Xavier v. St. John's: Preview

Dude's name is God'sgift, he gets to be the picture. - Chris Chambers

Big East play begins for Xavier as the Musketeers welcome St. John's to the Cintas Center.

Since the Bahamas it has been all good news for Xavier. Three weeks ago, I was hoping (but not expecting) X could grab 3 of 4 from BG, Evansville, UC, and Alabama. Instead, Xavier worked through some ugly wins before hitting a stride and coming into the conference season carrying the momentum of five straight wins. After a comprehensive demolition of Wake Forest on Saturday, the sky seems be the limit for the Muskies right now.

St. John's comes into the conference season carrying a 9-3 record, but they could just as easily be 11-1. After dropping their opener by 11 against Wisconsin, they didn't lose again until an overtime game against Penn State in the Barclay's Center. Syracuse was their only other defeat. They were up with five minutes left before surrendering a 10-3 run to close it out. Coming with no really bad losses have been no really good wins. Georgia Tech is their only KenPom top-100 win, but beating a Brian Gregory team comes with an asterisk. It should also be noted that this will be St. John's first true road game of the year.

Team fingerprint:
St. John's follows in the mold of Xavier's recent opponents in that they are more about defense than offense. Particularly, they love blocking shots, leading the nation by turning away almost a quarter of opponents' two-point attempts. It obviously follows that teams are only shooting 42% from inside th arc on them. A little farther out, they allow opponents to hit 33.6% of their threes while not being particularly effective at detering attempts from deep. They're just a tick above average in forcing turnovers and on the glass.

On offense, the Red Storm only turns the ball over on 15% of their possessions, good for 25th in the country. That's made all the more impressive when you consider their offensive possessions clock in at 16 seconds each, 41st fastest in the nation. It's hard to go that quickly and be that good with the ball, but sometimes it leads to ill-advised shots early in the shot clock. That has been a problem for St. John's this season, and their shooting percentage is just above average from two and just below it from three. It's probably worth noting that 42.4% of the Johnnies' field goal attempts are two-point jumpers; the national average is only about 29%. It's not immediately clear why they're so in love with the mid-range jumper as a team; they're not meaningfully above average from that area of the floor. They're above average on the offensive glass, but not by much.

This team is very, very tall; average height of 77.9" and an effective height of +2.8" (23rd in the country). X won't run into many teams this year that are taller than they are, but this is one of them. They're almost bang-on national average in experience, and they get a little more than 34% of their minutes of the bench. For all their impressive numbers, it's important to note than KenPom things very poorly of the toughness of St. John's schedule to this point.

Starters:
Take these with a grain of salt. Harrison, Sampson, and Greene have 35 starts between them, so you can probably write them in stone. The last two are my best guesses from about four or five guys who could possibly start.

The player: 6'4", 204-pound guard D'Angelo Harrison
The numbers: 19.5/4.1/2.0 on .424/.354/.826 shooting
More numbers: 32.3% shots%, 8.0% TO rate, 118.2 ORtg, 7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Harrison is the straw that stirs the drink for St. John's. He leads the team in usage percentage and shots percentage (percent of the team's shots he takes when on the floor) and almost never turns the ball over; nobody from either team can get the ball off of him. He pulls about twice as often as he gets to the rim, but he's also an effective jump-shooter from beyond the arc. Combine that with the large amount of fouls he draws and his efficiency from the line and you have the recipe for a pretty darn good scorer.

The player: 6'2", 189-pound guard Phil Greene IV
The numbers: 9.3/3.3/1.5 on .489/.385/.625 shooting
More numbers: 5.9% TO rate, 54.5% EFG%, 1.6 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: Phil Greene is not as prolific a scorer as Harrison, but he's every bit as efficient on the offensive end. He is even more of a two-point jumper fan than Harrison, taking almost three times as many two-point jumpers than shots at the rim. (For comparison's sake, Semaj and Myles have each taken more than twice as many shots at the rim as two-point jumpers, Dee has taken almost four times as many two-point attempts at the rim, and Brandon Randolph, for whatever reason, is an almost even split.)

The player: 6'4", 185-pound guard Rysheed Jordan
The numbers: 6.4/2.7/2.8 on .302/.091/.714 shooting
More numbers: 26% assist rate, 31% EFG%, 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: Someone has to pass the ball, and that's good, because Jordan is really bad at shooting it. He is 11-23 at the rim, which is deplorable, and it only gets worse from there. He does, however, lead the team in assist rate in a backcourt that's not fanatical about moving the ball. He does that 23% of the team's shots when he's on the floor, which is borderline inexplicable for a player as bad at shooting as he is. Now that I've written that, he's going to go for 24 on 8-9/4-5/4-4 shooting today.

