As promised, here is a preview of ASU's match-up on Saturday against #17 Xavier. The game will be broadcast nationally on FSN at 2pm. This preview might run a bit long compared to other posts since I don't have any school work to attend to, so you might want to get comfortable...
Who is Xavier?
Xavier University is a private university located in Cincinnati, Ohio with an enrollment of 6,646 students (I tell you this because I watched the Coppin State game wondering the entire time where the hell Coppin State was located - Baltimore, by the way - and I think it benefits everyone to know where obscurely named schools are located).
Xavier's basketball team is the premier program in its athletic department and has had great success over the last two decades by reaching the postseason in 14 of the last 16 years with 11 NCAA tournament appearances (5 of the last 6 seasons), including last year's overtime loss to eventual runner-up Ohio State. Last season, Xavier finished with a record of 25-9 (including a 76-58 win over ASU) and tied for first place in the A-10 conference.
Notable former Xavier players include NBA players David West and James Posey, and former NBA player and Phoenix Sun Brian Grant.
Interestingly enough, Xavier is coached by Sean Miller, a former assistant under ASU coach Herb Sendek. Miller served as an assistant for Sendek for 2 years at Miami (OH) and for 5 years at NC State. Two other members of Xavier's coaching staff also worked under Sendek at Miami (OH).
ASU's home court, is named after former coach and ASU Hall of Famer Ned Wulk, who also coached at Xavier prior to his 25 seasons at ASU and was inducted into Xavier's Hall of Fame as well.
While all of that information is interesting, I realize that it doesn't really matter once the game starts. What's important is the depth of Xavier's roster and how ASU will try to match up with it. Last year's matchup between these two teams was dominated by seniors (Justin Cage and Justin Doellman for Xavier and Serge Angounou for ASU), so don't expect to see the same game since they're all gone now. The strength of Xavier's starting lineup is its backcourt. After that, its number of athletic wings and forwards make them a very versatile team. Their depth and versatility makes them a very high scoring team, averaging 81 ppg with six players averaging double figures in scoring. They are also outscoring opponents by a margin of 21.1 ppg. Given that, let's take a closer look at some of Xavier's stars.
Lavender is the team's leader and starting point guard. At 5'7", the small PG plays much bigger and has the ability to hurt opposing teams in a lot of ways. Lavender was a McDonald's High School All-American before spending two seasons at Oklahoma, then transferring to Xavier. He is also an All-American candidate and a candidate for the Bob Cousy Award (nation's best PG). Lavender leads the team in points (12.6 ppg), assists (5.3 apg), and steals (1.8 spg) and free throw percentage (90.8% -- interesting given that he never reached 80% in his first three seasons). The senior will be a handful for ASU's young point guard tandem of Derek Glasser and Jemelle McMillan, who haven't faced a point guard of Lavender's caliber yet this year. Lavender dropped 28 points and 10 assists against previously unbeaten Creighton earlier this season and is very efficient as he doesn't take a ton of shots.
Burrell is the Lavender's backcourt partner and as a 6'3" guard, serves as the team's defensive stopper on the perimeter. Burrell held Indiana star Eric Gordon (a 24.3 ppg scorer on 61.0% shooting up to that point) to 4-of-12 shooting from the floor during Xavier's win. Burrell also has the ability to score efficiently and move the ball around the floor, averaging 10.9 ppg and 3.0 apg (second on the team) after being the team's second leading scorer last year. Burrell is an intense player and will be assigned to harass James Harden all game.
Brown is a high-flying sophomore with a propensity for dunks. For his career, 50% of his field goals have been dunks. Naturally as a result, Brown shoots a very high percentage from the field and is also the team's best rebounder. Brown can play a bit up and down because of his youth but can turn it on quickly and be a game changer.
Who Has Xavier Played?
