Just under two months ago, Xavier had work to do. Stumbling out of the Battle4Atlantis with a 5-3 record, a stumbling offense "led" by a guard who wasn't even hitting half his free throws, and staring down the barrel of the Crosstown Shootout and a trip to Alabama - two games against teams whose defenses looked smothering - the Muskies needed to get it in gear. They did. After dismantling UC and picking up a true road win, X continued playing good ball and now boast an impressive 10-1 mark since returning to the continent. The offense is humming, Semaj is looking like an All-American, and the team's NCAA tournament status has gone from hoping for inclusion to playing for seeding.
Just over two weeks ago, Providence had work to do. Injuries and ineligibility had taken their respective tolls on a team that had been widely fancied in the preseason as a dark horse contender for the conference crown. An unimposing schedule combined with losses against almost every meaningful team on the slate (Maryland, UK, UMass, Seton Hall, and Nova) had left the team at 10-5 (0-2), 82nd in the Pomeroy ratings, and getting little love from any media source. Since then, the Friars have ripped off home wins against Georgetown, Creighton, and Butler by an average of 13 points and a 2OT road win against St. John's.
A win for Providence would move them into a tie with Xavier and within touching distance of the conference lead if one of the favorites stumbles. A win for Xavier would increase the distance between the leaders and the pack and threaten to establish the race for the Big East crown as a three-horse affair.
Much like Juvenile circa 2003, Providence moves in slow motion and appears to like it like that. Their pace on offense is slower that 275 D-1 teams and their overall tempo is 302nd. Despite this pedestrian approach, they don't seem to get very good looks at the bucket, shooting 33% from deep (213th) and 45.5% from inside the arc (288th). They are in the top 100 in avoiding turnovers, though, and nobody in the nation shoots better than their 79.9% mark from the line as a team. Offensive rebounding is their key to scoring, as they are 34th in the nation with an OReb% of 37.1%.
Defensively, they eschew forcing turnovers in favor of playing good, solid defense. Teams shoot slightly below average against them from inside the arc and slightly above average from behind it, but they are 23rd in the nation in preventing opponents from taking three-point attempts. Their real strengths lie in keeping teams off the line (21st in the nation) and ending possessions with defensive rebounds (71.6% DReb%, 52nd in the nation).
Owing to their aforementioned personnel problems, Providence is not a deep team. They get a mere 18.6% of their minutes off the bench, and their most frequent lineup featuring fewer than four starters is on the court for about 7% of the time. They are a veteran team, though (74th in the nation in experience) and have played a tough schedule. Their effective height of +4.3" is 8th in the country, and their average height of 6'6.4" is 12th.
The player: 6'1", 165-pound guard Bryce Cotton
The numbers: 20.3/3.4/5.8 on .401/.322/.850 shooting
More numbers: 94.7% min%, 26.8% usage rate, 34.8% assist rate, 12% TO rate
The words: That min% is a measure of what percentage of the minutes the team has played a player has been on the floor for. Cotton rarely leaves the court. It's hard to imagine there are many players who shoulder their team's load more than Cotton does; he's called on to shoot and distribute more than anyone else on the squad. While his EFG% is that of a volume scorer, it would be the story of the year if he was able to do everything he's asked to and be incredibly efficient while he does it.
The player: 6'5", 205-pound guard Josh Fortune
The numbers: 6.5/2.6/1.9 on .373/.312/.800 shooting
More numbers: 25% TO rate, 14% usage rate
The words: Unless you're Coach Dale, you need five players on the floor if at all feasible. With Providence dreadfully thin at the guard position, Josh Fortune has found himself as the guy whose number got called. He isn't a particularly aggressive offensive player, rarely strays near the rim, and generally is out there so the Friars don't have to start the game in a 2-2 zone.
The player: 6'6", 215-pound forward LaDontae Henton
The numbers: 13.1/7.3/1.6 on .426/.393/.827 shooting
More numbers: 88.7% min%, 17.9% DReb%, 3% steal%
The words: Henton is the other iron man around which the semi-peripheral players on the team orbit. He is almost as effective a scorer as Cotton (albeit in fewer attempts) and is a much stronger rebounder. He is also a defensive menace on the wings and is far and away the most likely Friar to come up with a steal. While he plays third banana to Harris and Cotton in the offense, he is the team's best three-point shooter and is more than capable of filling it up if left unattended. Think of him as if JMart was always Good JMart.
