In the middle of January, Xavier sat at a crossroads of sorts of the season. Coming off an embarrassing loss to cross-town rival Cincinnati (you may have heard about it), they had rallied to trounce two of the weaker teams in the A-10. On Saturday, January 15, X was staring down the barrel of a five-game stretch that included three games against the cream of recent A-10 crops. The Muskies grew stronger with each test, edging Dayton, and beating Temple more comfortably before trouncing Richmond last Saturday. Now XU stands at the doors of February - a month in which they've gone 24-4 over the past four seasons - ready to emphatically establish their position at the top of the A-10 and in the thick of the NCAA tournament conversation.
Xavier's first February for is conference door mat Charlotte, whose lone victory in seven A-10 games this year was over Fordham at home. Charlotte's 2-4 start to the season got even rougher when leading scorer Shamari Spears tweeted that he was thinking about quitting the team after being benched for the second half of their 11/24 loss to Oregon State. Coach Alan Major beat Spears to the punch, suspending and then dismissing the 6'6" senior before he could play (or sit) another minute. On a team that is 319th in the nation in bench minutes, dismissing a starter is a pretty bold move.
Kudos to Coach Major for sending a strong message, but his team could sure use a steady hand at the offensive till. Their 3P% is good for 250th in the nation, and they are 194th best on shots taken from inside the arc. They turn the ball over on 22% of their possessions, which is bad, and allow a steal on 11%, which is worse. Leading the way for the 49ers is volume shooter Derrio Green, a 6'2" junior guard. He gets 13-4-4 a game on a shooting line of .333/.273/.807. Backcourt mate Jamar Briscoe goes for 13-4-3 on .369/.330/.798 shooting, and the guards combine for more than six turnovers per game.
Charlotte's most consistent scoring threat is 6'9" forward Chris Braswell, who gets his 11-7-1 on .480/.133/.704 shooting. The sophomore is also extremely effective at getting to the line, having shot 108 FT to go with 150 FGA. Tu, for comparison's sake, comes in at about the same ratio, with 182 FTA to 251 FGA. Braswell figures to be a stabilizing factor in Charlotte's offense and could even develop into a serious threat if the 49ers guard play were better. For now, he's their third-leading scorer and leading rebounder.
Other than being 335th in the nation in forcing turnovers, Charlotte plays pretty good defense. Their perimeter is an especially strong point, and their opponents shoot .299 from behind the arc. The interior of their defense is significantly softer, with opponents' .497 mark from inside the arc being 247th in the country. The 49ers also fall below the 200 mark in blocking and stealing, though they are well above average in keeping opponents off the offensive glass.
One of the reasons Xavier has been heating up is that their three-point shooting has finally been coming around. While Dante continues to be a little spotty - to say the least - Tu has hit 23 of 52 three-point baskets attempted since the loss at Gonzaga. Mark Lyons has been even better over that span, knocking down 20 of the 40 he has lifted. When the ball starts falling from deep, driving lanes open and double teams on the post suddenly disappear. The renewed shooting strokes of Lyons and Holloway have gone a long way towards lifting XU to where they are now.
Keys to the game:
-Getting the bigs involved: The weakness of Charlotte's defense is its interior. If Kenny and McLean can run rampant on the inside during the early going, looks will start to open up on the perimeter. Like a football team softening a defense with the run game before going play-action, Xavier should be able to work effectively inside-out tomorrow.
-Guard pressure: The 49ers guards aren't great (or even good) at protecting the ball, and that malaise trickles down to the whole team. There's no reason that some combination of Tu, Cheek, and Dante shouldn't be able to harass Charlotte into some easy turnovers or at least poorly initiated offensive sets.
-Execution: With games coming up against St. Louis, @Georgia, and @Duquesne, Xavier has the chance in the next couple of weeks to build a great resume for March. I have the luxury of looking ahead like that; the Muskies themselves need to keep their noses to the grindstone and win the games their supposed to win.
-Xavier heads to North Carolina to play a team that has suffered its fair share of turmoil and not dealt with it particularly well. Other than the normal warnings about conference road games, this is one that XU should win handily. I give it a 1.5.