We’ve already previewed the Xavier v. Texas game, but - with a week to look at the program’s most important matchup in 5 years - there’s a lot of digging we can still do. It doesn’t take John Wooden to realize that Texas is a really good team that can give Xavier trouble in a multitude of areas.
It’s the nature of a certain type of fan to be able to catastrophize any perceived matchup weakness in the run up to a game, and I happen to have a little bit of that in me. I’m also more of an optimist by nature, so I can see the silver lining of hope in every dark cloud of brewing disaster. Let’s take a look at three advantages Texas has on paper and how Xavier might mitigate them.
Texas’s guards can really score...
Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr average 26 points per game between them, and Sir’Jabari Rice comes off the bench averaging another 13 himself. That’s almost 40 PPG of production being guarded by Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel, neither of whom are going to be confused for Gary Payton in his prime, or whoever an analogous perimeter defender is for people who were born in the last 30 years. You don’t have to squint very hard - or look back more than a week - to see a version of this game where Xavier’s guard defense can’t stay in front and it ends up being the defining factor of the game.
...but they don’t get all the way to the rim
According to hoop-math.com, Hunter, Carr, and Rice have shot 1,111 times this year. Only 251 (22.6%) of those have come at the rim. For comparison, 43.1% of Tyler Kolek’s shots came at the rim, 38% of Ryan Nembhard’s did, and 61.4% of Terrell Burden’s did. That’s not to say Texas’s guards aren’t great, but they have a tendency to pull up rather than shoot layups, which makes them a little easier to guard and a little more susceptible to bad shooting nights. Your nightmares of a 40-minute layup line are probably not going to come true tonight.
Texas forces a ton of turnovers...
The Longhorns are 19th in the nation in defensive turnover rate at 22.4%. Xavier’s offense is inside the top 100 in ball security, but only just, at 99th in the country as of this writing. The Muskies have been prone to turnovers coming in bunches - often due to silly play like dribbling into untenable situations or throwing the ball to nobody - and at bad times. All the defensive adjustments in the world by the Xavier staff will be entirely useless if Texas is grabbing the ball and making uncontested layups at the other end.
...but Xavier can get it back on the glass
Texas is not an elite or even good rebounding team at either end of the floor. They are exactly average on the offensive end and just a tick above defensively. They beat up
Cornell Colgate on the glass but were played basically even by a Penn State team that abandons the offensive glass as a matter of principle. Xavier as dominant a rebounding team as past iterations have been, but Texas’s bigs are foul prone and they often go with a smaller, four-out lineup. Xavier can get the freebie war back to even or to an advantageous position by locking down the defensive glass and unleashing Jerome Hunter and Jack Nunge on the offensive end.
Xavier’s players have never been here before...
The program has been on an NCAA tournament drought the likes of which it hadn’t seen in decades, and the 13 minutes Adam Kunkel got off the bench in the 2019 tournament as a freshman at Belmont were the only tournament experience on the roster coming into the season. Texas has made three straight tournaments, and Marcus Carr, Timmy Allen, Brock Cunningham, Christian Bishop, and Dylan Disu all have more NCAA tournament experience as Longhorns than Xavier’s entire roster, Sir’Jabari Rice and Tyrese Hunter got big minutes for tournament teams before transferring in. Xavier’s players are a veteran group, but the tournament is by and large uncharted territory for them.
...but their coach has
Sean Miller, by contrast, has a ton of NCAA tournament experience. This is his 12th NCAA tournament as a coach, and he has made eight Sweet 16 appearances in that time. Across the way, Rodney Terry has almost 350 games of NCAA D1 coaching experience under his belt, but just 3 of those have come in the big dance (counting the 2 this year). He’s as new to this as Xavier’s players are. Ultimately being experienced isn’t as valuable as being good. Xavier’s roster is one of those things in terms of the tournament; their coach is both.