The player: 6'9", 215-pound forward Tyler Harris
The numbers: 13.1/5.1/1.4 on .465/.333/.847 shooting
More numbers: 22.5% usage rate, 8.3% OReb%, 11.4% DReb%
The words: If you're into tempo-free stats, you'll notice that Harris is a good offensive rebounder and a fairly miserable defensive rebounder. If this happened over 1 or 2 games, you could make the case that he had bad matchups, but this far into the season it's probably a sign that he switches off on the glass on that end. Harris scores best at the rim, but he's not afraid to step out and take the three, which he does about three times per game.
The player: 6'9", 245-pound center Kadeem Batts
The numbers: 12.9/7.5/1.2 on .425/.455/.753 shooting
More numbers: 24.9% usage rate, 13.2% OReb%, 17.2% DReb%, 5.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: While Batts has a slightly higher usage rate than Harris, almost a quarter of his buckets are off of stickbacks. More than being targeted by the offense, this is a man who goes down in the mud to find his points. And no wonder; a center who shoots 42.3% from inside the arc is not going to be the target of many set plays, and his superficially gaudy 3P% is on 5-11 shooting from deep. Defensively, Batts is also a beast on the boards but not much of a shot blocker.
Seven-foot center Carson Desrosiers blocks 12.9% of the two-point shots opponents take when he's on the floor, a rate that is 9th in the nation. He also boasts a 22.2% DReb% and basically only shoots when he has no other options. Ted Bancroft is a 6'6" wing who has been getting a few minutes lately, and Lee Goldsbrough is in the same boat but three inches taller. The two of them combine to average under 15 minutes per game, and nobody else on the roster features in meaningful play.
-Should Xavier try to run the Friars? On some level, it seems to make sense. Xavier is deep, Providence is not, and legs get tired at the end of long games. There is, however, no meaningful difference in pace between the games Providence wins and the ones they lose. Every regulation game that has seen the pace creep more than 3 possessions over their season average has been a win for the Friars. Xavier would be best served to run when the situation presents itself and pull it out and play when it doesn't. Trying to force the pace plays more into the Muskies' limitations than their opponent's.
-Will size be a problem? Xavier is a big team inside, but Providence is downright monstrous. Of particular note will be the 20 or some minutes Carson Desrosiers will play. Matt Stainbrook in particular has been a big part of the offense for X, but he has been slowed at times in conference play against teams with a guy who can defend him one-on-one in the posts. If Stainbrook et al. can force the Friars to help, the dominoes start to fall for the Xavier offense. If not, Providence's smother perimeter defense will have free rein to go to work.
-Can Xavier slow down Cotton? Bryce Cotton is the engine of the Providence offense and - as opponents ranging in quality from Maine to Creighton have found out - can carry a game by himself once he gets going. Teams who have had success against him have done so by getting him to settle for three-point shots. The Muskies will have to choose between having Dee bird-dog Cotton on and off the ball or putting Semaj on him and rolling the dice with Dee covering a much larger guard. No matter who ends up pulling the assignment, the other four Muskies on the floor are going to have to be ready to provide help.
-Clutch the pumpkin. Providence's defense is in many ways the complete opposite of DePaul's, as the Friars don't force an above-average amount of turnovers but do a good job of not allowing easy shots. It's likely that Xavier is going to end up with a fair amount of empty possessions just as a function of the defense. If Xavier starts getting loose with the ball and adding turnovers to the mix, an already difficult nut to crack may well begin looking insurmountable.
-Defensive rebounding. The Friars are not a very good shooting team from top to bottom. Cotton is a volume scorer and the numbers bear out the idea that his shot selection isn't the team's only problem getting the ball into the hoop. What they are is a very good offensive rebounding team, and it's that effort that keeps them from being completely hopeless on offense. With the pace Providence plays, Xavier may not get a lot of chances to make up for defensive lapses. Keeping second-chance points to a minimum will be of paramount importance for the Muskies' defense.
-Avoid the big run. Xavier has played three true road games this year and, despite the 2-1 record, none of them have been entirely comfortable. The Creighton game obviously got away from X, but a run in the Alabama game left Xavier needing a big comeback and - despite being up 18 at the half - the Muskies didn't quite bury the DePaul game until late on. Providence is a dangerous team with a lot to play for right now; letting them reel off a few unanswered baskets might be a bridge too far for X.