Xavier has a huge week coming up, going to Georgia next Tuesday in the last non-conference matchup of the year before heading to Duquesne over the weekend to try to knock off the A-10 leaders. Before those two big matchups though, they take on the Billikens of St. Louis. At Cintas against one of the lesser teams in the league, the outcome of this game should be a foregone conclusion for X. Of course, one would have said that about the Charlotte game too, and I think we all recall how that turned out.
Despite that little hiccup in North Carolina, Xavier ranks 26th on ESPN.com's InsideRPI, thanks to their strength of schedule ranking of 24th. St. Louis has played a similarly difficult schedule (27th), but ranks 158th in the RPI. Of their eleven games against the RPI Top 100, St. Louis has tallied a single win. The Billikens are 3-5 in conference, with their wins coming over St. Joseph's, Fordham, and UMass. They also played Temple tough on the road before falling by four, but Duquesne pounded them by 22.
While St. Louis is a fairly deep team - 37% of their minutes come off the bench - they are also almost painfully young. They average less than a year of experience between them, and five of their seven players who get at least 16 minutes are freshmen. The Billikens are also 226th in the nation in effective height; they only have three players on their roster taller than Xavier guard Jay Canty, and none of those three are particularly good at basketball.
Offense in particular is not a strong suit for St. Louis. They are worse than 200th in the nation in 3P% (.332) and 2P% (.470) and worse than 250th in getting to the line, converting from the line (.653), and avoiding blocked shots (more than 10% of their two-point attempts are rejected). They cap this off by being 320th in the nation at getting to the offensive glass, pulling down a board on only 26.7% of their own missed shots. They are right about national average in turnover percentage though, so there's that.
The Billikens leading scorer and assist man is junior guard Kyle Cassity, who gets 9.8 PPG and 3.2 APG on .469/.690/.386 shooting. Our more nuanced readers may have picked up on the fact that St. Louis' leading scorer doesn't average 10 PPG and made the logical leap to the assumption that the Billikens lack a double-digit scorer. That is correct, and is serves to illustrate how much they have struggled on the offensive end this season. Freshman guard Mike McCall is second on the team in scoring (9.3) and assists (2.7) per game on a very respectable .434/.889/.406 shooting line. St. Louis' leading rebounder is 6'5" forward Dwayne Evans, who pulls down 5.1 per game to go with his 7.0 points.
It should be noted that this is not how St. Louis wanted to enter the season. The Billikens suspended their top two returning scorers - Willie Reed and Kwamain Mitchell - after some sexual assault allegations over the summer. Both players are currently back at the school, and Mitchell even practices and warms up with the team now. Neither player is going to play this year though, and St. Louis is suffering for it.
Defensively, the Billikens more or less hold their own. Their 3P%, 2P%, and offensive rebounds surrendered, as well as their turnovers and steals forced rates, are almost bang on national average. The most telling statistics are shooting and scoring distribution. Opponents take 19.6% of their FGA from behind the arc and get 16% of their points from there, both dead last in the country, but the Billikens surrender the third highest percentage of points scored from inside the arc. Teams are clearly attacking the undersized Billikens in the paint and having a serious amount of success doing it.
Keys to the game:
-Attack the undersized Billikens in the paint: McLean and Big Kenny combine to average 23.4 points and 15.7 boards per game against normal-sized teams; there's no reason they can't dominate this game. Kenny in particular should be looking to put that 3 point, 5 rebound disaster at Charlotte in the rear-view.
-Bury the game: Please, for once, can the Muskies get ahead of an inferior opponent and put them away? Charlotte showed what can happen when X lets a demonstrably worse team hang around. Hopefully that served as a wake-up call.
-The third guard: If the third guard can't make three-pointers and isn't able or inclined to get to the rim, opponents are free to double off of him onto the post and/or clog driving lanes for Tu and Lyons. Xavier either needs Dante to step up and figure it out or Jay Canty to get up to speed ASAP. A .314/.806/.279 shooting line from a starter effectively puts a team playing four on five at the offensive end.
-It's a 1. Coming off an alarming loss, coming back home, playing an inferior conference opponent who doesn't match up well with their strengths, Xavier needs to make a statement that the Charlotte game was a fluke, not a blueprint for beating the Muskies.