Who: Xavier Musketeers (2-0)
When: Friday, November 20th, at 9:00 p.m. ET (BTN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
There were no surprises in Michigan's first two wins against Northern Michigan and Elon, but tonight is when Michigan must begin to prove that last season's letdown was an injury-provoked fluke. The Wolverines host the Xavier Musketeers in what not only is the finale of the inaugural Gavitt Games but also their first litmus test of the season.
Xavier has one of the most consistently successful programs of the past decade. In that time, the Musketeers have been to nine NCAA Tournaments, five Sweet 16s, and one Elite Eight. As UM Hoops' Dylan Burkhardt noted in his Xavier preview, those five Sweet 16s are in the last eight years, and no other program has more in that span.
Xavier isn't an elite team or one in the AP top 25, but the Musketeers shouldn't be overlooked. They are 37th in KenPom and will boast a big challenge for Michigan. If the Wolverines can win, not only would it be a step in the right direction after last season's setback, it would be a great confidence-booster before next week's Battle 4 Atlantis.
Xavier won its first two games against Miami (OH) and Missouri, and there's been a clear offensive pattern in both. The Musketeers are not a great shooting team. In their two wins, they made only 46.7 percent of their twos and 33.3 percent of their threes; their eFG% is 47.8 percent, which is 183rd. And they know that they're not a great shooting team, firing from behind the three-point line only 34.2 percent of the time. However, Xavier compensates for its shooting woes by crashing the offensive glass and getting to the free-throw line. The Musketeers have rebounded 44.8 percent of their misses, which is 11th in the nation, and own a top-40 free-throw rate (55.3 pct.). This is may be only a two-game sample, but this also is a team that took 45 percent of their shots at the rim last season, which was one of the best among the high- and mid-major teams that Shot Analytics tracks. It's clear that Xavier's DNA on offense is to work the ball inside and bruise their way to the basket by any means possible. That's what makes their offense go.
Defensively, Xavier is just as good on the glass as it is on the offensive end. The Musketeers have corralled their opponent's misses 78.5 percent of the time (36th), so second-chance points have been few and far between. Also, the Musketeers have forced a good chunk of turnovers (24.4 pct.) thanks to nine steals in each game. On the other hand, Xavier has been prone to fouling often and sending its opponents to the free-throw line (41.3 FTR) and surrendered open looks. Combined, Miami (OH) and Missouri made almost half of their twos and 35 percent of their threes. Plus, 41.3 percent of their field-goal attempts against Xavier were threes, indicating clean looks from deep are there.
Xavier's best player from last season, 6-foot-10 center Matt Stainbrook (12.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 118.9 ORtg, 23.3 Usg%) has graduated, but the Musketeers should not feel his loss too greatly. That's because they have two 6-foot-10 centers in junior Jalen Reynolds and senior James Farr still on the roster. Reynolds will be the starter and could be the star of this team -- he was voted to the preseason All-Big East first team -- now that he'll no longer come off the bench. As a reserve last season, Reynolds averaged 9.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 1.0 BPG in just 20.2 MPG, and had a tremendous presence inside. He made 62 percent of twos, scoring very well around the rim and knocking down the occasional mid-range jumper. He was an explosive rebounder (11.9 OR%, 24.6 DR%) and shot-blocker (5.6 pct.). He also can lose his temper -- 13 technical fouls in his career per Burkhardt -- and get into foul trouble as he did in his last game against Missouri (four fouls in 15 minutes). But, when Reynolds can keep his cool, he's a beast inside the paint.
When Reynolds isn't dominating down low, Xavier has the luxury to turn to Farr, who's an even better rebounder (11.0 OR%, 30.5 DR%) and rim protector (5.9 pct.). Where Farr falls behind Reynolds is in the scoring department. Farr is more willing to expand his range, even attempting 45 threes last season, but he struggled from anywhere that wasn't within five feet of the rim. And, even there, he was mediocre at best. However, when Reynolds had to sit with foul trouble against Missouri, Farr picked up the slack with no problem, matching a career best with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting and adding 14 rebounds in 24 minutes. Between Farr and Reynolds, Xavier is more than set at center.
