Scouting Report: Xavier
Scoring, rebounding, shooting – they're all proving to be difficult for the 2012-2013 Commodores. This was expected before the season began.
Just not to this extent.
Coach Kevin Stallings, a knowledgeable and practiced tactician at the offensive end of the floor, has to be inwardly gasping at the depth and extensiveness of his team's scoring drought after almost four weeks of competition. It's true that to a certain extent, the disparity between last season's team and this season's team was always going to be pronounced. When John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor leave your roster, you're going to see shooting percentages decrease. Yet, the totality of this team's march through a basketball desert has to give VU fans pause at this point in time. Cognitively, it was always known that this season would be a struggle, but now Vanderbilt fans are coming to grips with the enormity of this season's task.
With all of this having been said, the very notion of playing a road game at Xavier University seems quite terrifying. The Musketeers are a legitimate brand-name program in college basketball. They established a reputation as a small-school slayer of big-name teams in the late 1980s under then-coach Pete Gillen. They did Gonzaga-like things well before Gonzaga became a known entity. Moreover, it is Xavier which has parlayed a mid-major identity into power-conference-level strength.
The Musketeers have been a more impressive and dependable team in the NCAA tournament than Gonzaga has been. In both 2004 and 2008, Xavier reached the Elite Eight. For perspective, Gonzaga hasn't made the Elite Eight since its magical tournament breakthrough in 1999, the year it announced itself to the public. Xavier made the Sweet 16 last year and engaged in a double-overtime classic against Kansas State in the 2010 Sweet 16 as well. The Musketeers, under former coach Sean Miller, very nearly toppled top-seeded Pittsburgh in the 2009 Sweet 16. This is the best basketball brand outside the power conferences, at least on an extended basis (Butler needs to be a top-shelf program for several more years in order to earn the right to be called an enduring brand in the sport.) This is what Temple used to be under John Chaney in the 1990s. This is the long-term torch bearer for the college basketball community that does not genuflect in front of the shrines of Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, and like programs.
This is a team that should tear Vanderbilt apart… on paper.
Yet, if you look at the strange and fascinating (non-)rhythms of early-season basketball (every bit as zany as September football, where Purdue and Notre Dame play on even terms and Louisiana-Monroe wins at Arkansas), you'll find – in both the college and professional ranks – plenty of shockers.
On Saturday, Northwestern lost to Illinois-Chicago while Baylor won at Rupp Arena, giving John Calipari his first home-court loss as Kentucky's head coach. On Tuesday, Northwestern won at Baylor while, in the NBA, the 1-13 Washington Wizards beat the 12-3 Miami Heat.
Remember last year, when Vanderbilt crushed Marquette on the road? Remember how out of left field that game was (the extent to which Marquette played poorly more than the extent to which Vanderbilt played well)? Maybe there's a similar surprise in store for hoops junkies in this Vanderbilt-Xavier encounter.
You know about Xavier's past. What about the present moment? Coach Chris Mack has gotten his team off to a strong 6-1 start. An odd-duck loss to Pacific (the kind of performance Vanderbilt is hoping for in this meeting…) is the only blot on a schedule that has featured wins against Butler, Drexel and Purdue. Unlike Vanderbilt, Xavier shoots the ball well, hitting 52 percent of its field goal attempts. A team that shoots well will naturally have a higher number of assists per game. For Xavier, it's 13.6, roughly four more dimes per game than the Dores. Rebounding is a problem – the Musketeers rate below 300th in the United States – but it's not too much of one; the Muskies' scoring punch minimizes the need for them to rebound in the first place.
If you haven't paid all that much attention to Xavier so far this season, you might be surprised by the way in which the Musketeers have thrived. Last season, the heartbeat of the team was point guard Tu Holloway, a ballhog but a brilliant playmaker who exasperated his team and uttered the "Zip 'em up!" line that embarrassed the university following an on-court brawl in a game against the University of Cincinnati in December of 2011. Holloway was not an impressive human being, but he was an eye-catching hoopster whose crunch-time cojones and skillful artistry enabled XU to make the Sweet 16. Mack figured to struggle this season in the attempt to find a new point guard, especially since Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona (and Miller, XU's former coach…), but it's precisely the backcourt where this team is strong.
Forward – Travis Taylor – Senior, 6-8, 216 2012-13: 9.7 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game, 1.7 assists per game
Taylor received spot minutes last year, but is now being given a chance by Mack to become a core part of Xavier's success. Taylor is a long, lean player who is very active near the rim. His reach and athleticism both make him a difficult man to check on the glass. The footwork of Vanderbilt's forwards will be tested by Taylor, since he's going to try his best to establish inside position on the boards.
