups, keys to the game

If this game is being talked about come Selection Sunday, it will because Xavier screwed it up.

NCAA Basketball: Southern at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Non-conference season is almost over. Basically two months of basketball since the start of official practice have passed, and the chances for a team to test itself against opponents outside of its own league are nearly over. From here on out, the vast bulk of games will be contested between teams whose familiarity has bred contempt - or will do, if the teams are good enough to be competing for something.

Programs generally come into the season hoping to accomplish one of two things in non-conference play. The first of those is to put together a tournament resume. Xavier is a team who looked to do exactly that, with spotty results. They have, to this point, avoided the bad loss. Four Q4 games have been put away by an average margin of victory of 22.5 points. The top end is a little rougher, as Xavier has played 4 Q1 games and won only one of them. X has been outscored by just 3 points on aggregate in those 4 games, but an inability to get any of the Indiana, Duke, and Gonzaga games across the line might rear its head later on down the line.

Broadly speaking, the other end of the spectrum of goals for the non-conference season is to pay the program’s - and sometimes the entire athletic department’s - bills. High-majors pay teams to come out for tune-up games, and Southern almost certainly cashed checks in each of their first four games. After losing at UNLV, Arizona, and Saint Mary’s, they poached a win that I’ll bet they got paid for against a hapless Cal program. That and a neutral site game against Loyola (MD) are their only two D1 wins. It has been a rough start for the Jaguars; I hope it has also been lucrative.

Team fingerprint

Good news first: they force a ton of turnovers. By playing fast and in the full court, they put enough pressure on opponents to get them to cough it up on more than a quarter of their possessions, good for 16th in the nation. The bad news is everything else. They’re last in the country in defensive free throw rate, 278th in defensive EFG% (being staggeringly permissive around the arc and in the paint), and bang average in DReb%. There is no further mitigation. If they don’t turn you over, you’ll probably score.

On offense, they try to play fast. They’re in the top 40 in percentage of shot attempts taken in transition and the top 10 in percentage of shot attempts taken in transition after a steal. They try to turn you over and run. And no wonder; their EFG% is 259th nationally at 47.9%, but it jumps to 55.6% in transition and almost 70% after a steal. They turn the ball over a ton themselves and don’t rebound or get to the line well at all. This team is a one-trick pony that isn’t dominant with that trick.



Starting matchups
P.J. Byrd Point Guard Souley Boum
Senior Class Senior
6'1", 175 Measurements 6'3", 175
8.9/3.4/5 Game line 17/4.1/3.9
61.1/50/85.3 Shooting line 53.3/51.4/85.7
Byrd is an excellent though sparing shooter who also has a real knack for getting to the line. He distributes the ball well, but he is horrible at not turning it over. This is his second season at Southern, and he has turned the ball over in more than a third of the possessions he's ended in that time. Part of that is down to how little he shoots, but he's coughing it up more than 3 times per game.
Bryson Etienne Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 190 Measurements 6'4", 185
12/3.1/2.5 Game line 10.8/1.6/2.4
36.8/34.1/84.6 Shooting line 49.3/42.4/100
An absolutely shameless chucker, Etienne has a shots percentage well north of 30%. He isn't a great shooter - career 36% from inside the arc and 30% beyond it - but he makes up for that in pure volume. He's a good free throw shooter, but he doesn't get to the line enough to take advantage of that. He has a decent steal rate, but he fouls 4 times per 40 minutes.
Brion Whitley Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Junior
6'4", 200 Measurements 6'6", 205
12.4/2.1/1 Game line 15.4/5.3/5.6
43.3/41.4/71.4 Shooting line 48.9/52.2/84.1
Whitley is a better shooter and a bit more selective than Etienne, but he's still a bit of a volume scorer. He's also a pretty good defender, though that comes at the cost of 5 fouls per 40 minutes. A complete absence on the offensive glass, poor assist numbers, and fewer than one free throw per game played are all factors in dragging his offensive efficiency well below average.
Tyrone Lyons Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Senior
6'7", 190 Measurements 6'9", 225
9.7/3/1.7 Game line 13.1/7.4/3.2
43.6/34.8/52.4 Shooting line 58.9/50/65.7
Lyons was pretty solid across the board last year, but he's off to a slower start this season. He is shooting fairly well and playing good defense, but he hasn't been as efficient around the rim as in years past and isn't rebounding enough for the position he plays. His block rate is also way down and he's not getting to the line as much.
Jalen Reynolds Center Jack Nunge
Junior Class Junior
6'6", 245 Measurements 7'0" 245
7.3/3.7/0.7 Game line 15.5/7.1/1.6
62.1/0/53.3 Shooting line 53.6/41.9/61.5
The five is a huge question mark for Southern. Reynolds is the most frequent starter, but three other players have started in the middle and Reynolds has missed the last three games. Assuming he starts, he's a solid rebounder in a team of poor ones and a good scorer around the rim. He's also suffering from some turnover issues and fouling almost 10 times per 40 minutes. That's kind of a theme on this team, really.


