After another disappointingly close loss, Alabama gets ready to host another big non conference opponent, the Xavier Musketeers (8-3). Xavier is coming off its best game of the season in a dominating performance against their hated rivals, Cincinnati. After an unusually down year last season, coach Chris Mack has the Musketeers back to their usual level of good basketball. They have gotten this done by way of sound defense, they look very similar to Wichita State (and Alabama, for that matter) on the defensive end of the court. They also have been very good at knocking down threes, though they have struggled mightily at the free throw line.
The Musketeers are led by their sensational Sophomore G Semaj Christon (15.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.1 SPG), who is their go-to on offense. Christon shoots a very impressive 54.5% from the 3 point line, he can really make you pay from long range. However, he only shoots 60% from the free throw line, which is odd considering how good of a shooter he is. Plain and simple here, don't let the man get open looks. Heck, you would do better to foul the guy than let him shoot an open three. After Christon, Xavier really spreads the ball around well. Freshman G Myles Davis (9.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG) is another pure shooter, shooting 47.3% from 3 point land. Junior G Dee Davis (5.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.7 SPG) plays the point well. He distributes the ball to his many scoring options, has good quickness, and is the best free throw shooter on the team (77.8%). Rounding up the backcourt is Freshman G Brandon Randolph (5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.9 APG), a solid, all-around player. However, he has really struggled with his shooting so far this season. He has a lot of potential for the future, and gets a lot of playing time now, but he certainly isn't a green light shooter. He has shot 35.3% from the floor, 15% from 3, and 50% from the foul line.
In the frontcourt, Xavier has very good size and depth. They don't rebound extremely well, but the size of their players alone still makes that an issue for opposing teams. The big guy, 6'10 Junior C Matt Stainbrook (9.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.6 BPG) is a stud. He averages almost a double-double a game, and plays very good defense. He is the kind of player that I hope Jimmie Taylor will become. 6'9 Sophomore F James Farr (8.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG) does two things well: he scores and he rebounds. Farr hits nearly 2 out of every 3 shots that he takes (66.1%), and shoots a ridiculously good 58.8% from 3. Alabama would do well not to leave this guy open, as he usually only takes high percentage shots. Senior F Isaiah Philmore (8.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) is an inside player all the way. He does all of his damage inside the arc and around the basket. He is also a bad free throw shooter. Junior F Justin Martin (8.2 PPG, 4 RPG, 0.9 SPG) is an athletic, slashing small forward. He plays well on both sides of the ball, though he isn't a great shooter. He is also, you guessed it, a poor free throw shooter. 6'9 Freshman F Jalen Reynolds (3.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.8 BPG) and 6'8 Senior F Erik Stenger (4.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.8 BPG) both play about 13 MPG, and they both play their roles adequately. Both are good defenders and play well around the basket, as both shoot high percentages in the post.
What to Watch For
1. Must Win Game? With only two quality opponents left on Alabama's non conference schedule, we have to address the elephant in the room. Alabama has no quality wins on its resume. Wins over Texas Tech and Georgia State are ok, but that's not getting us in the Tournament. Those teams aren't even Top 100 teams. And guess what everyone, the SEC isn't going to provide us with many quality opponents either. The SEC has struggled to come away with quality non conference wins, although many teams have been frustratingly close. Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri are the only three teams that look Tournament bound at this point. LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss could make it, but they all find themselves on about the same level as Alabama. We need a win in the next two games, I can't stress that enough.
2. Defense (Again). Just as in the previous game, expect a lot of empty possessions for both teams. Defense is the mantra for both Xavier and Alabama. The Musketeers rank 29th in the country in Defensive Rating, and give up only 63.5 PPG. They, like Alabama, force a lot of steals and make a lot of blocks, ranking in the top 75 in both.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Free Throws. Free throws actually cost Alabama in the last game, as the Tide continued to send the Shockers to the line, and they would knock them down with relative ease. However, Xavier is not Wichita State in this area. In fact, they are quite the opposite. The Musketeers are 333rd in the country at the free throw line, which is only a few places away from being dead last. This is a huge advantage for Alabama, as one of our major weaknesses this year (fouling), might not hurt us at all in this one. The Crimson Tide shoot almost 11% better from the line than the Musketeers, good for 90th in the country.
2. Post Play. Xavier has a big frontcourt with a lot of depth, and Stainbrook is a legitimate match up nightmare for us. Nick Jacobs needs to reassert himself like he did in New York. I know he has been slowed by a few nagging injuries, but we need him to come up big in this one. Jimmie Taylor and Carl Engstrom need to have good games in order for us to win this one. Box out and grab some rebounds, prevent second chance opportunities, and someone other than Jacobs make a couple of plays on offense. This could be our post players' toughest test yet.
3. Get Some Points in Transition. Xavier is very good in half court defense. Very good. And their size is a huge issue for us. Alabama is going to have to push the tempo in this game and take advantage of our athleticism and speed. I really don't see any other way that Alabama gets above 65 points in this one unless that happens.
Alabama really needs to win this game. It's not going to be easy though, as Xavier is one of the top teams in the new Big East. I worry about the ability of our post players to get the job done against this deep frontcourt, but we do have a few advantages that we can work. Tip off is set for 6:00 pm CST and it will be televised on CSS.
Roll Tide, everyone, and show up to Coleman if you can.