"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Know Your Opponent: Xavier Musketeers

Welcome back to the NCAA Tournament, MU rah-rah.

The Warriors (20-14) earned the 11th seed in the East Region and will take on the 6th seeded Xavier Musketeers (24-7) on Friday at 6:27pm Marquette Standard Time. The game will be broadcast on truTV. The inimitable Gus Johnson will be calling the action. At least MU was over-seeded when it came time to scheduling the play-by-play guy.

While MU and Xavier once shared a common conference, the programs have long since moved on. To get us smart on the Musketeers we've invited Dana and Victory, the excellent Xavier hoops blog, to Cracked Sidewalks for the low-down on the Atlantic 10 regular season champs. If you're interested, check out out my responses to their questions about MU.

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First, let me give a warm greeting to the Marquette faithful and the loyal readers of Cracked Sidewalks. As you all know, Marquette and Xavier have a lot of similarities – both are Jesuit schools located in NL Central cities, both have excellent academic reputations, and both are serious about their basketball. Marquette has the more illustrious history, certainly, but it’s interesting how the schools have paralleled one another over the past 30 years or so. I was a little disappointed to see Marquette pop up on the line with the Muskies on Sunday not only because the Golden Eagles are a tough, well-coached team, but also because Marquette is the type of program I always root for in March. Now, then…....


The Musketeers are led by a fantastic pair of guards, Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Talk to Marquette fans about the Xavier backcourt and what we can expect to see from them on Friday.

Holloway and Lyons are about the same size (6-0, 180 lbs) and are both ferocious on-the-ball defenders and aggressive rebounders. The similarities really end there.

Lyons is an all-or-nothing player. He is capable of some absolutely spectacular spin moves and no-look passes, but is prone to try to force the issue, leading to turnovers and bad shots. Lyons has dramatically improved his three-point shooting this season (although he’s still not what you would call a sharpshooter) and is a reliable threat from the outside. Lyons is probably the more physically gifted of Xavier’s guards – he’s lightning quick and has surprising hops.

Tu Holloway, on the other hand, is about as steady as they come. He’s a player of extraordinary basketball IQ and court vision who can instantly identify the weaknesses in a defense. He loves splitting the double team and bullrushing hedge defenders to draw contact and cheap fouls. When he gets to the line (which is often), it’s virtually an automatic two points, which makes him a huge weapon at the end of close games. Holloway has also taken over from Jordan Crawford as the man in crunch time. He seems to have that sense of the key moment.

Xavier as a solid front line in Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean, the latter being one of the nation's best offensive rebounders. How does Chris Mack use his bigs?

Coach Chris Mack’s offense is based around pick-and-rolls from Frease and McLean. They will set high screens with the aim of confusing defenders and theoretically leading to easy inside baskets or uncontested jump shots. Frease is very effective as a back to the basket post man – he is a good passer and his height allows him to shoot over most defenders. Frease’s challenge is getting the ball – once he has it, defenders are in a tough spot. McLean, on the other hand, is better facing the basket. He doesn’t have much range and doesn’t finish particularly well on his post moves. Where he excels is offensive rebounding and transition play. He’s also a tremendous defender.

Xavier's efficiency margin is sizable based on the A-10's best offense and a defense which limits opponents to just 0.95 ppp. Comment on the Musketeers' defensive philosophy.

Xavier – just as they did under Sean Miller – plays a variant of Dick Bennett’s packline defense. The Muskies will concede the three-point shot in an effort to limit dribble drives, clog the lane a bit, and reduce second chance points.

X has been slightly less efficient defensively than in past seasons – the Musketeers don’t have size and lockdown defenders in the backcourt the way they did when players like Justin Cage and Stan Burrell were in school. X seems to allow a high percentage from three, but has generally done a good job at limiting the opposition’s trips to the line. A key will be 6-5 senior swingman Dante Jackson, who is a quick and aggressive defender but has an annoying tendency to get into foul trouble (his struggles were a big part of X’s difficulties in the Dayton game last Friday).

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, what is your biggest concern for the Musketeers? What is their kryptonite?

The thing about Marquette that concerns me is that they are a team with a lot of good ballhandlers that can get to the rim. Xavier only plays seven guys. Because of preseason losses (sharpshooter Brad Redford tore his ACL, Crawford left for the NBA, and talented 6-7 frosh Justin Martin had to sit out due to an eligibility snafu) the Muskies have no scholarship bench players to spell Holloway and Lyons. Down low, X has big bodies to eat minutes in lieu of McLean and Frease (6-9 sophomore Jeff Robinson and 6-9 senior Andrew Taylor) but neither is skilled enough to hold Marquette’s tough front line at play for extended time. Foul trouble is the Muskies’ kryptonite in my view.

Are there any Musketeer players that are notably overrated or underrated that opponents may be surprised by?

I actually think it’s more of a teamwide issue. If you look at the Muskies’ season results you’ll see a lot of ugly games early – an OT win over IPFW, a 3-OT win over Wofford, a 20-point loss at Cincinnati, an 11-point loss at Miami of Ohio, a 10-point loss at Gonzaga. I think people may underrate the Musketeers based on those early struggles. Like last year (where the Muskies started 8-5, with a loss to Marquette in Orlando mixed in, and then ran through the A-10 all the way to the Sweet 16), Xavier had to implement a full-scale overhaul of their offensive game plan, while dealing with major personnel issues. It seemed like a switch was flipped after the UC debacle, and since then Xavier has really only produced a handful of subpar performances. The A-10 won’t get much respect (understandably) from Marquette fans, but the Muskies are a far better team today than those pre-January 6th results would indicate.

What are the common gripes you hear from X fans after losses?

When X loses games it typically has to do with crappy three-point shooting. Jackson was a rock solid 40% shooter last year that could be counted on to hit open shots, this year he’s struggled. Redford was a 50% three-point shooter, he’s obviously unavailable. Both Tu and Lyons hover around 30-35%. If they are on, the Muskies are a very potent offensive team. If they are off, teams can slough into a zone or a packed-in man-to-man and make life very difficult for the Musketeers.

As for a prediction...

....All the computer rankings and oddsmakers say it's too close to call. It's actually very similar to last year's XU first round matchup with Minnesota. I don't know enough about Marquette at this stage to do anything but make a WAG, so I'll go Xavier 68, Marquette 66 in a typical slow-paced, halfcourt-dominated tournament game. But to me honest, nothing would surprise me out of this game -- both teams are somewhat mercurial and inconsistent and good jump shooting could carry the day.

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This was great .... thanks to Dana And Victory for diving in on his beloved Musketeers -- loads of good info.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I enjoyed cheering for X when they were up in Milwaukee playing for their 1st and 2nd round games last year!

Thanks for always doing the leg-work to bring in the opponent's best bloggers, CS :)