Funny things can happen to college basketball teams in December, and right now Xavier is no exception. The Musketeers - who have made four Sweet 16 appearances in the last five years - are 7-4 and haven't won a game since December 9. That's what happens when you get ten days off for (I'm assuming) final exams, then play your talented crosstown rivals (60-45 Cincinnati), then blow a 14 point lead against mighty Wofford three days later, then take a week off for Christmas. Xavier has also lost to Pacific and Vanderbilt (5-5) in overtime. However, they started the year with a 15 point win over Butler, which gives them a transitive win over the Hoosiers. Before their recent troubles Xavier also scored wins over Drexel and Purdue, though both appear to be in down years.
This is a rebuilding year for the Musketeers, so the names you may be expecting from tournaments past like Frease and Holloway (which I still hear in Gus Johnson Voice thanks to this game from the 2010 Sweet 16, one of the best I've ever seen on any level) are gone. 6'3" freshman point guard Semaj Christon leads the way at 14.7 points and 5.5 assists per night. 6'8" senior Travis Taylor is currently going for 11.2 and 7.2. Sophomore guard Dee Davis and sophomore forward Justin Martin also average double figures; this is a glorified eight man rotation.
As you can see, this bunch can shoot it: Xavier is 20th nationally in field goal percentage, shooting 48.5% so far this season. They are 25th nationally in effective FG%. So if you like efficient offense vs efficient defense, Saturday night is for you: Tennessee holds opponents to 39.0% from the floor, and the Vols are 33rd nationally in eFG% allowed. Only UNC-Asheville has shot better than 46% against Tennessee so far.
Want more? Xavier shoots 36.4% from three and takes just under 16 per game, Top 100 averages. The Vols are currently 8th in the nation defending the three, allowing just 25.7% of them to fall from the opposition. And Xavier is incredibly deliberate in a good way offensively: both the Vols and Musketeers average just under 63 possessions a game, tied for 328th in the country. From Xavier's perspective, it will be slow, but they make it all count. From Tennessee's perspective, we make it slow by the way we defend, and hope enough of ours count to balance out in the end.
And as you know, it's not defense that beats us: in the Vols' three losses Oklahoma State shot 41.9%, Georgetown 36.4%, and Virginia 35.8%. It's the other end where Tennessee struggles. At this point, we appear to have two options offensively. We can embrace being the team that crashes inside and lives at the free throw line - the Vols are 7th nationally in free throw rate and 10th in free throw point percentage, as we get 25.7% of our final total from the stripe. Tennessee is currently taking 24.2 free throws per game, and we've warmed up to 68.2% at the line, all good things. By comparison, last year the Vols averaged 20.5 free throws per game.
We're good at it, we don't beat Wichita State without it, and I'm fine with getting points there...it just makes me nervous because being reliant on free throws makes you more reliant on referees. Some nights it's going to work. Some nights it won't.
The other option is the nebulous hope that the Vols adjust in ways we haven't seen yet to playing without Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes re-establishes dominance in the paint. So far he hasn't handled the double-team well at all and has struggled against great post players; I'm not sure if Travis Taylor qualifies but we'll find out. They aren't problems of great concern for someone who still hasn't played a full season...but it's not what we thought it would be without Maymon. Can the Vols re-form their identity going forward around Stokes? We'll see.
This is a big test against an incredibly efficient offense that plays our pace. The Vol defense will have to be even sharper against this team, and I'm eager to see if we're up to the task. As usual, if we are we'll have a chance to win with just a little help on the other end, and Xavier is no slouch there giving up just 40.2% from the floor. Like us, in their four losses they've still been there defensively; only Pacific has scored 70 on them; Cincinnati and Wofford both beat them shooting under 40%. Their biggest problem has been making free throws - they were 14 of 20 against Pacific, but shot just 9 of 17 against Vanderbilt, 3 of 14 (!) against Cincinnati, and 8 of 16 against Wofford. They've shot it well on other nights from the stripe, but it certainly stands out in defeat.
So this looks like a close and especially well-matched game when Xavier has the ball. It's a big chance for both teams to pick up a key non-conference win that can really help them at tournament time; neither team really wants to add to their loss column after having already picked up seven between us before the calendar hit January. The Vols are definitely more experienced and definitely better at the stripe, which should give us the edge if our defense is more efficient than their offense. We'll see.
It's an earlier tip - 6:00 PM Saturday night in Knoxville, also on ESPNU. Go Vols.