What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? This week: Joel at Banners on the Parkway, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Xavier.
1) Unlike Iowa, Xavier has at least played one credible opponent this year (Tennessee), but for the most part our schedules have been pretty similar (and not just because we've both played Abilene Christian): heavy on the fatty cupcakes, light on more filling opposition. How excited are you to play someone who can (hopefully) give you a much stiffer test than the likes of Miami (OH) or Gardner Webb?
I come into the Iowa game with anticipation but also a good bit of trepidation. Xavier's performance against the cupcakes is superficially satisfactory, but there have been some definite issues that could bit X in the haunches against better teams. Free throw shooting will be discussed below, but Xavier has also started slowly in almost all of their games before hitting a stride later on. Ceding the first 8 minutes to Iowa might put X in a hole that they can't crawl out of. Most of Xavier's games this year have felt perfunctory, though; it will be nice to see the team pitted against an opponent that is going to challenge them to step up their collective game.
2) Xavier returns two of their top three scorers from last year, Semaj Christon and Dee Davis. What should Iowa fans know about them? How do they score their points? Are there any other players Iowa fans should keep an eye on Thursday night?
3) How deep is Xavier? The stats suggest that there are 10 guys getting at least 10 minutes per game, but you basically went six-deep in the Tennessee game. Was that down to injuries or some other factors?
Semaj is a combo guard with NBA size who wants to do one thing: drive the ball with his right hand to within about 8 feet of the rim, then use his athleticism to find a way to finish. Despite that single-mindedness, he also has a knack for finding open teammates when the situation calls for it. Dee is listed at 6' even, so you know what that means. He's an opportunistic guard who moves the ball very well and picks his spots to hunt his own shot. His load on his three is low and his release is not especially quick, but he'll burn a defense that gives him space.
I'm going to semi-combine your second and third questions and just give you a quick and dirty rundown of each player on the roster. Justin Martin has the size and skills to be a nightmare matchup on the wing, but he drifts listlessly in and out of games. Your guess is as good as mine regarding what he'll do Thursday.
Erik Stenger is an athletic, left-handed forward who gets by on his willingness to put himself in harm's way for the team. He hasn't been feeling well lately to the extent that he is getting blood work done, and his travel to the Bahamas is in doubt. Matt Stainbrook is a veteran big man who has a great feel for when to kick out of the post and when to try to turn and score. Forward Isaiah Philmore is a little injury-prone, but he has wide-body skills on the block, can hit the occasional mid-range jumper, and really goes after the offensive glass. When Xavier is healthy, the starting five will generally be selected from those six players.
Off the bench, Brandon Randolph is a lightning fast combo guard who was probably recruited to fill Semaj's shows after he departs. In the meantime, he slashes relentlessly to score or pass. Myles Davis is a freshman shooter who ran afoul of the NCAA's incomprehensible eligibility policies last year but is pouring home threes this season. Big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds are long, athletic, and absolutely relentless on the glass. Farr is also a shooter with legitimate pick-and-pop range out behind the arc. Coach Mack has been hesitant to employ depth in his tenure (and, as you mentioned, the squad shrinks in bigger games), but he has more faith in this squad than in any other he has had at X.
4) What does Xavier like to do defensively? They have a top-25 defensive efficiency rating from KenPom, so they're certainly doing something right so far.
The best thing Xavier does on defense is kill possessions with defensive rebounds. Choose the shot you take carefully, because you're not likely to get another one until after the Muskies take their turn on offense. Beyond that, Xavier generally hedges over ball screens with a big man before retreating back into the paint with four defenders, focusing more on making dribble penetration difficult than contesting the three-point arc. Coach Mack is a man-to-man coach, but he has used some zone this year to change things up and try to limit foul trouble.
5) Why is Xavier so bad at shooting free throws (60% entering Monday, 317th in the nation)? How much does that stat make you nervous in a close game?
Xavier was crap from the line again Monday, falling to 323rd as of this writing. There is no explanation for being that bad at free throws; it is mind-boggling and frustrating. How much does that make me nervous in a close game? All the way. If we continue to shoot FT like this, it's a foregone conclusion that it will cost us a game at some point. You can miss 15 FT in a game against Abilene Christian; you can't against, say, Iowa.
6) Between Myles Davis and James Farr, is Xavier trying to put together a collection of guys with off-brand celebrity names?
I'm afraid that answering this question would run the risk of compromising Coach Mack and the staff's recruiting strategy. Suffice it to say, I look forward to seeing Bobby Redford and Leonard DiCaprio suiting up in the back court in the 2017-2018 season.
7) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
I try to stay away from predictions because 1) basketball is full of difficult variables but more importantly 2) I'm awful at them, so it seems like a reasonable thing to do. Cowards are reasonable, though, while everything I do on/around Thanksgiving is entirely unreasonable. Saint Ken Pomeroy is calling this one a two-point win for Iowa based on how the teams have performed so far. I'm going to go with my heart and hope that Xavier is merely bad from the line instead of abysmal and call this one a down-to-the-wire win for X. If the Muskies start leaving free points at the stripe, though, I'll see you in the consolation bracket.
Thanks for being a good sport, Joel, although I still hope your team loses by 50 on Thursday. You can check out Joel and the rest of the BotP crew at Banners on the Parkway. You can also follow BotP on Twitter at @BannersParkway. The Iowa-Xavier game is in the Bahamas on Thursday, November 28, and is scheduled to start at 6:00 pm CT, with television coverage from NBC Sports.