13 days ago Xavier tipped off a game at a strange time. At 430 in the afternoon they walked on to the court at MSG and played a game that would be a microcosm of their season. Xavier couldn’t make threes, couldn’t get stops, made a costly mental mistake, and ultimately torpedoed their at large chances by going 13-29 from the line. A very promising season went by the boards in an almost incomprehensible collapse.
Except, weirdly, we are still playing. Out of the wreckage of that game in New York a lot of things happened. First off, Xavier landed in the NIT. Their first game was against Cleveland State and was played in such a bizarre and funereal atmosphere that Greg Christopher and Travis Steele decided Steele’s position was untenable. In a second odd turn, that meant that none of Xavier’s four most recent coaches, none of whom were even 55 years old, had a coaching job. Xavier remedied that by (re)bringing in Sean Miller who, in yet another twist, likely won’t be Xavier’s head coach when they take the floor come November and certainly won’t be when they take the floor tonight.
Somehow, in the middle of all that, Xavier has won two straight games and played one of their best of the season. Jonas Hayes had his team looking sharp and bludgeoning Florida when Paul Scruggs went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. The Musketeers head back on to the Cintas court tonight for a chance to go back to Madison Square Garden and with a weird mixture of optimism and depression still hanging in the air.
There will also be another team on the court tonight, and it seems fitting to mention them at some point. Vanderbilt is a solid if unspectacular team that has both beaten LSU and Arkansas and lost to South Carolina and Temple. They are coached by Jerry Stackhouse and led by Scotty Pippen Jr, just in case you needed to feel old today.
The Commodores aren’t much too look at on offense. They get to the line incredibly well, but make free throws at even an worse rate than Xavier. They also shoot a ton of threes which they also shoot pretty poorly. Toss in getting shots blocked more than almost any other team in the nation and a turnover rate approaching 19% and you get an offense that is dangerous when the threes fall and a mediocre 98th in the nation overall.
The defense is another story. The Commodores are 38th nationally because they force fast possessions and turn teams over. Their energy for getting turnovers does mean that they send their opponents to the line a lot. Vandy is also death on three point shooters but can be gotten inside, where they don’t block shots and allow more than 50% of two point attempts to drop. When the offense can keep pace with the suffocating defense, Vanderbilt is tough.
|Scotty Pippen Jr.
|Pippen is Vanderbilt's most important player by a very wide margin. He used the most possessions in the SEC this year and also led the conference in fouls drawn and assist rate. He is an efficient enough scorer for his workload, is a very good distributor, and is coming off 32/4/7 without a turnover and 3 steals against UD.
|Chatman is a transfer from, ironically, Dayton who has battled a hamstring injury all season. He carries most of his offensive value in his ability to knock down threes and is 9-25 since rejoining the Commodores in the SEC tournament.
|Stute is another spot up shooter who will roam the perimeter hoping defenses collapse onto Pippen. He shot 12-23 from deep in the SEC tournament and was instrumental in Vanderbilt's win over Alabama. He does not rebound that well for a man his size, but when you shoot 42% from deep, no one cares.
|Wright can do a bit of everything, but doesn't really do any of it consistently. He can score from all over the place, like he did when he dropped 27 on Kentucky 11 days ago, or he can be a complete disaster, like he was with his 5 points on 1-8 shooting against UD. He is more consistent on getting to the defensive glass, but it is hard to know what to expect from him on offense.
|Robbins missed over half of the season with a foot injury and has struggled to make much of an impact on the offensive end since returning. He rebounds well defensively and blocks shots at a terrifying rate, but his offensive contribution both on the boards and as a scoring option has been fleeting.
Vanderbilt features a fairly deep bench and there is perhaps not a more important piece off of it than big man Quentin Millora-Brown. He splits time at center with Robbins and is a change of pace, attacking the offensive glass and being much more of a scoring threat, while not boarding as well on defense or blocking shots at the same rate as the starter. Tyrin Lawrence is a guard who struggles with turning the ball over and is not much of a threat from three, but can score off the drive. Jermaine Mann is only 6’6”, but mixes it up in the paint with the biggest of them and grabs his fair share of boards because of it. Trey Thomas has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, but can provide a scoring spark when he gets hot, having lit up Florida for 17 earlier this month.
- Is Paul Scruggs playing? As of 1PM, there was no update on Scruggs. The game on Sunday had a grim air as players, coaches, and even the referee offered their respects to Xavier’s fallen leader, but a couple days have come and gone without any official word on Scruggs knee. He’s currently listed as questionable.
- Can X continue to find motivation? It’s odd to cheer for a team that didn’t make the tournament and yet is somehow still playing. (“We’re number 69!” doesn’t seem to have caught on as a cheer.) The players looked horrid to start the game against Cleveland State, but looked energetic against Florida. If they carry that energy into tonight, the team is a win away from a final four of sorts.
- What is going on with Zach Freemantle? Xavier’s preseason all Big East pick only played 16 minutes on Sunday amidst rumor he had skipped a practice and might enter the transfer portal. Freemantle came out and promptly went for 10/7/1 in the limited time and even looked like he cared on defense. Freemantle is either an enigma that Miller must solve or auditioning for his next team.
- Take care of the ball: Vanderbilt is at their best when they force turnovers and get easy buckets. They win by uglying up the game and making teams earn every point. Xavier, after some early season issues, only turned the ball over on 14.5% of possessions in conference play, best in the Big East. It’s a strength against strength matchup.
- Make some threes: 12 of Vandy’s 16 losses have come when teams have shot 28.6% or better behind the arc against them. That isn’t an unreasonable number, but it will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Xavier that the Musketeers have come in at or under 28.6% a stunning 17 times this year. That one number could tell the outcome of the game, but it certainly isn’t a strength against strength matchup.
- Use the bench: Vanderbilt is reasonably deep and will get good minutes from the bench post men. Xavier has Dieonte Miles and Cesare Edwards available to help combat that. Edwards has gotten time recently, but Miles feels like he already has one foot in the transfer portal. Getting both backup bigs onto the court could be important for Xavier not just now, but moving forward.