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Xavier v. St. John's: Preview

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It's an absolutely massive bubble showdown as the Musketeers meet the Red Storm tonight. Xavier has a matchup that they should like, but they must take advantage or they can watch their season disappear.

Not textbook shot blocking.
Not textbook shot blocking.
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

With the end of the Big East approaching like the irrepressible lights of an onrushing truck, Xavier has recently accepted the role of a paralyzed kitten in the fast lane. Losses to Providence, Seton Hall, and Villanova were followed by a brief recovery and then another plunge into the depths. Alarmingly, Xavier completely capitulated against Georgetown on Saturday, getting destroyed from deep when it mattered and then letting an opponent pull away with impunity.

If Xavier is rooted to the spot and waiting for its demise, St John's has become that accelerating truck. 8-2 in their last ten with the only losses coming to Creighton and Villanova, the Red Storm have pulled within a half game of Xavier for the third spot in the conference and played their way right back onto the bubble that both teams currently occupy. Chris Obekpa was limited by an ankle injury and Orlando Sanchez was with his wife for the birth of their child, and St. John's still very nearly beat Villanova while Xavier was being throttled by the Hoyas. Obepka practiced again Monday, so he looks a full go. Make no mistake, a loss for either team will put them on the wrong side of the bubble with a good deal of work to get back on the right.

Team fingerprint:

No team in the nation blocks more of their opponents shots than the 20.1% the Red Storm send the other way. That number has dropped to a still absurd 15.8% in conference, but that may just reflect the loss of Obekpa. To make up for the "lack" of shot blocking, St. John's leads the conference in steal rate at 10.4%. They gamble, attack the ball, and are generally the complete opposite of the Musketeers on defense. That extends to the field, where the Red Storm are a bit more generous in allowing teams to shoot 46.6% from inside the arc, a number that reflects how the team gambles. If they don't get a block, the shot is probably going in. Opponents also destroy the Red Storm on the offensive glass, grabbing 33% of their misses. Going for steals and blocks is a risk/reward proposal.

Offensively, the Johnnies still love to shoot two point jumpers and they still love to take them early. As a team, 41% of their field goal attempts are two point jumpers, well over the national average of 29%. Roughly 30% of those shots have come in the first 10 seconds of the possession. That is just insanely fast jump shooting. That would be a good thing if St. John's shot well, but they are seventh in the conference in both two and three point field goal percentage. They grab only 30% of their copious misses, but only turn the ball over on 15% of their possessions.

St. John's is both deep, getting 34.6% of their minutes from the bench, and very tall.

Starters:

Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez are both probably going to play, but it's not clear yet who will start. Sanchez will be listed here, but Obekpa wouldn't be a complete shock if he took the tip.

The player: 6-4, 204 junior guard D'Angelo Harrison.
The numbers: 17.8/4.4/1.5 on .386/.368/.872 shooting.
More numbers: 113.1 ORtg, 8.8% TO rate, 13% defensive rebounding rate
The words: Harrison takes 6.4 free throws per game and he doesn't miss much from the line. That's good, because he misses a lot from elsewhere. He takes 28.9% of his teams shots when he's on the floor, so all the missing doesn't dissuade him much. Despite his size, Harrison shoots a lower percentage at the rim than any other player on the team.

The player: 6-2, 189 junior guard Phil Greene
The numbers: 7.8/2.5/1.4 on .421/.421/.667 shooting.
More numbers: 7.2% TO rate, 110.1 ORtg.
The words: The 42.1% that Greene shoots from deep leads this team by some margin, but that hasn't stopped Harrison from lifting nearly 100 more times. Greene also takes excellent care of the ball, only 11 players in the nation turn it over less than he does. Greene does not get to the rim and takes more than half of his shots as two point jumpers.

