If you need to be told what’s at stake in this game, you’ve probably clicked this link on accident. No shame in that; just click back out and move on with your day.
For Xavier fans, presence in the second weekend marks the end of a long absence from a round of the tournament that felt like the program’s birthright for much of the 00s and 10s. The school hired Sean Miller during the team’s NIT run last year to restore it to national relevance; exactly a year on from that date, the Muskies were putting the finishing touches on a win over Pitt that would do just that.
Xavier fans are emerging from a four-year slow burn of turmoil; Texas fans have felt the sting of a sudden conflagration. On January 5th, the school fired Beard after he was arrested for felony domestic violence. His fiancée's sworn statement that Beard had strangled her, threw her off the bed, and bit her was supported by visible bruises and bite marks on her body the night of the arrest. The charges were eventually dropped due to the lack of a cooperating victim, as they so often are in similar situations. You only have to watch what’s happening with Alabama’s program to be disabused of the notion that justice is a real idea, but Texas should be commended for doing the right thing instead of prioritizing basketball performance over everything else in this situation.
From there, the Longhorns have worked under the leadership of interim head coach Rodney Terry, who has guided them to a 16-6 record. Texas is 12-6 in Q1 games under Terry; they’ve run the gauntlet of the Big 12 with admirable results, not least of which was winning the conference tournament with a comprehensive drubbing of Kansas in the championship game. This is a battle-tested unit.
We’re past the part of the season where anything is going to come easy; the only way forward is through tough teams. Xavier drew the late slot on Friday, and they’re scheduled to tip at 9:45pm on CBS. We’ve learned all too painfully how precious Sweet 16 bids can be; why not order a shirt to commemorate Xavier’s most recent campaign to find a way to the Final Four?
They’re good. The defense is 10th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. They excel in forcing turnovers, ranking 19th in the country at over 22% TO rate. They have a variety of press defenses that they’ll show, but they’re just as dangerous swarming and smothering in the half court. They also force tough shots, ranking 57th nationally in defensive EFG% and comfortably inside the top 100 in both two-point and three-point percentage. Their defensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate are both below 200th in the country; they foul a lot and can be hand a bit on the glass.
On offense, they play fast but not blindingly so, ranking 60th in the nation in offensive possession pace. They’re excellent but not elite in both ball security and EFG%, ranking just outside the top 50 in those categories. They’re a very good two-point shooting team but only average from behind the arc. Like Xavier, they don’t shoot a ton of threes at all. They’re basically exactly average on the offensive glass and in getting to the line, and they haven’t meaningfully changed either of those trends down the stretch.
|A Minnesota transfer, Carr leads the team in scoring and assists; he controls the game with the ball in his hands. He's also an elite ball security guy. Only about 1 in 8 of his shots is taken at the rim, but he splits the rest between mid-range and behind the arc and is very good from both. He defends really well without fouling and isn't afraid to go hunt his shot. He's an elite lead guard.
|Perhaps a familiar face to most Xavier fans, Hunter is a transfer from Iowa State. He played more on the ball there, but he's more of a scorer at Texas. He's a good finisher but doesn't get all the way to the rim as much as you might like. He has shot almost as many two-point jumpers as shots at the rim and only makes a quarter of them. He's not an elite three-point shooter, but he'll get them up in bunches. His defensive numbers are down from ISU, but he'll still pick your pocket.
|Allen started his career at Utah, but he has found a home in Texas. He starts as a three, but mostly he'll play as a small ball four when Texas goes with their most common lineups. He's a good defensive rebounder, a good defender all over the floor, and a sneaky-solid secondary distribution option. He has only taken 18 threes on the year and only made 2; he lives inside the arc. He shoots about 60% of his shots from mid-range and is hitting an excellent 43% of them.
|In addition to being the only member of the starting lineup who isn't a transfer, Mitchell is more of a placeholder than a member of the top five. He is averaging about 14 minutes a game since the start of February and has played a total of 20 minutes in the tournament. He's an efficienct scorer but not a particularly prolific one. He's a strong offensive rebounder and is second on the team in putback buckets.
|Disu started his career at Vanderbilt before moving back home to Texas before last year. He's an elite two-point scorer, shooting 76% at the rim and 58% on mid-range jumpers, which he shoots a ton of. He shoots about 1 three a game and makes about a third of them. He's an excellent defensive post man and a solid rebounder on both ends. He fouls a ton, committing over 6 of them per 40 minutes.
