SGOTW: Xavier at Fordham

This week’s Saturday Game of the Week takes us to Rose Hill where Fordham has had a lot of success lately. The Rams have won three straight home games against Texas State, Georgia Tech and Harvard. While they lost a tough one at Massachusetts on Thursday, it served as reminder to the Atlantic 10 that Tom Pecora’s squad should be competitive in the conference this season, even if they are really young. Competitive is nice, but wins are better and that’s the opportunity that the reeling Musketeers coming to Rose Hill presents. If Fordham can pull off the upset (and to be clear, it would certainly still be an upset) the Rams will have another quality win under their belt, and maybe have another New York Times feature on the way.

That’s a lot of wish making though. There’s an actual game to play and in order to get some insight into the Musketeers I asked Brad Dobney of Banners on the Parkway to answer some questions about Xavier and what’s happened since the brawl against Cincinnati. (I didn’t ask about the student section getting banned, but that’s some crazy stuff.)

1. Everyone wants to talk about “The Fight.” How has it changed Xavier’s season? When will this team be itself again?

BD: As you can probably imagine, we’re more than ready to be done talking about the fight with Cincinnati, but, until Xavier proves it has moved on from the fallout of that incident, people are going to continue talking about it. What Xavier has lost since that fight was a little bit of the edge that they played with. You can see it in the Purdue and Vanderbilt games, how the team believed in itself so much that they were never out of games where they should have been dead and buried. That swagger boiled over against UC. Xavier needs to get back to playing right on that edge with intensity and self-belief; until they do, they’re going to struggle. I think it’s reasonable to expect that to take time, but, after five games, X really needs to get it figured out.

That said, I’m not sure the team is going to figure things out. They came out ok against La Salle on Wednesday, but wilted at the first sign of adversity. If that doesn’t change, the Final Four goes out the window and simply making the tournament becomes a stretch. It’s disheartening to watch right now. I’ve never seen a team fall apart so completely.

2. Who decided to go to Hawaii to play a non-conference game? Has Xavier’s schedule changed at all at the Musketeers have shed the “mid-major” label?

BD: Mario Mercurio, Xavier’s Director of Basketball Administration made that decision. We had a chance to talk about scheduling policy with Mario this summer, and what he had to say was really enlightening. You can read about his line of thought and how it has affected Xavier’s national perception and tournament resume herehere, and here.

3. It seems like Xavier’s strength is its defense. What do they do well defensively? How can they take away Fordham’s biggest offensive threat in Chris Gaston?

BD: Xavier’s identity has been forged on the defensive end, but that has wavered somewhat of late. Coach Mack has talked about getting back to that as a team, and a two-game road swing at the start of the conference season is as good a place to start as any. Xavier’s defense is centered around making life difficult for players driving from the perimeter; anyone not guarding the ball stay within one step of being in position to cut off a drive. Quickness and recovery are keys, but Xavier still manages to close down shooters before they get easy chances from deep. La Salle managed to rotate quickly enough to find shots and make hay behind the arc.

The Muskies’ biggest matchup problem is a big who can get it done from 16 feet and out, like Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. Gaston is not necessarily such a player. Kenny Frease does a good job of blocking shots as a primary defender, though he has some problems with body positioning. It’s more likely that Andre Walker and Travis Taylor will spend most of the night on Gaston, forcing him to work for every touch against players with similar athletic ability. Freshman guard Darwin Davis digs the ball out of the post as well as anyone you’re likely to see; Gaston would do well to locate Davis before he turns his back to the basket if he has a mind to get his points that way.

Prediction?

BD: Xavier has to win this game. Two straight conference losses and Coach Mack might as well send the guys home early. Even with the scepter of a complete fall from relevance in front of them, I don’t see this team responding. I’ll say Xavier with an unconvincing four to ten point win.

A big thanks to Brad for answering all of the questions. Here are some keys to the game based on the statistical profile of these two teams. All data is courtesy of KenPom.com for this one. I’d note though that Fordham has improved lately.

  • This game is going to be up-tempo. Both teams like to play with a lot of possessions (over 69 per game on each side).
  • I really can’t say that Fordham has an advantage anywhere when it has the ball. As you read above, Xavier’s defense is pretty awesome. It’s worth noting that the defense hasn’t been quite so awesome lately. Each of Xavier’s past six opponents (since the Cincinnati game), has scored at least a point per possession.
  • Fordham’s defense actually doesn’t match up too terribly with Xavier’s offense. I want to know who will guard Tu Holloway, but the key might be how well Kervin Bristol and Chris Gaston play against Kenny Frease and Travis Taylor inside and if they can both stay out of foul trouble.

Finally, you can catch the game on YES Network at 12 p.m. ET if you can’t make the game on Saturday. This is the 25th meeting between the two schools, with Xavier holding a commanding 21-3 series lead. This game is also part of the Jesuit Basketball Spotlight.

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