Basketball Scouting Report: Xavier
The nonconference preliminaries are over. Vanderbilt will play some cupcakes in late December, but the time for A-grade basketball has arrived in Nashville: Xavier and Louisville greet the VU crew this week, forcing coach Kevin Stallings to be at his very best. This is a do-or-die week which demands a split at the very least. A pair of losses will force Vanderbilt to win at least nine games in the SEC and accumulate quality wins in the process. The depth of the league this year will demand a lot from the Dores when January arrives, so this team has to bag one of these two contests against the X and the Ville. This roster – particularly this starting five – heard how good it was in the offseason, only to promptly plummet against Cleveland State on Nov. 13. Vanderbilt realized how empty all those preseason hosannas really were; the Dores realized that they have to earn their way to the top of college basketball instead of buying into the spoken or printed word. Two solid wins in neutral-site competition (at the TicketCity Legends Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey) unearthed a newly resilient dimension in these Commodores. Now, they'll need to maintain that same flinty edge while spilling the tank to an even greater extent. VU has three days between this Xavier game and the Dec. 2 showdown with Louisville; conserving energy the way an NBA team does on the first night of a back-to-back schedule stack is not an option. It's time for this team to fully and conclusively show itself – forget the nation – that it can bring its best brand of ball to the building when the stakes are high. Playing well on meaningful occasions is not – and has never been – a hallmark of Vanderbilt basketball. In this season of high expectations, the Dores need to rise to meet the moment.
Xavier is one of the shining success stories in the realm of college basketball which exists outside the nation's six power conferences. Xavier's conscious choice to not play football has given the Cincinnati-based school more resources to devote to basketball, and the results on the hardwood tell no lies. The Musketeers aren't just a regular NCAA Tournament team; Xavier makes the second round of the tournament more often than not and reaches the second weekend of the tournament roughly half the time (if the past six years are any indication). Coach Chris Mack has picked up where former coach Sean Miller left off. He has maintained this program's winning tradition and has entrenched his place as one of college basketball's better bench bosses.
Xavier enters this season with one glaring concern: Two energy guys have graduated, forcing the Musketeers to find defense and rebounding from a number of new sources. Jamel McLean and Dante Jackson gave Xavier a huge lift in the non-scoring aspects of roundball. McLean was an 11-point, 8-rebound guy in his senior season, a man who scored largely as a result of his ability to rebound the ball and accumulate second-chance points. Jackson was a long 6-5 wing defender who could lock down formidable scorers. Because of McLean and Jackson, Xavier – from Jan. 29 of last year through its final game in mid-March against Marquette in the NCAA Tournament – held opponents under 70 points in 12 of 13 games. Xavier is a defensive force, and with the McLean-Jackson combo now gone, the Musketeers have to regroup if they want to hold down talented teams such as Vanderbilt.
Center – Kenny Frease – Senior, 7-0, 269 2011-12: 10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.5 blocks per game
Frease is one of the two anchors on this year's Xavier team. Long and powerful, Frease is a savvy operator in the low post who knows how to establish good rebounding position and is very hard to score against. Frease is a serviceable scorer who has been a great fit for this team during his career in Cincinnati. Xavier has depended on slashers and quick guards for the balance of its point production over the past few years, so Frease is the big, bad banger in the middle who gives Xavier the size and muscle it needs to become a complete defensive team. It's hard to see how Vanderbilt's power forwards are going to score much against Frease. The Commodores will need to counter Frease's presence not by attacking him, but by moving the ball to maneuver around him. VU will also need to use a team-rebounding approach to neutralize Frease's presence on the glass.
Forward– Andre Walker – Senior, 6-7, 220; 2011-12: 4.8 ppg, 4 rpg
Well, look what we have here: Just exactly who is this guy? His name sounds remotely familiar. He's an intelligent student, having graduated from a certain university of considerable repute in only four years, giving him the ability to transfer and play one more season while pursuing a different field of study at Xavier. Yes, it's Andre Walker, a Vanderbilt transfer whose career never really got off the ground due to a torn ACL injury suffered three games into his sophomore season as a Commodore. Walker is one of a few players on the Xavier roster who will try to give the Musketeers the rebounding and interior defense they lost when McLean graduated. He's not going to load up the stat sheet, but if Walker can give his team prime minutes as a defender and rebounder, the Musketeers will be in good shape this season.
Guard/Forward– Dezmine Wells – Freshman, 6-4, 220; 2011-12: 10.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Wells is a high-energy player with a muscular frame. As his body fills out and he learns how to handle contact, he will become a particularly formidable player before his Xavier career is over. Vanderbilt is fortunate to face Wells this early in the season, while the first-year collegian finds his way around the court. One thing's for certain, though: The Commodores – who suffer most when they fail to match an opponent's level of intensity – will be challenged by Wells on 50-50 balls and in defensive situations on the perimeter.