Not as many as you might think from a team that plays like its hair is on fire. They’re outside of the top 100 in bench minutes on KenPom and only have one guy off the bench averaging more than 15 minutes. The starters have shuffled around a little bit, but this looks for all the world by a team that is deep only be necessity, not choice.

That guy getting 15+ is Terrell Williams. He’s a 6’6” junior wing averaging 5.2/3.9/0.9 so far this season. He’s off to a bit of a cold start shooting in that he’s 12-34 against D1 teams, but he’s a solid defensive rebounder. The other most consistent bench player is guard Dre’Shawn Allen, who is averaging 6.6/2.4/0.3 in 13.3 minutes per game. He’s shooting 37.5% from behind the arc, rebounds a little bit, and has two (2) assists.

After that, it’s kind of a crapshoot. Festus Ndumanya is a 6’7” forward averaging 5.2/3.3/0.1 and presenting the only consistent offensive rebounding threat off the bench. He has gotten 2 starts, but he played a total of 15 minutes in those games. Wilkens brothers JaRonn and Jariyon are 6’9” and 6’7”, respectively, and offer forward depth off the bench. JaRonn is a little better of a rebounder, Jariyon is a better defender and more efficient scorer, and they both shoot free throws really well and foul a ton.

Isaiah Rollins is either a deep bench guy (he averages about 9 minutes per game) or, as he was last time out, a starting guard. J’Quan Ewing is a 6’9” center who has played just 2 games all year, but he has 16 points in 21 minutes in that time. Kris Gardner has played 9 games, averages 8 minutes per as a reserve guard, and has only 18 points total. The depth chart is a mess, dudes pop in and out from everywhere, and the main takeaway is that this team isn’t good no matter how you shuffle the personnel involved.

Three questions

-Is there a Shootout hangover? There appeared to be with some time still remaining in the Shootout. Xavier staggered across the line a bit, though keen observers will note that they did so ahead of UC. After an intense rivalry game in a hostile road arena and with conference play looming, there could be a bit of a mental letdown for the final buy game of the year. That’s how teams end up with Q4 losses.

-Can someone on the bench step up? Sean Miller has been insistent in press conferences that there are guys on the bench who have something to contribute on the floor in live action. Xavier’s non-conference schedule hasn’t really allowed for that though, as any time in early-season buy game that could have been used to run the young guys had to be dedicated to learning a new coach’s system, then the meat of the schedule was upon Xavier and they were playing every game to the wire. This rate of leaning on the starters probably isn’t sustainable.

-Does anyone try to control the tempo? Southern, as discussed above, likes to play fast. Xavier isn’t meaningfully different; in fact, the Muskies’ offensive possessions are on average more than a second quicker than Southern’s. Both of these teams are in the top 30 in the country in adjusted tempo; we might see 80 possessions tonight.

Three keys

-Control the ball. There’s really only one key, and this is it. Southern wants to force turnovers and get out and go. If they don’t, they can’t stop you from scoring and they can’t score themselves. Xavier’s turnover rate has improved throughout the season, but it’s still a work in progress. It needs to be more progress than work tonight.

-Dominate the paint. Southern is 305th in average height; Xavier is 23rd. The Jaguars have one guy over 6’7” in JaRonn Wilkens, and he averages 8.4 fouls per game. This should be a game where Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle feast early and Jerome Hunter, Cesare Edwards, and Dieonte Miles get plenty of run in mop-up duty.

-Execute at the line. Xavier averages 21.7 FTA per game, which is in the top 50 in the country. Southern gives up 26.7 FTA per game, which is in the bottom 4. Xavier is in the top 100 in free throw percentage for the first time since Chris Mack left; it should be a non-stop parade of Muskies to the line tonight.