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Hoops Preview: Xavier will be Missouri’s early measuring stick

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A trip to Ohio gives the Tigers a chance to test themselves against one of the nation’s upper class programs.

NCAA Basketball: Siena at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Doesn’t it feel like Xavier is always one of the best teams in the country?

The college basketball landscape, unlike its football counterpart, is dominated by programs like Xavier. Of course there are blue bloods every which way you turn. But teams like that — along with those like VCU, Gonzaga, Marquette, Providence — always give me hope.

Maybe it’s due to the nature of the NCAA Tournament and the idea that, “anyone can win!” But when you see teams like these competing year in and year out with the Kentuckys, Floridas, Michigan States and other Power Five teams of the country, you feel like it’s never impossible for your own team to make it there.

Admittedly, Xavier has had the sort of coaching luck that Missouri hasn’t. Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Chris Mack has a sort of ring to it that Mike Anderson, Frank Haith and Kim Anderson don’t quite match — wouldn’t you agree?

However, the Musketeers seem to be picking up right where they left off in the second year of Travis Steele’s reign. It’s never taken Xavier long to recover from a coaching change, and they once again seem like a team destined to compete at the top of the Big East and lock up a six-or-higher seed come March.

Ideally, that’s the sort of program Missouri becomes under Cuonzo Martin. However, with early season matchups against Incarnate Word and Northern Kentucky, it’s hard to say just how far the Tigers have come in their second full offseason under his tutelage. The two programs match up for the second time in as many years on Tuesday night. It’ll be an intriguing benchmark for the Tigers — have they possibly taken the leap from Top 70 to Top 30? Or is there more to prove before Tiger fans can get their hopes too high, too early?


The Scout

Starters

Position Missouri (2-0) Xavier (2-0)
Position Missouri (2-0) Xavier (2-0)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Quentin Gooden (Sr., 6'4" 194)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Leighton Schrand (Sr., 6'2", 166)
WING Javon Pickett (So., 6'5", 220) Naji Marshall (Jr., 6'7", 220)
PF Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Jason Carter (Jr. 6'8", 227)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) Tyrique Jones (Sr., 6'9", 239)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

For the second game in a row, Missouri will face a starting lineup full of upperclassmen. Unlike Northern Kentucky, though, Xavier’s top guys won’t be overwhelmed by a talent mismatch.

Tyrique Jones and Naji Marshall represent the heaviest usage guys in the Musketeer lineup, and it’s easy to see why when you look at their numbers. Jones sports an eFG% of 77, while Marshall has been nearly as good everyone inside the arc. The latter’s paltry .091 3P% is likely to go up, though, and is more than made up for with his other traits. Marshall currently sports a 38.5 percent assist rate to go with a 14 percent turnover rate, making him a threat any time he touches the ball. If that weren’t enough, the two are also both drawing more than 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes and cleaning the defensive glass at rates north of 20 percent.

The lineup thins out from there, though it’d be unwise to call it weak by any means. Missouri fans may remember senior point guard Quentin Gooden from last year’s matchup when Gooden collected 21 points, 6 assists, 3 boards and 3 steals. He’s been cold so far this season, but he and fellow senior guard Bryce Moore give Xavier a veteran back court that will test the young chemistry of these Tigers. Freshmen Zach Freemantle and Dahmir Bishop have been effective in rotation minutes. Freemantle has a 21.7 usage rate while cleaning up down low and at the free throw line, while Bishop looks to be more of a defensive piece.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Xavier Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 104.6 (68) 16.9 (178) 50.4 (136) 18.1 (132) 30 (136) 39 (95) 26 (263) 58.8 (43) 73.9 (96) 1.5 (15) 7.0 (95)
Xavier 90.4 (40) 16.8 (167) 43.3 (73) 21.1 (135) 20.5 (48) 35.7 (204) 22.5 (37) 48.6 (161) 57.5 (52) 5.6 (247) 10.2 (117)

Missouri’s offense still hasn’t come together entirely how we would have hoped, but there are signs that better results are on the horizon — notably, the lack of three-point success.

The Tigers, one of the nation’s better shooting teams, have been downright bad from beyond the arc. Most of this can be attributed to the early struggles of Torrence Watson and the one dismal game from Mark Smith. However, Dru Smith hasn’t hit many of the looks he’s taken, and Xavier Pinson — a 40 percent shooter in his freshman season — looks more focused on distributing and driving rather than shooting.

The Tigers also have been particularly strong on the offensive glass, an area where they made up for a lot of mistakes last season. Beyond Tilmon, Kobe Brown and Javon Pickett, no regular grabs more than 3.9 percent of the available boards. Perhaps we see more of Mitchell Smith and Tray Jackson, who both have OR% of 9.5 or higher?

What to Watch | Getting to the rim

Missouri has struggled to find its shooting touch from deep, and Xavier’s combination of smart veterans and natural size on the wing won’t make it any easier. However, the numbers say Xavier is more vulnerable when you bring the ball inside. Missouri has had success down low and could benefit if they’re able to feed Tilmon early. They’ll benefit even more if the Smiths, Pinson, Pickett and Watson aren’t afraid to drive to the basket instead of settling for outside jumpers.

When Opponent has the ball...

Xavier Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Xavier 109 (16) 16.3 (129) 49.6 (150) 15 (61) 31.6 (120) 44.7 (53) 23.8 (283) 56.8 (59) 63.6 (222) 4.9 (63) 7.5 (118)
Missouri 88.2 (20) 16.9 (178) 36.5 (15) 22.2 (97) 19.8 (41) 21.7 (59) 24.4 (59) 36.5 (24) 56 (44) 14.9 (50) 10.4 (111)

For basketball fans, this is where the action will take place.

It’s probably still a matter of KenPom adjusting and Xavier knocking off the rust, but the numbers don’t exactly match how KP projects Xavier’s offense, which is still 16th in adjusted efficiency despite ranking no better than 53 in any of the key factors. It may be a matter of the two sides meeting in the middle. Despite the mediocre production, Xavier boasts a veteran core and two dangerous threats in Marshall and Jones.

Xavier is only getting about 19 percent of its offense from the long ball this year. That number should rise at some point, but like Northern Kentucky, the Musketeers prefer to find their shots closer in where they can raise efficiency and draw fouls in an offense just a hair faster than Missouri’s. Both teams have higher tempos on the young season, though that could just be a result of playing weaker competition.

One thing not to hope for is turnovers. The Musketeers 15 percent turnover rate is probably a little high. All of their main rotation players have rates below 20 percent, and Jones, Bishop and Moore all have rates at 9.1 or lower. Missouri hasn’t exactly been a threat in that aspect, but Tiger fans shouldn’t expect any extra possessions all the same.

What to Watch | Tilmon vs. Tyrique

Naji Marshall will more than likely get his in some way or another, so the intriguing match up takes place on the block. Tyrique Jones has been just as automatic as Tilmon this year and is even more adept at drawing fouls. If Jeremiah is able to maintain the aggressive but careful approach he’s started on, he could neutralize (or at least stall) one of the Musketeers’ two biggest weapons, forcing someone else to help Marshall shoulder the load.


KenPom predicts...

Xavier 70, Missouri 65 | This is a hard one to predict given that Xavier returns a lot of the same team that lost by 15 to Missouri last year. Meanwhile, the Tigers got undoubtedly better by addition and subtraction. While the road factor will undeniably play a role, it’s conceivable to see a game where Jeremiah Tilmon continues his early season hot streak, one of Dru Smith or Torrence Watson finds their offensive rhythm and the defense does just enough in limiting Xavier’s secondary scoring threats to come away with the Tier I victory.