The player: 6-4, 185 freshman guard Rysheed Jordan.
The numbers: 8.9/3.3/3.1 on.406/.265/.679 shooting.
More numbers: 23.6% assist rate, 2.6% steal rate
The words: Jordan is one of the better freshmen in the conference and the 24.2% of his available possessions he uses speaks to his willingness to do something with the ball. Outside of 6-9 center Chris Obepka, no Red Storm starter shoots at the rim as frequently as Jordan does. Jordan also shoots fewer two point jumpers than anyone other than Obekpa and God'sgift Achiuwa. Jordan may not play depending on how he reacts to the wake of a close relative that he is attending on Monday.

The player: 6-9, 214 sophomore forward Jakarr Sampson.
The numbers: 12.7/6.3/1.0 on .503/.200/.579 shooting.
More numbers: 8.5% offensive rebounding rate, 15.7% defensive rebounding rate, 3.5% block rate.
The words: The first of the big shot-throwers, Sampson also rebounds very well for someone as frail as he is. Because Sampson plays for St. John's, he takes 57.7% of his 10.6 shots per game as two point jumpers. Sampson has taken more shots than any other player on the team and actually shoots a respectable 40% on those two point jumpers. Sampson finishes at 66.9% at the rim though, so it's tempting to wonder why doesn't just go down there and dominate like he certainly could.

The player: 6-9, 232 senior forward Orlando Sanchez
The numbers: 7.0/5.2/1.3 on .480/.256/.878 shooting.
More numbers: 5.4% block rate, 18.8% defensive rebounding rate
The words: Sanchez blocks shots and shoots pull up jumpers. One of those things he is very, very good at. A consistent performer, Sanchez is not likely to really go off offensively unless things break just right for him. What is interesting is that Sanchez will take three pointers if he has the time and space. Against a struggling defense, he could do some serious damage.

Reserves:

Chris Obekpa is the main name off the bench, because he swats absolutely everything. Well, not everything, but 16.3% of shots his opponents take when he is on the floor. That number is just hard to conceptualize. Also coming off the bench and throwing shots (5.3% rate) is Sir'Dominic Pointer, a 6-5 forward who also scores 6.4 points per game. God'sgift Achiuwa blocks at a 9.3% rate but has seen his playing time decrease by 20 minutes per game this year. Jamal Branch spells the guards and is getting four points per contest.

Three questions:

- How many threes will St. John's take? No team in the conference gets fewer points from deep and no team takes a fewer threes compared to two point field goal attempts. This team is built, oddly, to take shorter jumpers. Still, Xavier is uncommonly generous to teams that shoot from deep. The first time the teams met St. John's took 14 threes and made half of them. If they take 20 in this game, the Musketeers are in deep trouble.

- Can Xavier recover? Defensively, this is the game that the packline defense was built for. Even with their struggles against teams shooting from behind the arc, the Musketeers are still second in the conference in two point field goal defense. If St. John's is plays how they always do, it's a chance for Xavier to recover a bit of that defensive swagger that they so desperately need.

- Will the Musketeers start well on the road? Xavier has been dreadful on the road this year, and a lot of that has to do with how poorly they've started. At Marquette they were down 11 with nine minutes played, at Villanova they spotted the Wildcats nine before scoring, the Georgetown game was over at halftime, and even Providence built a seven point lead in the first half. Xavier simply can't keep giving games away by waiting until the second half to get things going.

Three keys:

- Forget Georgetown: The last game was a complete disaster, but Xavier is in a playoff situation every time the ball tips now. Carry the garbage from that last game into this one, and things get unbelievably desperate. The Musketeers cannot dwell on what happened Saturday.

- Play your defense: After all of the complaining that anyone with any basketball intelligence has done about the way Xavier has defended recently, this game comes as a possible respite. St. John's doesn't shoot the three very much, and doesn't shoot it well when they do. Xavier needs to just keep clamping down inside the arc in this one unless the Red Storm really changes up the way they play. The way they've been ripping off wins recently, it's hard to imagine they'll change anything significant. Defend inside the arc and, for this one game, that may be enough.

- Win: It doesn't actually matter how it happens, but Xavier has to win this game. A loss here and beating either Creighton or Villanova becomes absolutely imperative. Both of those teams are nightmare matchups for Xavier, so this game is as must win as they come. Beating Seton Hall will impress no one. This is it.