Xavier's biggest win of the season came against then #8-ranked Indiana during the Chicago Invitational Challenge as the Musketeers topped the Hoosiers 80-65. Xavier and ASU have both beaten Coppin State this year. The difference? ASU beat them by 17, Xavier beat them by 49.
Xavier's only loss this season is to Miami (OH) by two points in the second game of the season. Xavier's closest games this season have been the loss to Miami (OH) and the win on Wednesday over Cincinnati with a score of 64-59. This bodes well for ASU if the defense can continue to hold opponents to low point totals. If Xavier is getting easy buckets, it will be hard for ASU to keep pace.
How Do We Match Up?
ASU will be smaller on the floor most nights this season as Sendek has generally played one post player and four perimeter players to spread the defense. While its size does not stand out, Xavier is bigger overall and the team's forwards are big and very athletic which could cause problems on the boards for ASU.
The play of the point guards will be important as well as Xavier's backcourt has loads of experience and ASU starts three freshman and its first players off the bench are sophomores. ASU has the advantage of size at the point guard position but Lavender has given up size his entire career and has not been affected. This also shouldn't be much of a factor considering ASU never comes out of its zone defensively so Lavender will have room to operate.
Jeff Pendergraph may have trouble with this team if he is not established early in the offense. After the season opener, Sendek has stopped playing Pendergraph and Eric Boateng together, so ASU's offense generally consists of four players around the perimeter with Pendergraph (or Boateng) flashing to either side of the post.
Xavier switches up its defensive schemes but will likely play a zone unless ASU can hit three pointers early (which the Devils have been doing well the last couple games). Offensively, Xavier likes to push the ball and run up the point totals. The team is very fast and plays the opposite style of ASU. The Devils try to slow everything down and keep the games low scoring. Whoever is able to dictate the tempo will have an advantage.
How Do We Beat Them?
Defense, free throws, and hitting open looks. Pretty simple. Oh yeah, and lots of James Harden.
ASU will not be able to keep up if this game gets high scoring so the defense will need to continue to step up, as it has been under Sendek. One of ASU's biggest strengths on defense is its discipline. Teams have not been able to get many fast break points against the Devils (except maybe Illinois) because the team does a good job of getting back down the floor defensively. Keeping this game low scoring will be important.
ASU has turned around what was a preseason problem of missing free throws and now has the 11th best free throw percentage in the nation at 77.3%. There are six ASU players averaging at least 18 minutes per game and each of them is shooting at least 75%. Harden has the most free throw attempts on the team and is shooting 85.4% from the line. The Devils will need Harden to be aggressive as he is great at drawing fouls while still being able to make the shot in the lane. Free throws are easy points and ASU will need them.
If ASU can knock down the open looks from three point land, the game will become much easier. Harden, McMillan, Jerren Shipp, and Rihards Kuksiks are all shooting at least 40% from outside. Ty Abbott has been a streaky shooter from outside but if he gets going, he can be a big weapon. If he doesn't hit his open looks though, he is mostly ineffective on offense. If the outside shots are falling, ASU can pull Xavier out of its zone and open up penetration for Harden and Christian Polk and hopefully get Pendergraph more touches.
ASU will need a big game out of freshman James Harden. When he is getting into the lane and drawing fouls, it opens up the offense for the other players and makes the offense much more dynamic. There have been times this season where Harden is not as aggressive and the offense goes stagnant. Scoring lulls killed the Devils against Illinois and Nebraska and did the same against Xavier last year. If the offense struggles, Harden needs to step up and be aggressive.
This game will tell us a lot about our young team. Xavier is the best team ASU has come up against so far this year and the Devils will need an outstanding game to have a chance at a win. Xavier is coming off a tough game against Cincinnati and has only 2 days in between games so the Sun Devils could catch a vulnerable team at the right time. Here's hoping....Go Devils!
Oh yeah...that podcast I promised is in the works. I'm hoping to have it posted by Sunday or Monday.
Don't forget to get your picks in ASAP for the 2007-2008 PN Bowl Pick 'Em Contest!!