Xavier played a great game on Wednesday. It was an all-timer, one that Big East fans will remember for a long time. One team never led by more than six, the other by no more than five. For a neutral it must have been incredible game to watch. Xavier lost. Xavier has now lost three in a row. It’s hard to find the joy in having been involved in a great game when that is the outcome.
The good news is that Xavier played much better on Wednesday. After struggling to put together 40 good minutes for most of conference play, they put together 55 against a team that has lost three times this season (four if you award a loss for what Dwon Odom did to Nate Watson). Still, the Musketeers have lost five of six. Desperation? Not quite yet, but this is a season perched on the edge of meltdown.
Seton Hall is sort of going the other way. The Pirates have won two in a row, but those two have been by a combined ten points over DePaul and Butler. Bryce Aiken may not return this year because of a concussion and in his absence the Seton Hall offense is not what it could be with him in there. Still, winning is better than losing (I’ve been told), and the Pirates are solidifying their NCAA tournament participation.
Seton Hall makes their living on the defensive end. The Pirates are 28th in the nation in defensive efficiency despite a bit of a dip in conference play. What they do is block shots at nearly a 14% clip and dare teams to beat them from outside. That, obviously, is not a recipe that will excite Musketeer fans. What will is that the Pirates are susceptible to quick ball movement and slashing guards. If Xavier retains the aggression they had on Wednesday, they should be ok. If they don’t, be prepared for another article on next Tuesday about how desperately the Musketeers need a win.
Seton Hall’s offense without Aiken is unimpressive. Their best offensive performance recently came against Villanova just before Valentine’s Day in a game that they lost. In conference play the Pirates have the seventh best offense. That would be more encouraging if Xavier’s defense wasn’t ranked eighth. The Pirates shoot horribly inside the arc, but Xavier defends that area equally badly. The effectiveness of the SHU offense will likely come down to whether their excellent offensive rebounding is a match for Xavier’s tops in the conference defensive rebounding.
|Since Bryce Aiken went down, Richmond has been pressed into service as the point guard. He's the biggest dude playing the one in the league right now and part of one of the biggest starting fives in the country. He's a good defender and an adequate shooter. He has good distribution numbers, but ball security has been a bit of an issue for him.
|There are almost 300 games of college basketball experience in this matchup. Cale and Scruggs are both down a bit from their numbers last year, but both can be dangerous. He dropped 37 in the two games against St. John's but has just 9 total in the last two games. He's definitely a ball hawk defensively, and he's just good enough from deep that you can't leave him alone.
|Rhoden is a bit of a volume scorer right now, but he can score them in bunches when he gets going. He hit 5 threes against X last time out; he hasn't made more than 3 in any other game this year. He's an athletic and active defender who works hard on the defensive glass. Much like Scruggs for the Muskies, he's a long-tenured veteran who leads the team.
|For years, the term "stretch four" has struck fear in the hearts of Xavier fans. Steele's teams do better against big men who can shoot than Mack's did, but Jackson is shooting 42% from deep in Big East play, which is an issue. He's a good defensive rebounder but otherwise fairly statistically anonymous at that end. Obviously, his absurd size can be an issue for anyone going up against him.
|In awe at the size of this lad. He shoots basically twice a game, but his contributions on the defensive end are what make him a starter. He blocks shots at the highest rate in the conference and crashes the offensive glass hard. He can't shoot worth a darn, but he's somehow an excellent free throw shooter, notching a perfect 10-10 from the line in conference play.
Alexis Yetna is the name to look out for here. He averages 9/7.8/0.7 and is - by rate - probably the best rebounder in the league. He gets about 24 minutes per game and is only shooting 41% from the field, but he is a 6'8" wall of muscle who crushes the glass.
Also spelling the big men is 6'10" Tyrese Samuel. He's much less of a factor on offense than Yetna, but he's a very good rebounder at both ends and defends the rim well. He's prone to foul trouble, turns the ball over a lot, and shoots 44% from inside the arc in league play. His 15 against Butler broke a string of almost three months in which he had hit double figures against a D1 team just once.
The guard depth is 6'2" American transfer Jamir Harris. He averages 7.6 per game and doesn't do much rebounding or passing. He's shooting 38% from deep in conference and has hit at least 2 threes in 8 of his last 9 games.
- Does Xavier have anything in the tank? Anyone who has played in a game that ran past regulation can tell you how much it takes out of you. To have played an emotionally charged game that lasted nearly three and a half hours leads to the exhaustion evident on the face of every player on Wednesday. X needs to find some way to bring that same energy on Saturday while also have recovered from the massive expenditure they already made this week. Good thing they aren’t prone to starting slowly.
- Can Nate Johnson (please, God) play? One more three pointer anywhere in the first 50 minutes of play and Xavier wins. Adam Kunkel did his level best, but the rest of the team was a diabolical 1-9 behind the arc. Jack Nunge is 4-17 behind the arc since the last time these teams met. Xavier desperately needs someone to make some threes. Nate Johnson is the best bet for that.
- Is Zach Freemantle back? Against Providence Freemantle didn’t just go for 15/8/1, he managed to not be an idiot when foul calls went against him (clearly a focus of the ever-present Paul Scruggs), and was downright pugilistic in the paint. Best of all, he took nary a three pointer. Xavier’s offense looks better when Freemantle is in Big Frosty mode, bodying and working in the post.
- Win the battle on the glass: Xavier cannot, cannot, cannot let Seton Hall get second chances. The Pirates are not a good shooting team and will turn the ball over. Keep them to one and done and the Musketeers will have given themselves a huge advantage.
- Stay aggressive: Colby Jones got to the line 10 times by driving at the rim rather than circling it. Adam Kunkel was relentless in putting pressure on the defense. Paul Scruggs drove consistently but only turned the ball over twice in 49 minutes of play. All of that added up to a very good offensive performance for Xavier even with Jack Nunge struggling. The Musketeers have to come out with that same drive again.
- Punch your ticket: Win this one and then avoid the thing we aren’t talking about and the Musketeers are in the tournament. I don’t care if they win 4-2 or 96-93, just get it done.