Coming off a weekend win over St. Louis - and the news that Duquesne finally stumbled - Xavier has a last chance to shore up the non-conference resume before tournament time. The Muskies were underwhelming in victory at home Saturday, and they're going to have to improve on that showing if they want to pick up a win at Georgia. The Bulldogs are 35th in the RPI and sport the 43rd most difficult schedule, but their 16-6 record has been marred by near misses. Their first loss was in double-OT to Notre Dame; they lost by two to Tennessee and in double-OT to Florida in January, both at home. They dropped a road game @UK by six, and their two least hotly contested losses came away from home to Temple and Vandy, both by seven.
On the flip side, Georgia has beaten Mississippi Valley State by two, St. Louis by two, Manhattan by three, UAB by three, Georgia Tech by one, Mercer by three, Arkansas by one, and Auburn in OT. That's eight wins that could have swung on a single possession, and not all of them came against the highest level of competition. With an 8-3 record in games decided by such a margin, Georgia could be 19-3 just as easily as 8-14. It's not easy to tell going in which Georgia team Xavier is going to face.
Whichever incarnation of Georgia shows up, they're probably going to be great at rebounding. Georgia is 26th in the nation in offensive rebounding, grabbing one on 37.1% of their missed shots. They're similarly successful on the defensive end, coming in at 65th in the country by allowing an offensive rebound on only 29.7% of opponents' misses. Georgia's effective height is 1.4", meaning that their big guys are a little bit taller than national average big guys, but their team is near-as-makes-no-difference national average height. The Bulldogs are persistent on the glass though, and it doesn't hurt their numbers that they have a 6'4" guard grabbing seven boards a game.
If you read that last sentence as glibly as I typed it, you probably did a little bit of a double take at the end; I know I did when I looked at UGa's numbers for the first time. The culprit is Travis Leslie, who not only gets 7 RPG, but has more offensive rebounds than anyone on Xavier not directly related to Jamel McLean's parents. Leslie (who has a girl's name for a last name) is one of the most effective offensive rebounders in the country, grabbing one out of every eight Georgia misses when he's on the floor. For comparison's sake, Xavier's guard closest in height to Leslie (6'5" Dante Jackson) has a grand total of 44 offensive boards in his career and generally avoids the lane like it's been smothered in smallpox. Surrendering guard rebounds is enough to make a coach pull his hair out, and Coach Mack works with a very thin margin in that regard.
Georgia's offense does most of its scoring in the paint, with only 15 teams in the nation getting a higher percentage of their points from two-point buckets. Forward Trey Thompkins leads the way with 17-7-2 on .469/.685/.234 shooting. The 6'9" junior also turns the ball over 2.7 times per game, which is an atrocious number for a big man. For comparison's sake, Big Kenny and McLean combine for 2.4 turnovers per game. I get the feeling that Thompkins' game may be focused around face-up moves and putting the ball on the floor more than back-to-the-basket post play.
Leslie backs up his 7 RPG with 14 points and 3 assists per game on a shooting line of .502/.786/.321. He has only shot 28 threes, some he seems to get most of his points going towards the bucket or on stick backs. He has only gotten to the line 84 times on the year, a curiously low number for someone who spends so much time around the basket. Gerald Robinson goes for 13-3-4 on .496/.672/.354 shooting and apparently splits ball distribution duties with Dustin Ware, whose 8-3-4 on .458/.833/.422 are accompanied by only on turnover per game.
Georgia's lineup resembles Xavier's in that they primarily play three guards and two bigs before a meaningful drop off to their bench players. Georgia gets middle-of-the-road minutes from their bench, with a little more than 30% of their minutes as a team coming off the pine. While the Bulldogs' shooting percentage offense is just a hair below average from outside the arc and just a hair above from within, their defense really suffocates the paint. Opponents shoot .434 from inside the arc, a number that places Georgia 32nd nationally in interior defense. Furthermore, Georgia blocks more than 14% of their opponents' two-point attempts, a mark bettered by only 17 teams in the nation. Combined with their aforementioned ability to defend the glass, this makes them a defensive force in and around the lane.
Keys to the game:
-One and done: Georgia is not a great shooting team, and their scoring benefits vastly from the amount of second chances they generate. Xavier needs to commit five players to the defensive glass every trip down the floor; ball-watching or leaking out for fast breaks could allow UGa to swing the game with offensive boards.
-Move the ball: Against a defense that defends the paint well, Xavier can't afford to stagnate for 25 seconds and then throw the ball to Tu and hope for the best. Quick ball movement, preferably involving one of the big men, is going to be necessary for Xavier if they hope to go through Georgia's defense rather than settling for shooting over it.
-A sixth man: Xavier's bench averages about thirty minutes a game. Mazza, McKenzie, Feeney, Latham, and Hughes have combined for 138 minutes all year, and Jay Canty is fighting to come back from injury. Jeff Robinson and Andrew Taylor combine for 6 points, 4.5 boards, and .4 assists in their 26.4 MPG. If Xavier wants to make the second weekend of the tourney, they're going to need at least one bench player who can log meaningful minutes against competition like Georgia.
-Road game against a motivated opponent looking to add one more line to the tournament resume. Joe Lunardi currently has X at a 9 seed and Georgia at a 10; Ken Pomeroy has Xavier at 57th in the nation and Georgia at 59th; the teams are nine places apart in the RPI. No matter who you ask, these teams are pretty evenly matched; with the game at Georgia, I give this one a 3.5.