Xavier is in contention for a national postseason tournament title for the first time since 1958. This NIT final is the first final Xavier has appeared in since then. The Musketeers have appeared in only three national semifinals (NAIA- 1948, NIT- 1958, NIT- 1999) in their history. While this isn’t exactly the goal at the start of most years it is still significant.
This game has taken added significance because the players and coach clearly want it. Their desire has transferred to Xavier Nation, which has responded in with a wave of support for the team. That will come through, like it always does, in the national telecast when the “Let’s Go X!” chant starts up during a big run. In order to send that crowd home happy, and send those watching at home in to the streets in celebration, here’s what Xavier needs to do.
Hit them with the AK
Texas A&M’s defense, and, to a lesser extent, their offense, is predicated on forcing turnovers. Dwon Odom’s turnover rate is 25% for the year, but dropped to a manageable 19.6% in conference play. Recently he’s been sharing point guard duties with Adam Kunkel’s, whose turnover numbers in those same spans are 12.6%/10.6%. Kunkel has run the point for long stretches in the NIT and may be Xavier’s best choice tonight, He doesn’t initiate a ton of offense, but he cares for the ball.
More than that, Kunkel is utterly without fear. I’m not sure if that extends to his personal life where he might do things like eat pineapple on pizza or drink orange juice right after he brushes his teeth, but nothing on a basketball court seems to faze him. A lot of times the best way to beat an aggressive defense is to attack. Kunkel will do that.
Get Nate Johnson going
A&M doesn’t allow opponents to shoot the three well against them. When teams make 38.5% of their threes, the Aggies are just 6-6. When Xavier shoots over that number they are 9-1. There are only three people on Xavier who should even consider taking a three. It’s Nate Johnson, Jack Nunge, Adam Kunkel, or no one. With Kunkel on the ball, Coach Jonas Hayes needs to figure out how to get his sharpshooter going one final time. Look for Nate to get some early looks from deep. If he puts the ball on the deck and and heads for the rim at some point in the first two wars, things are going to go well for him.
Win the boards on one end
Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle will need to bring their A game tonight. Xavier’s bigs need to either keep the relentless A&M offensive rebounding machine in check, or answer them like for like. Colby Jones will be vital in the effort to control the glass, but so will the guards. Twice against St. Bonaventure the Musketeers had gotten a stop that could have ended the late Bonnies mini-run, only to see a guard slide in and grab a board. Odom and Kunkel need to be especially wary of Tyrece Radford, who loves to slide in amongst the trees on the offensive glass.
Continue the fight
After a long campaign in which he never quite had the beating of Lord Cornwallis, Nathaniel Greene sent a letter to George Washington in which he said, “we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Xavier’s season has been something like that. They were staggered by a terrible run down the stretch, regrouped for senior night, then blew a lead and lost to Butler. After escaping Cleveland State, the team lost their leader, rallied to win that game, and then added another two victories. A win tonight would cap the season and be the Musketeers fifth straight for the first time since the run that ended with a win December 18th. Rise and fight one more time and the title could be theirs.