The player: 6'9", 214-pound forward JaKarr Sampson
The numbers: 12.7/6.8/0.8 on .500/.250/.580 shooting
More numbers: 18.1% DReb%, 4.3% block%, 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: That block percentage would be tops on a lot of teams, but it places Sampson fourth on St. John's. It's made all the more impressive by the fact that he is very good at avoiding foul trouble while blocking more than one shot a game and putting the biscuit in the basket. Like most of his teammates, Sampson takes far more two-point jumpers than shots at the rim, despite the fact that he shoots 70.8% at the rim and 37.1% on jumpers.

The player: 6'9", 232-pound forward Orlando Sanchez
The numbers: 7.3/5.4/1.8 on .532/.250/.895 shooting
More numbers: 8.8% OReb%, 17.9% Dreb%, 6.7% block%
The words: Sanchez appears to be on the floor to do the dirty work, which is ironic, because he's one of the team's more efficient offensive players. His usage rate is 18.9%, so it's not like hs goes completely unrecognized on the offensive end, but he's not a primary option. He is also one of the few members of the Red Storm who has taken more shots at the rim (25) and from mid-range (17).

Reserves:
You should probably be aware of Chris Obekpa. The 6'9", 240-pound forward gets 3.6 and 5.8 on .529/.000/.438 shooting, but he also blocks 20.9% of opponents' two-point shots when he's on the floor. Despite playing 22 minutes a game, he averages 4.5 blocks. Sir'Dominic Pointer is a 6'5" wing who comes off the bench to get 6.7 points on .460/.200/.667 shooting and also averages 1.8 steals. Guard Jamal Branch is worth mention because he's the only player other than Jordan team with a good assist rate; he comes off the bench to move it around instead of shooting it. God'sgift Achiuwa is here because he has a cool name, boasts a block% of 8.7%, and is one of the team's best offensive rebounders.

Three questions:
-Will Xavier control the boards?
Much of the Muskies' identity and success comes from second chances on offenses and not allowing them on defense. When Xavier zips someone up, it's usually about forcing bad shots and then grabbing the rebound to end the possession. St. John's rebounding numbers aren't as superficially impressive as some of X's prior opponents, but the Red Storm is long and athletic and have a chance to grab every ball that comes off the rim.

-Can Xavier avoid having their shots blocked? Xavier is below-average in terms of field goal percentage at the rim, and obviously having your shot tossed into the third row isn't going to help things in that regard. Farr and Reynolds are long and powerful finishers, but Philmore and Stainbrook work more on the basis of real estate than explosion. It will be interesting to see how their respective styles fare against the Johnnies' shot blockers.

-Why does St. John's shoot so dang many mid-range jumpers? Thanks to my man @nycbuckets pointing me to this writeup via Twitter, I can at least tell you that they do it on purpose. Why they do when they're so average at it and it's the least efficient shot in basketball is anyone's guess. Still, if X is clogging the lane and St. John's is shooting fifteen-foot jump shots, the Musketeers may well be able to hold their opponents at bay for long stretches at a time

Three keys:
-Move the bigs away from the basket. St. John's is an incredibly effective shot-blocking team, but it begins with big men Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez and Chris Obepka again. Xavier can attempt to neutralize some of that prowess by moving the big men out of the effective shot-blocking area. Matt Stainbrook is too good a passer to be left alone on the high post, and James Farr can't be ignored on the perimeter. If Xavier can force the Johnnies to move their big men away from the baseline, that opens up space behind them for cutters and slashing guards. I love Isaiah Philmore, but this is the kind of game that begs for the length and athleticism of the Muskies' other bigs.

-Win on the offensive glass. St. John's loves to get the ball out and go, but it's harder to fast break if you have to inbound after a made bucket first. It's no secret that the Red Storm hunt blocked shots, and that leaves gaps for offensive rebounders to get to the boards. The more Xavier is keeping misses alive and scoring off of them, the fewer chances St. John's will have to run down the floor and shoot layups. If Xavier neutralizes the fast break, it will go a long way towards keeping St. John's from being effective on offense.

-Use the three. Xavier hasn't made the three-point shot a lynch-pin of their offense, but they are a very good three-point shooting team. St. John's is a very good interior defense, but their 3P% defense has been merely okay, and they are not exceptionally good at denying opponents looks from deep. One way to neutralize and eraser at the rim is to relegate him to catching three-point shots as they fall through the rim.

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