Xavier's four other starters are listed as guards on the official roster and assume different roles. The traditional point guard is 6-foot-2 redshirt junior Myles Davis. Davis didn't have this role last season because it belonged to then-senior Dee Davis, but Myles posted seven assists in the first two games and leads Xavier in assist rate (23.6 pct.). He also is a dangerous marksman. He made only 1-of-7 threes against Miami (OH) and Missouri, but that's uncharacteristic of him because he drilled 38.4 percent of them last season. His favorite spots? Straightaway and the two corners. Also, though Davis doesn't shoot well inside the three-point line, he knows how to draw contact and earn two free throws.
The other guard that'll handle the ball is 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner. Sumner was a four-star point-guard prospect from Detroit Country Day and appeared in six games last season until Xavier coach Chris Mack decided it was in Sumner's best interest to sit out and relieve his chronic knee tendinitis. Sumner is back this season and has looked good so far. In two games, he's averaged 15.5 PPG on 50-percent shooting both inside and outside the arc and shown a penchant for attacking the rim. Almost half of his points have come from the charity stripe (13 of 31), and he's taken more free throws than field goals (20 to 16). Also, with his length, Sumner can be an impactful defender.
The two starting guards that won't handle the ball as much are 6-foot-6 sophomore Trevon Bluiett and 6-foot-4 fifth-year senior Remy Abell. Bluiett's name should sound familiar as he was a John Beilein recruit. As a freshman, Bluiett was Xavier's second-leading scorer (11.0 PPG) and posted 4.2 RPG and 1.9 APG. However, he hit a wall at the end of last season, scoring only 11 points total in the final four games. He's off to a great start this season, averaging 14.0 PPG and 6.5 RPG, and has demonstrated an ability to score from all over the floor. On the other hand, Abell, who transfered from Indiana in 2013 and contributes only points, is off to a slow start (3-of-13 FG and four turnovers).
There is one other Musketeer about whom Michigan fans should know: 6-foot-5 sophomore guard J.P Macura. He remains a reserve after averaging just 13.2 MPG as a frosh, but he's been on fire off the bench for Xavier. After two games, he's their leading scorer (16.5 PPG), making 8-of-14 shots (3-of-6 3FG) and all 14 of his free throws. Macura also has grabbed six offensive rebounds to just one on the defensive end of the floor.
Minimize the Loss in the Paint: Let's be honest: Michigan isn't going to win the battle down low because Michigan's centers haven't stood out against inferior competition. A severely undersized Northern Michigan squad out-rebounded the Wolverines, and Elon's big men had no trouble bullying Mark Donnal on the block. So the odds that Michigan can turn around and contain Jalen Reynolds and an Xavier team that thrives on scoring at the rim and cleaning the glass seem slim. However, Michigan doesn't need to win in the area. It just needs to neutralize Xavier's advantage as much as it can. Ricky Doyle's sturdy body, D.J. Wilson's length, and Michigan's guards' knack for rebounding are key.
Duncan from Downtown: Because Michigan won't win the battle down low, it must win the war on the perimeter. This won't be an easy task as Xavier has talent and experience there just like Michigan does. However, where Michigan has the advantage is behind the three-point line. Not only does Xavier's defense tend to surrender open shots from deep, Michigan has the shooters to knock them down. Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, Aubrey Dawkins, and Zak Irvin all can be threats from downtown, but the Wolverine that could have a huge game is Duncan Robinson, who has made 8-of-12 threes in three games if the exhibition is included. If Michigan can find him in open spots, he will make Xavier pay.
Take Care of the Ball: Forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding have been the tenets of Xavier's defense this season. Michigan would rather get back on defense than seek second-chance points, so, if the Wolverines want to limit the effectiveness of Xavier's defense, they can't cough up the ball. John Beilein offenses usually flourish against over-aggressive defenses, but Michigan has been sloppier to start this year (101st in TO rate).
Michigan is the favorite and has home-court advantage, but I have a bad feeling about this one. Jalen Reynolds is a beast on the block, and it's hard to imagine that he won't feast on Michigan's centers given what we've seen from them in the past two weeks. And it's not like Michigan's perimeter defense or rotations have been much better. Open shots from the outside weren't too hard to find for Northern Michigan and Elon. Xavier isn't a great perimeter shooting team, but the Musketeers have a few players -- Myles Davis and Remy Abell -- that can capitalize. I think Michigan's defense will struggle in this one, and I'm not sure that the offense will be able to do enough unless they light it up from three.
Xavier 71, Michigan 67