Dear Baylor fans,
I want you to know that this is right where Xavier planned on being. X is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years; only UNC, Michigan State, and Kansas can boast that same amount of success. Nobody has gone that far more often in the last five seasons. The Muskies have beaten a 15 seed and a 7 seed to get here, just like a 2 seed expects to.
This season began with high hopes for Xavier; the team featured in numerous pre-season top 25s (for what those are worth) and peaked as high as 8th in the polls (for what those are worth). Now it's March, and Xavier is exactly where they should be: the Sweet 16, with notches in their belts from the #15 and the #7 and a date with the 3 seed coming up to determine who will play for a shot at the Final Four. What's that you say? Xavier is unranked, and sporting an ugly "#10" on their seeding line? Well, that's a funny story ...
You see, things all went sideways about the time that Kenny Frease brutally hit Yancy Gates in the fist with his face. You may have heard something about that on the evening news, or any time ESPN mentioned either team for the rest of the season. Like their senior center, Xavier was staggered by that blow. After spending the last five years being bullied by the Musketeers, the other members of the Atlantic 10 got their revenge as Xavier limped to a 10-6 record in the conference this year.
When Xavier went to Atlantic City for the conference tournament, however, something clicked. They escaped hated rival Dayton in the first round with a one-point win. They then secured at-large consideration with a gutty win over Saint Louis. Despite laying an egg against St. Bonaventure - and the irrepressible Andrew Nicholson - in the final, X was in as a 10 seed in the big dance. Two Xavier wins later, you all come in. What should you expect from this team whose up-and-down season has placed them between you and a date with the Kentucky-Indiana winner?
Well ... defense is the key to this Xavier team. When they're getting stops, the offense pours down the floor with huge amounts of confidence, often leading to huge scoring runs (see the 10-point lead Notre Dame watched disappear in the first round, or the 15-point advantage Lehigh lost in the second). Xavier is stingy, allowing an EFG% of 45.3%, which is 30th in the nation. They also only allow offensive rebounds on 30% of opponent misses, which is 76th in the country. Perplexingly, both of these things happen in inconsistent runs rather than a blanket of defense and one-and-dones for X. Instead, the Muskies can look porous at one moment and then reel off five or six straight stops.
Xavier's weakness is the sheer amount of three-point attempts they allow. Almost 36% of opponents' shots come from deep, which places Xavier 276th in the country. Opposing guards don't generally light Xavier up from deep, but bigs who can step out and hit a jumper have been a season-long problem for the Muskies. Finally, Xavier plays almost all half court man with the occasional series of 3-2 zone thrown in. X has only shown a press in times of dire need this season.
On offense, the Muskies only do two things really well. They control the ball (18.5% TO%, 67th in the country) and get to the line (41.2 FTA per 100 FGA, 53rd in the country). Executing at the line hasn't been a strength for the Musketeers all year, as the team's 69.2% showing from the line attests. Xavier is right about national average on the offensive glass, grabbing 32% of their misses. While they are good from behind the arc (35.6% as a team), they prefer to pound it into the paint, taking just a quarter of their field goal attempts from deep.
The team prefers a slightly quicker tempo, running at about 67 possessions per game, but that's not exactly a track meet. The team usually starts the game by featuring Kenny Frease in the paint - sometimes to great success - before slowly becoming more guard-oriented to the tune of high ball screens as the game wears into the second half.
The engine of the team is All-American guard Tu Holloway. He is one of the game's best closing guards; if you don't believe me, ask Vanderbilt or Purdue. Crunch time is Tu Time for Musketeers fans, and you could set your watch by it when Xavier needs a big shot. Holloway is playing less than he did when he carried the team all on his own last year, but he's still getting about 85% of Xavier's minutes. His game line of 17.4/3.6/4.6 with 1.5 steals on .428/.352/.860 shooting hints at his importance to the team. He assists 27.7% of his teammates' baskets when he's on the court and is a surprisingly adept defensive rebounder for a guy who measure 5'10 3/4" at the NBA combine. Holloway has a knack for drawing fouls (6 per 40 minutes played) and getting to the line (65 FTA per 100 FGA). Stopping him is key to slowing down Xavier, but that's easier said than done.
Holloway's partner in non-literal (despite what ESPN would have you believe) crime is Mark "Cheekz" Lyons, a Schenectady, NY native whose considerable skill is only outpaced by the self-assurance that led him to have "King of Upstate" tattooed prominently on his arm. Lyons is more athletic and explosive than Holloway, but less consistent in his output. Despite having played 160 fewer minutes than Holloway, Lyons leads the team in FGA. He averages 15.0/3.3/2.8 with 1.3 steals on .429/.403/.768 shooting. Lyons' combination of athletic ability and confidence leads him to make questionable decisions on the offensive end, but his ability often allows him to make his absurdly conceived attempts pay off. Simply put, Mark Lyons makes bad decisions work. Don't be surprised when you see him lift from four feet beyond the three-point arc with 28 seconds left on the shot clock or drive into three players who are each seven inches taller than he is. Also don't be surprised when it occasionally results in a bucket.