Texas is a fairly deep team, getting about a third of their minutes off the bench, and an incredibly veteran one. They’re 6th in the nation in D1 experience according to KenPom, though their minutes continuity of 150th speaks to how much of their experience was acquired at schools other than Texas.
The first man off the bench is usually New Mexico State transfer guard Sir’Jabari Rice, owner of maybe the best shot fake in the country. He’s a 6’4” senior averaging 12.9/3.6/2 on 45.7/36.4/87.8 shooting. He draws a ton of fouls and is nails from the line. Like most of the Longhorns, he’s a dangerous mid-range shooter.
Another familiar face is bench big man Christian Bishop, who began his career at Creighton. He’s a 6’7”, 220 senior averaging 6.2/3.6/0.9 off the bench. He does most of his damage around the rim and is very good defender, though he can be foul prone. He’s okay on the defensive glass but energetic and efficient on the offensive end. Like Bishop, Brock Cunningham is an undersized big at 6’6”, 220. Unlike Bishop, he’s a good shooter with range out behind the arc. He averages 4.6/3.3/1.3 on 47.9/41.7/89.7 shooting. He’s also a menace on the offensive boards. He and Bishop combine to average about 35 minutes per game, not often together.
If there’s a need for deeper guard depth, freshman Arterio Morris provides it. He’s 6’3” and good for 4.7/1.4/0.6 per game. He doesn’t get a lot of run, but he looks like a good defender and can be dangerous from behind the arc. He’s gotten 13 total minutes in the tournament.
-How should Xavier attack the defense? Xavier plays at a high tempo, but their reliance on transition buckets can be overstated. They’re 105th in the country in percentage of shots taken in transition and 70th in transition EFG%. Texas is 16th in transition defensive EFG%. Something these guys are doing is allowing them to get back and force tough shots, though it’s also worth noting that they’re just a tough defense overall. Sean Miller is going to have to decide when to tell his guys to push and when to pull back on the reins.
-Can the Muskies keep Texas from penetrating? It’s no secret that one of the weaknesses of this defense is simply keeping the ball in front on the perimeter. None of Texas’s guards get to the rim nearly as prolifically as Kennesaw State’s Terrell Burden or even Pitt’s Jamarius Burton, but Marcus Carr and especially Tyrese Hunter was super quick off the bounce. Even if they’re not driving to finish, if they put Xavier’s defense into rotation, they’ll set up easy buckets for Texas’s excellent two-point offense.
-Was the three-point shooting just a Greensboro thing? In two games in the Greensboro pod, Xavier shot just 10-34 (29.4%) from behind the arc. For a team that shot almost 40% from deep on the year, that’s a meaningful step down. There is some hope that it’s not X hitting a wall, as the other 3 teams in the pod combined to shoot 42-184 (22.8%) on threes and the venue’s staff could be seen repeatedly tweaking the rims and measuring to see if they were staying level. Xavier can get stops, but their best bet is to bury the Longhorns under a barrage of made buckets. Having their earlier success from three is a big part of that.
-Pick and roll coverage. I saw Terrell Burden carving Xavier’s defense in high ball screens for 40 minutes on my TV and then over again in my nightmares after the opening round close call against Kennesaw State. Not only does Texas have guards who can work off the bounce with aplomb, but they got Dylan Disu the game of his life against Penn State by having him screen and then run to the rim or pull up for a mid-range shot. The Muskies have to have a plan to contain Texas out of those actions; Penn State didn’t, and it cost them their tournament.
-Free throw shooting. Let’s blame this on Greensboro, too! Xavier shot 38-56 (67.8%) from the line in their first two games, a pretty grim performance even by the team’s fairly mediocre standard so far on the season. Texas fouls a lot, and Xavier will get some chances to shoot free throws this game. The points they leave at the line could be the ones that make the difference if they can’t execute.
-Force Texas out. There is no good way to stop an offense as good as Texas’s; they’re going to score some points. You might even have a good gameplan and still end up getting gashed. With that said, Texas is 8-4 in the 11 games in which they’ve shot 39.7% or more of their shots from deep and 20-4 in all other games. Of those 8 wins, 4 have come against KenPom #115 Colgate, #211 Northern Arizona, #246 UT Rio Grande Valley, and #306 Texas A&M Commerce. They’re 4-4 inside the KenPom top 100 when they take threes at that high a rate. It’s easier said than done to force an elite offense to do what you want it to do, but if Xavier can push the Longhorns’ offense out of two-point range, they’ll give themselves a better chance to win this game.