Guard –– Mark Lyons (photo at right) Junior, 6-1, 195; 2011-12: 17.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 assists per game
Reinforcing the point about the clear-cut delineation of roles on Xavier's roster, Lyons is the shooting guard who gives the Musketeers some potency. Playing in the backcourt with Tu Holloway, Lyons is the beneficiary of his teammate's ability to create good scoring opportunities by means of dribble penetration and kickouts. Holloway is every Xavier opponent's first defensive priority, which is why Lyons regularly gets good looks at the basket. What was true in past years remains true this season: Backcourt brilliance will be Xavier's best basketball attribute.
Guard – Tu Holloway – Senior, 6-0, 185; 2011-12: 15 ppg, 3 rpg, 5.7 apg
This is the best player in the Atlantic 10 Conference, one of the biggest stars in the non-power-conference realm of major college basketball. Holloway was a key cog on the Xavier team that came within a whisker of making the 2010 Elite Eight, and he led the Musketeers to a 15-1 Atlantic 10 season (complete with a conference title) in 2011. Yes, Holloway flamed out in the NCAA Tournament against Marquette, but he had to carry the playmaking load for his team and seemed to run into a wall in terms of energy. Holloway, if anything, needs to be a little bit more of a facilitator this season and not try to put on his superman cape. That's a hard thing to ask of a senior point guard with such evident and natural scoring ability, but Holloway needs to give teammates other than Lyons a copious amount of good looks at the bucket if Xavier is to go deeper into the NCAAs this season. Holloway can always be the man at crunch time, but over the course of the season, he will need to spend the first 35 minutes in each game as a distributor.
The Musketeers are deeper than they were last season. In late season non-conference games from the winter of 2011, Mack gave extended minutes to only two bench players, Andrew Taylor and Jeff Robinson. Only Robinson returns this year, and the 6-9, 219-pound forward has yet to make a considerable impact in his time on the floor. Xavier is looking for help from Monmouth transfer Travis Taylor, a 6-7, 214-pound forward who is not related to Andrew. Travis Taylor played 22 minutes in a Nov. 18 win over Miami University. At this point, he – like Andrew Walker – is trying to compensate for McLean's absence within a "rebound-by-committee" framework. Redshirt freshman Justin Martin, another 6-7 forward (checking in at 202 pounds), will also try to give Xavier more ballast on the boards as well. This is not a scoring bench, but a defend-and-rebound bench… at least at this point in time. If Mack can get elbow grease and hustle plays from his reserves in November and December, he'll be happy.
Keys to the Game
1) Handle Holloway. This is a nightmare matchup for the Commodores. Brad Tinsley is not in Holloway's league, and for that very reason, Tinsley can't expect to have legs under his jumpers at the offensive end of the floor. Tinsley needs to devote the majority of his energy in this game to containing Holloway's dribble penetration. If Tinsley can do just that, he will dramatically improve Vanderbilt's chances of winning. If Tinsley can then avoid turnovers at the offensive end of the floor, the Commodores will be in even better shape. It would be advisable for Stallings to have Jeffery Taylor handle the ball a lot in this game so that Tinsley doesn't have to face game pressure on exchanges of possessions.
Beyond the granular details of the Tinsley-Holloway matchup, Vanderbilt – as a team – needs to approach Holloway the way other great scorers are handled: Give them their points, but close down everyone else. If Holloway hits tough shots and makes several above-average plays, just tip the cap and acknowledge the fact that Holloway is not likely to be shut down; high-level performers will do their share of damage. When a supreme scorer is also a point guard, it is essential to make sure that three men aren't collapsing to stop dribble penetration, leaving other players wide open for high-percentage looks. Well-timed help defense is necessary, but desperate scrambles are not. Vanderbilt needs to quickly identify that difference and make sure that Lyons does not camp out behind the 3-point line for open long balls. If VU allows Holloway to find clear passing lanes in addition to open driving lanes, the Musketeers should win this contest.
2) Match Xavier's energy. The Musketeers don't have a lot of polished scorers or smooth operators, but they have assembled a group of players dedicated to defense and rebounding. Vanderbilt struggles with these kinds of teams and this kind of philosophy. Xavier's Atlantic 10 rival, the Richmond Spiders, showed how much a team with a playmaking guard, a tall big man, and active wings could bother the Dores in the NCAA Tournament. This is a great test for Vanderbilt before the month of November ends. Outhustling the likes of Walker, Taylor, Wells, and Robinson will be a necessary ingredient in a Commodore conquest.
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