In what I'm confident is an achievement that at least ties a national record, Xavier will participate in its second NIT of the season. After heading to the preseason NIT - technically now branded as the NIT Season Tipoff - in New York over Thanksgiving weekend, the Muskies find themselves in the postseason version thanks to playing the last minute of regulation against Butler like they were shaving points. A scant six days later, our boys are back in action.
Their first opponent is the Vikings of Cleveland State. Cleveland State won the Horizon League this year before falling in the conference tournament to eventual champs Wright State. They boast a 20-10 overall record behind head coach Dennis Gates, who people in our Twitter mentions assure is a surefire coaching star ready for the high-major level right now.
Gates tries to force the action on the defensive end, where the Vikes were 26th in the nation with a TO rate of over 22%. That was their one redeeming trait, because they were bad at everything else. They're about average in defensive EFG% and downright miserable at both defending the glass and keeping opponents off the line. Despite nestling inside the top 100 in block rate, they allowed teams to shoot over 50% from inside the arc. They'll also sit there and watch you shoot threes whenever, which is honestly a fairly viable strategy against X. This all adds up to the #247 defense in the nation.
On offense, things are a little better. They're 168th overall, basically bang average in offensive efficiency. They're 19th in the nation with a two-point percentage of 55%, and they shoot a fairly low rate of threes in order to focus on the paint. They are inside the top 50 in free throw rate and EFG% and 21st in OReb%. Unfortunately, they turn the ball over like it's a hot potato and shoot a miserable 67.3% from the line. They do some thing well on offense, but not enough to be a consistent threat.
NB: the positions on the starting lineup below are approximate at best. CSU starts 4 guys who are 6’4” or 6’5” and have mixed statistical profiles. For instance, you might think the guy who rebounds the best is the 4 and the guy who distributes the best is the one, but they’re the same dude. The guy who never gets assists and chucks a ton of threes seems like he’d be the 2, but he also blocks more shots than anyone but the center. I took a shot at it, just be advised that it might not exactly match what you see on the court.
|Torrey Patton||Point Guard||Paul Scruggs|
|6'5", 195||Measurements||6'5", 198|
|Patton does a bit of everything for the Vikes. He is second on the team in scoring and rebounding and first in assists. He's also second in made threes. He's not too prone to turnovers and he has really solid defensive numbers. He gets to the line fairly well, but his success rate when he's there leaves something to be desired.|
|D'Moi Hodge||Shooting Guard||Nate Johnson|
|6'4", 180||Measurements||6'4", 192|
|This guy loves to shoot. He's first on the team in shots rate, second in two-point attempts, and first by a large margin in three-point attempts. He doesn't board much or distribute at all, and he rarely turns in over. He also defends like a maniac, leading the team in steals percentage and ranking second in block rate.|
|Deshon Parker||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'4", 195||Measurements||6'6", 207|
|Parker gets 26 minutes per game and doesn't make much of a statistical mark on the game. He takes about 1 of every 11 of his team's shots when he's on the floor and doesn't rebound or assist much. He doesn't have gaudy defensive numbers. He's an efficient player, just arguably not a very effective one.|
|Tre Gomillion||Power Forward||Zach Freemantle|
|6'4", 215||Measurements||6'9" 220|
|Other than committing 4.5 fouls every 40 minutes, Gomillion does just about everything you could ask a glue guy to do. He is a threat from three, rebounds okay, and is a solid defender. He's not turnover prone and he scores well enough to merit attention on the scouting report. He shoots pretty poorly from the line, weirdly so for a guy who shoots it pretty well from everywhere else.|
|Deante Johnson||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'9", 210||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|Johnson is one of the more efficient post scorers in the country. He posts an EFG% of 59.8%, good for 75th nationally. His free throw rate is 4th in the country, though his FT% isn't great. He rebounds pretty well at both ends and blocks a decent amount of shots; he's a solid big man who isn't a focal point of his team's offense.|
The first guy off the bench is senior Broc Finstuen, another 6’4” guy of an indeterminate statistical profile. He averages 7.3/4.4/1.2 and spends most of his time inside the arc. He rebounds well at both ends and isn’t a threat from three. Senior Yahel Hill is a 6’0” guard who averages 7.1/1.1/1.3 on 46.5/33.3/72.7 shooting. He provides cover at the guard positions but is more suited to the 2 than the 1.
Deeper down the bench is 6’7” wing Jayson Woodrich. He averages 4.4/1.3/0.4 in about 11 minutes per game. Nobody else gets more than Cesare Edwards kind of minutes for CSU.
Aside from Woodrich, everybody getting real rotation minutes is a senior. This is, according to KenPom, the second most veteran team in the nation.
-Can Steele rally the troops? Last time Xavier was in the (postseason) NIT, covid-19 wasn't a thing yet, Travis Steele had just come within a Brian O'Connell special of winning an at-large bid in his first season, and the future seemed fairly bright indeed. The vibe around this trip is distinctly different. This tournament is a huge disappointment to a veteran team that expected more when the season started and looked to be good for until the wheels came off. How to get these guys up for a consolation lap that nobody wanted is beyond me, but it's Travis Steele's job to figure it out.
-Can Xavier find some sort of form? Last time the Muskies played a team this low in the KenPom, it was Ball State. X near as makes no difference doubled them up behind 24/7/4 from Zach Freemantle in just 20 minutes. That was December 8th. Where that Xavier team went is anybody's guess, but it might be nice to see it resurface.
-Who can step up and lead? We've heard about the player leadership on this team, but it's a huge ask to be able to rally your peers for what is effectively a buy game with less on the line. Every game at a school like X is measured by its potential impact on the resume; when there's no more resume to play for, it takes something intrinsic to keep everyone pulling together.
-Protect the ball. One of the bright spots for Xavier this year has been ball security. With a TO rate of just 14.5% in league play, they led the Big East. Cleveland State feasts off of forcing turnovers and converting them into easy buckets. If Xavier avoid coughing the ball up, they neatly cut out Cleveland State's best defense and their best offense.
-Cede the arc for the glass. The Vikings can't shoot threes; they're functionally equivalent to X from behind the arc. What they can do is harvest offensive rebounds. Nothing that happens more than 20 feet from the bucket is that much of a threat to Xavier's defense tonight, but they can score in the paint and off of second chances. Packing the paint is the way forward for the Muskies.
-Be the bullies. This is a mid- or low-major team coming into Cintas for a game. I know it's the NIT and not where Xavier wants to be, and I know the best outcome is the chance to play another NIT game. There's nothing positive that can be proven by winning this game, but there's plenty negative that can be shown by losing it. The Muskies need to take care of business tonight.