Forward – Jeff Robinson – Senior, 6-10, 225; 2012-13: 10 ppg, 4.7 rpg
Robinson is the tallest player in the Musketeers' starting five. He is essentially filling the role of former center Kenny Frease, a mainstay on the past four Xavier rosters and a young man who was instrumental in taking XU deep into March on multiple occasions. Unlike Frease, however, Robinson's mid-range jump shot is not as proven. Vanderbilt, if it wants to cheat a little bit, will force Robinson to make mid-range shots. You'll note that Robinson hits 57.4 percent of his two-point attempts. This is a function of layups and other shots taken near the rim. Vanderbilt has to push Robinson off the low blocks – and keep him there – in order to be fully competitive in the paint.
Forward – Justin Martin – Sophomore, 6-6, 205; 2012-13: 12.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.4 apg
Martin is yet another rangy defender who will make it very hard for Vanderbilt to operate its halfcourt offense. Crisp ball movements will be needed to outflank Martin and the rest of Xavier's team defense. At the other end of the court, Martin has hit 12 of 25 three-point shots. That's a 48-percent clip with an average of roughly 3.5 threes per contest. VU will have to pay attention to Martin on the perimeter.
Guard – Dee Davis – Sophomore, 6-0, 161; 2012-13: 13 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 4 apg
This is one of the two new guards who have made Xavier so good this season. Davis was not a starter last year, but he has promptly come into Cincinnati and become a solid second scorer – and second passer – for Mack and the rest of the coaching staff. Davis has hit over half of his 31 three-pointers, making him an even more important defensive target for the Commodores. He is a fearless long-distance gunner whose accuracy must concern Stallings on Thursday night.
Guard – Semaj Christon – Freshman, 6-3, 187; 2012-13: 16 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.2 steals per game
And a child shall lead them.
This is Xavier's best and most well-rounded player. Christon has filled the role that was briefly left vacant by Holloway, enabling XU to remain a backcourt-dominated team in the coming months. It's true that Christon doesn't shoot the three well – under 29 percent, unlike his backcourt teammates – but he still finds ways of getting to the rim and distorting the shape of almost every defense he faces. Mack clearly didn't need to worry about his team's internal chemistry this season. Christon, a freshman, plays with the wisdom and intelligence of a much older performer. Vanderbilt's defense will have to play exceptionally well to keep him in check.
It's just a two-man bench and – for the most part – a seven-man rotation that Mack uses. Forward Isaiah Philmore comes close to getting starter-level minutes, at just over 22. He is a worker bee who averages 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Defense is what he's supposed to provide more than anything else, however, so attacking him when in possession of the ball must be a priority for the Commodores.
Guard Brad Redford contributes 7.1 points per game, but he's also on the floor to steal minutes for the starters. You might be right in saying that Xavier isn't particularly deep, but for a game on Dec. 6, just one month into the season, depth isn't as much of a concern as it will be in late January and early February. Moreover, like Vanderbilt, Xavier will play this game after four days off.
Keys to the Game
1) Initial defense on the wings, help defense from the bigs. Containing Xavier's backcourt and the Christon-Davis duo represents the biggest overall task for Vanderbilt. Within that task, though, lies a more specific need: Bottling up Xavier's primary offensive sets so that the Musketeers hoist bad shots. As said above, Xavier's ability to score at a high rate and perform efficiently on offense is precisely what minimizes the negative effects of its rebounding deficiencies. Vanderbilt, then, must make that deficiency matter. Getting Xavier to miss its first shot will put VU in position to win the rebounding battle and thereby limit the Musketeers' opportunities.
2) Attack the rim. Vanderbilt just isn't loaded with pure shooters. The Commodores must always depend on their defense to win games, and that's why the game keys in these scouting reports have so regularly focused on defense and rebounding. However, let's be honest: After a three-game neutral-site preseason tournament and one follow-up game against Villanova this past Saturday, it's time to expect the Dores to begin to do some things right on offense. The best and most immediate course of action for VU is to dispense with the three-point shot (the Dores have not shot it well this season) and take more two-point attempts. Vanderbilt hit just under 35 percent of its threes against Villanova and 40 percent of its twos. If the Commodores can get into the paint and put Xavier's defense on its heels, Vanderbilt can achieve two goals: A) It can elevate its shooting percentage, thereby getting each and every player to see the ball going through the basket, which is important in transforming the psychology of players who are currently doubting themselves at the offensive end of the floor. B) The second goal is to earn at least 25 free throws and hopefully make 20 of them. Any basketball team that struggles on offense needs to get to the foul line, and you don't earn charity pitches without a mindset that is intent on attacking the tin.
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