Xavier stands at 4-3 after 7 games right now. The last time they were at 4-3 7 games in was last year, a season that ended in the Sweet 16. This team is not that one, but it's also probably useful to note that a team can go from where this one is now to the second weekend of the tournament. Certainly Xavier needs to develop a long way from the team we saw stagger to a loss at home to Oakland, but there's a case to be made for a significant gap from this teams current position to its ceiling.
A great place to start would be against Houston. The Cougars have made light work of everyone they've faced this year. They're yet to trail after the second media timeout and in only one game has their KenPom win probability dropped below 90%. That was on a neutral court against a game Utah team that had at one point tied it up with seven minutes left in the game. Houston then scored in each of their next five possessions to reel off a 12-2 run that ended the game as a contest. That's about as close to being tested as they've come, and they answered it comprehensively.
Xavier's rebuild in the transition between coaching regimes was in a sense deferred by a strong veteran roster and the talent of Sean Miller. Now the team is truly cobbled together the way you'd expect a program in transition to be, and the challenges are immense. The nascent second Miller Era has a chance to put down a marker tonight, but it's going to take something special to make it happen.
Houston is powered by a relentless defense that suffocates opponents. Only Iowa State forces turnovers at a higher rate than their staggering 26.2%. If you are able to hold onto the ball for your whole possession, it's no easier from there. The Cougars are 9th in the nation with a 41% defensive EFG% and comfortably in the top 50 in DReb%. They do put opponents at the line at an above average rate, but it still all adds up to the number 1 defense per KenPom.
Their offense is not number one in the nation, but it is ninth, which is still pretty good. They're only slightly above average in shooting from both inside and beyond the arc and are downright miserable from the line. They get all that back in free possessions. They are 10th in the nation in OReb% and 11th in TO rate. They just don't give the ball away, and they give themselves plenty of second chances by running at the offensive glass. Like their defense, their offensive effort is just so relentless that eventually the dam breaks.
|Shead is an excellent point guard for the system he's in. He's never been a great shooter, but he doesn't put a ton of them up and he's solid from the line on his career. His ball security is solid and his distribution is excellent. Just as importantly, he's a maniacal defender. He has posted consistently excellent steal rates in his time at Houston, but he's gone a step beyond this year, currently sitting at a preposterous 7.3%.
|Cryer is in the business of getting buckets and business is booming. Late of Baylor, where he posted an EFG% of 56.4% on absurd volume, he has upped his shots percentage to 30.6% in the early going at Houston. He's a three-level threat, but he doesn't get to the rim much. Most of his damage is done on jumpers, particularly from behind the arc, where he takes more than half his shots. He's an absurdly adept scorer.
|A Temple transfer, Dunn has taken a more supporting role on offense than he had as a star there. He is taking fewer shots and has almost halved his 3PA per game. What he has done instead is step up on defense, posting the highest steal and block rates of his career. He has games of 15 and 18 this year, so he's not entirely foreign to putting up some big offensive numbers.
|Roberts is an excellent and versatile defender and crushes the glass on both ends. He and I have the same number of made threes in D1 games, but he's shooting 70% from inside the arc this year and I'm not. He does most of his work close in and isn't much at the line, but he is a vital glue guy and has huge value as a defender who can do it without fouling.
|Despite being built like a brick outhouse, Francis blocks a ton of shots. His block percentage of 10% is 35th in the country. He's a good rebounder on both ends, but he can be prone to foul trouble. His job is not to shoot and his usage rate reflects that.
Houston looks super deep this year, though that is influenced at least in part by the fact that about 80% of their season has been garbage time. The rotation has tightened to about 8 guys in their games against better competition, but on the whole they're getting more than 38% of their minutes from the bench.
Of primary concern among the reserves is guard Emmanuel Sharp. The 6'3" sophomore started the first three games of the year before transitioning to a bench role and is averaging 11.7/3.4/0.6 per game on 42.1/35.3/78.6 shooting. He draws a ton of fouls and is solid from the line, and he more than holds his own as part of Houston's defensive scheme.
A little closer to the rim, 6'6" Terrance Arceneaux averages 6.3/4.4/0.9 as an undersized 4. He has mediocre shooting numbers that add up to a 43.6% EFG%, which is not good. He still manages to be a very efficient offensive player because he's a good offensive rebounder and never turns the ball over. That's not hyperbole; he has literally in 138 minutes this year turned the ball over 0 times.
The third bench player who actually keeps his minutes against tougher competition is freshman forward Joseph Tugler. He's a 6'7", 230 human wall who averages 2.3/2.9/0.4 per game. He's a solid rebounder, especially on offense, and doesn't use a ton of possessions. He's an excellent rim protector, but he fouls more than 8 times per 40 minutes, which obviously limits his ability to play for long stretches at a time.
Ramon Walker and Mylik Wilson are the flat-track bullies off the bench. They've both put up solid game lines that are heavily padded by stats picked up against lesser opponents. In Houston's two KenPom tier A/B games, they've combined for 13 total minutes. If we see a lot of them tonight, it will almost certainly be because the game was been decided.
-How will Dayvion McKnight handle the ball pressure? McKnight has been exemplary in his ball security this year no matter the opponent, posting 1 turnover in 92 minutes of play against KenPom tier A/B opponents. None of those teams played a style of defense that remotely resembles Houston's though, and McKnight will be the first player to whom Xavier turns to initiate the offense. If he can't reliably break pressure without turning the ball over, it will be a long night at Cintas.
-Can Xavier secure the glass? In Abou Ousmane, Lazar Djokovic, and Sasa Ciani, Xavier actually has the three tallest players who will appear in this game. Houston counters that with waves of jumpers converging on the offensive glass every time a shot goes up. The Muskies haven't been anything special on the defensive glass this year; given the opportunity to bury X under an avalanche of second-chance points, Houston will do just that.
-Who will draw LJ Cryer? If you watched the Oakland game, you know what it looks like when this team allows a single opposing player to run riot in Cintas. Cryer has the ability to get buckets by the boatload, and once he gets hot, he can take a game over. Does X try to body him with a big guard like Des? Do they run Olivari at him? Or could Trey Green get a chance to try to hassle and harry him? Xavier never found a solution to Trey Townsend; if the same thing happens with Cryer, they'll enter the Shootout at 4-4.
-Come out strong. Houston has demonstrated a capacity for burying opponents very early in games that is mirrored in Xavier's propensity for starting slowly. Another flaccid opening five minutes like X presented against Oakland will have this game on the verge of being done and dusted before the clock has a chance to tick under 10 minutes left. Cintas figures to be looking for a reason to rock; the Muskies can't let Houston suck the air out of the building from the tip.
-Keep the pace high. It's no secret that Xavier loves to play fast; it's equally obvious that Houston doesn't. Their defensive possessions are among the longest in the nation, and they're never in that big a hurry once they get the ball back. Xavier is 59th in the country in adjusted tempo; Houston is 326th. If you let the Cougars defense get back and get, you might as well just punt. Their defense is still formidable in transition, but it's a better bet than letting them getting situated.
-Keep the ball hot. You're not going to consistently win on the first side against Houston's defense. They're aggressive and dangerous in the passing lanes, but if you can put them in rotation and use the extra pass when their big men start chasing blocks, they'll give up some points and put you on the line. A cynic might point out that going to the line isn't that big a treat for the Muskies, but it will present an opportunity to put points on the board without having to go over or through a handful of Cougars.