Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Only a few conferences have yet to start play, and you can cross one more off the list tonight, as #110 St. Louis (9-5) faces #37 Xavier (11-2) in the Atlantic 10 season opener.
St. Louis has had a couple of solid results, most notably a three-point win against newly-ranked (but soon to not be) Boston College, but has also racked up some disappointing losses, including at Detroit, against DePaul and at Southern Illinois. Xavier had a strong start to the season, winning the Puerto Rico Tip-off, beating Missouri, Virginia Tech and Memphis along the way, but hasn’t done much of note since suffering tough back-to-back losses to Duke and Butler just before the holiday break.
The Billikens under Rick Majerus have a reputation for having trouble scoring, and given that they share the modern-era NCAA record for scoring futility in a game, it’s somewhat deserved. Given St. Louis is averaging barely over 60 points a game so far this season, you’d expect their offense to be a major weak point. In reality, St. Louis has had a national-average offense, which merely looks like the worst in the A-10 because the Billikens play at one of the nation’s slowest paces. St. Louis shoots very poorly from the outside, but unlike some slow teams, it isn’t dependent on the three-point shot, making up for it with average inside shooting and a good ability to get to the line. The Billikens match-up quite poorly with Xavier, who are very solid inside defenders, both in stopping shots and on the glass, and St. Louis will need to find some outside scoring to have a chance.
Xavier’s offense depends on getting to the free throw line, something they do as well as any other team in the country. The Musketeers aren’t particularly good free-throw shooters, but get a lot of chances, something that really helps them offset their problem with turnovers. Xavier is typically a good three-point shooting team, but the Billikens will be a difficult opponent in that regard, as St. Louis are the nation’s best team at defending the three. St. Louis doesn’t do too well defending inside shots, and forces few turnovers, but is very solid on the defensive glass. Xavier will probably try to get the ball inside quite often, taking their chances on getting inside shots and earning trips to the foul line.
St. Louis are an odd mix of seniors and freshmen, with only a single sophomore and no juniors on the roster. Guard Tommie Liddell is the senior linchpin of the Billikens, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding. Lidell has a good three-point shot, but tends to take too many missed attempts from inside the arc, and struggles with turnovers. The other important senior is guard Kevin Lisch, another decent three point shooter who does quite poorly inside. Freshman Kwamain Mitchell leads the team in assists, but needs to work on his shot selection, under 25% from three and under 35% overall. Kyle Cassity is another freshman who can come off the bench as a point guard, but needs to work on his shot. The frontcourt is very young, with freshmen Brian Conklin and Willie Reed leading the way. Conklin has averaged more than 5 boards a game, while getting to the line efficiently, and Reed has shot nearly 60% from the field. Barry Eberhardt is the lone senior inside, while 6-10 Brett Thompson comes off the bench as an effective rebounder, though he plays only sparingly.
Xavier has a much more experienced unit, highlighted by leading scorer Derek Brown, who is primarily an inside player, but has a very nice three-point shooting touch as well. B.J. Raymond is another effective offensive option, his percentages aren’t as good as Brown’s, but he’s a fairly efficient scorer. C.J. Anderson will be key to the Musketeers’ inside game, he takes almost all of his shots inside, and is very good at getting to the line, managing an even FG/FT ratio. If Anderson could get his percentage from the line back up to last season’s 67%, rather than the 59% it is right now, he’d be a somewhat better offensive threat. Dante’ Jackson is a sophomore who leads the team in assists and steals, but has struggled to score from two and been only average from three. Jason Love barely plays 20 minutes a game, but the 6-9 junior leads Xavier in both rebounds and blocks, and managed a career-high 15 points last week against Robert Morris. Jamel McLean is a good rebounder and inside scorer off the bench who shoots an ugly 40.5% from the free throw line, while 7-0 freshman Kenny Frease had a breakout game Saturday against Virginia, picking up 13-and-8, but hasn’t shown much of a scoring touch beyond that game. Terrell Holloway sees some good minutes in the backcourt, but isn’t particularly effective in them.
Xavier should be able to defend St. Louis well enough to pull out to a fairly comfortable victory, especially on their home floor. Seeing the Billikens under 55 points wouldn’t surprise me, as they’ll have trouble inside. Xavier should try and stay focused on the inside game, where it has a good chance of causing St. Louis problems defensively.
Winner: Xavier Margin: +12
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.