On the wing is freshman Dez Wells, and explosive athlete who is one of the most exciting first-year players Xavier fans have welcomed in quite some time. Wells is best suited to a full court game that allows him to exhibit his game-changing athletic ability, but he also has enough going for him to be a weapon in the half court. He is particularly dangerous spotted up in the corner for a catch-and-shoot situation off of a drive from one of the above-mentioned guards. He averages 10.0/4.9/1.1 on .513/.392/.675 shooting but is capable of breaking out for a huge rebounding game at any point. Offensively, his game is still a little bit limited, but he has added some nice moves that don't involve just jumping higher than anyone on the court and hoping for the best. He may be hampered by a toe injury he picked up against Lehigh, but word coming out of the Xavier camp regarding that has been sparse so far.
Graduate student Andre Walker, a recent transfer from Vanderbilt, fills the middle for Xavier. Injury problems limited his court time at Vandy, but he has filled in Xavier's roster as the ultimate glue guy this season. Walker has the ball skills to bring the ball up the floor, the defensive ability to guard four positions, and the scrappiness to lead the team in offensive rebounding. Walker is not the focus of the offense, as his 5.4/5.8/1.9 line will attest, but he can get his share of points on stick backs and scramble plays. Free throw shooting has been a huge issue for Andre; he's posting a 52.9% success rate from the stripe this year.
Holding down the middle for Xavier this year is senior center Kenny Frease. Big Kenny has played smaller than his 7'0", 269 at times this year, but he is coming on at the right time for Muskies fans. Over the last nine games, Frease is averaging 14.1 and 7.7, staying out of foul trouble, and providing the team with an offensive presence inside to balance out the guard-heavy approach. On the season, he is averaging 9.9/6.2/1.1 on .504/.000/.559 shooting, but all of those numbers probably undersell how well he is playing right now. Kenny isn't the most athletic big man you'd want to run across, but he uses his size well when he's playing his best. Frease really only has one post move - a right-handed baby hook - but he can be devastating at the rim when he's in the mood. He's been more committed to finishing strong lately, and it is paying dividends. Watch for his trademark airplane celebration coming out of a one-handed dunk that he finds particularly inspiring.
Xavier gets about 30% of their minutes from the reserves, which is right around the national average. Freshman guard Dee Davis is small (5'11", 150) and prone to the occasional dumb error on offense, but he provides aggressive on-ball defense in stretches for Xavier and is growing into his responsibilities as backup ball handler.
Redshirt junior Brad Redford is a one-trick pony, and that trick is shooting ridiculously deep threes. He is coming off knee reconstruction and has been streaky this year, but his range is borderline unlimited when he gets going.
Justin Martin is a redshirt freshman wing who has a smooth jumper and good athletic ability but has managed to underachieve all season. If Dez Wells is hampered, look for Martin to get extra minutes. It should be noted that he grabbed 7 boards in Xavier's win against Lehigh, which isn't nothing.
Closer to the bucket reside the two most frustrating members of Xavier's roster. Jeff Robinson has what Coach Mack describes as "game-changing athletic ability" but often looks like he can't be arsed to pay attention to the game. He put together a stretch of half a dozen consecutive games this year in which he scored double-digit points before disappearing back in to the fog. He's a danger on tip dunks and regular dunks and that's about it.
Travis Taylor is the opposite of Robinson. He is athletic and motivated, with a motor that never quits. He also has a knack for missing point-blank layups and stick backs. Between the two of them, Xavier fans are rarely excited to see a forward coming off the pine.
Three keys (for Baylor):
1) Contain Tu Holloway. As mentioned above, this is more easily said than done. About the only thing that has consistently troubled Holloway in the past couple of years has been long, athletic guards. Pierre Jackson doesn't fit the bill there, and neither - quite frankly - does Brady Heslip. Lacking someone who can contain Holloway one-on-one, a zone might be the next be solution for Baylor. I believe I've seen the Bears in a 1-3-1 in the past; having the point man bird-dog Holloway towards help might be enough to bottle up the Xavier guard's penetrate-and-kick ways. Of course, that leaves holes elsewhere in the defense, but you're not going to get to the Sweet Sixteen and then face an easy opponent.
2) Help on to Frease. Nobody on the Bears has the bulk to battle a motivated Kenny Frease if he gets good post position. To combat this, Baylor may be best served to have Jones III play behind Frease on the post and force him to catch the ball a little higher on the floor. Once Frease has it, have a guard dig on him or bring help from the backside in the form of a shot blocker like Quincy Acy. Frease's athletic ability is limited; forcing him to make quick moves to the rim with the ball is Baylor's best hope of keeping him from running riot.
3) Pick and pop with Quincy Miller. Xavier's defense is such that guards - such as Jackson and Heslip - have had trouble getting clean looks from deep this year. Not so with a big man. Xavier tends to hedge ball screens hard, which leaves the screener open for a long jump shot if the ball is reversed quickly. If Baylor finds a big man guarding Miller - and there almost certainly will be - they might be well served to have Miller screen the ball and target him with ball movement for open looks at three. Miller has shown himself to be suitable from distance this season; if he can knock down two or three long jumpers, that might prove to be the difference in this game.
Both of these teams have proven themselves to be rugged competitors this year. When you get to the Sweet Sixteen, there's no questioning that every player is going to bring his best effort to the floor. Baylor has a high level of talent and athletic ability, but Xavier should not be underestimated despite - or perhaps because of - the termoil they have endured this season. The winner of this team has a tough matchup against Kentucky waiting as the final hurdle to the Final Four. Nobody wants to lose this game, but only one team can win. This one figures to be a battle from start to finish, with a couple of bounces either way determining the outcome.