We have been trumpeting the Big East as one of the cures to Xavier's constant bubble worries all season long. Comps to the AAC and the Atlantic 10 have been both flattering an frequent. The new conference has brought with it exposure and the chance for a good win almost every time the ball is tipped. It has also brought with it constant and unrelenting challenge.
Xavier is facing adversity for the first time as a Big East member. The loss against Providence on the road was one thing, but dropping a game against Seton Hall at home is borderline inexcusable. The problem with playing in a conference with the opportunity for great wins all the time is that losing streaks can snowball very quickly. Now, Xavier faces their toughest test of the season in the form of a Villanova team that just crushed Temple and has only lost to Syracuse and Creighton. The Big East giveth, but right now it is poised to take away.
Villanova is very good on both sides of the ball. Defense is ostensibly their weakness, but they rank 29th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Creighton took advantage of the Wildcats one obvious flaw and went 21-35 from deep. Villanova allows teams to shoot 35.4% from behind the arc, but locks down everywhere else. They rank 99th in steal percentage, 95th in block percentage, 93rd in defensive rebound percentage, 70th in turnover percentage, 63rd in effective field goal percentage, and 20th in field goal percentage inside the arc (42.8%). That string of ascending numbers basically means that if you don't beat Nova from deep, a difficult task awaits.
Not as difficult as the task of stopping their offense, though. The Wildcats come in ranked eighth nationally in offensive efficiency. Behind the arc is the only place that Villanova isn't above average, shooting just 35.2% from deep (which doesn't keep them from launching at the seventh highest rate in the nation). Even that is still good for 138th in the nation, and the rest of the offense makes up for that little wobble. The Wildcats grab 34% of their misses, take a free throw for every two field goal attempts, shoot an unholy 55% inside the arc, and only turn the ball over on 17% of their possessions. This is the best offense in the Big East that doesn't feature Doug McDermott.
The Wildcats are slightly below average in effective height and right around average in bench time. Worryingly, they will drop out of a man defense to play some zone. Jay Wright must surely be wringing his hands with glee as he studies the defenses played in 40+ men's leagues at the Y in order to prepare for Xavier.
The player: 6-6, 225 senior guard James Bell.
The numbers: 15.3/5.7/1.5 on .430/.377/.800.
More numbers: 29.3% shots taken, 57.9% true shooting, 2.6% steals rate.
The words: Bell is an offensive monster capable of going completely off and blowing up a defense. He's scored 30 in a game and had 25 or more three times. Bell is going to shoot more than anyone else on the team, and he's going to do it from everywhere. He's launched 146 threes against only 98 attempts from inside the arc, but he's still been to the line as much as any Xavier player not named Christon or Philmore.
The player: 6-3, 195 sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono.
The numbers: 10/2.5/3.5 on .393/.313/.737 shooting.
More numbers: 21% assist rate, 13.9% turnover rate, 115.5 ORtg.
The words: Arcidiacono (no way Byron Larkin says that correctly all game) keeps the game moving for his more heralded teammates. He's careful with the ball, and takes the second fewest shots of any starter. His passing sets up the offense and he leads the team in both assists, and A/TO by some margin. While he does manage ten points a game, that comes directly from his willingness to shoot the three despite being pretty bad at it. Arcidiacono has taken the second most threes on the team but only made the third most. He's the living epitome of the basketball cliche "never up, never in."
The player: 6-6, 215 junior forward Darrun Hilliard II
The numbers: 13.5/4.1/2.9 on .462/.385/.688 shooting.
More numbers: 59.4% true shooting, 20.2% assist rate, 2.7% steal rate.
The words: Hilliard has an assist rate nearly that of Arcidiacono, but turns the ball over a lot more. He makes up for that by actually be able to shoot from deep, where he takes the third most shots of any Wildcat (104, which would lead the Musketeers by some margin). Hilliard is very consistent as a scorer, not managing double figures in only three of Nova's 22 games.
The player: 6-7, 260 junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston.
The numbers: 14.9/5.6/1.6 on .500/.208/.774 shooting.
More numbers: 115.4 ORtg, 8.8% OR%, 58.6% true shooting.
The words: Pinkston is as close to a banger as Villanova has. he's the heaviest member of the starting five, and he's not going to launch from deep like his backcourt dwelling teammates. Pinkston will get to the line nearly twice as much as any other Wildcat because he draws more fouls than all but 73 players in the nation.
The player: 6-11, 245 sophomore forward Daniel Ochefu.
The numbers: 5.6/5.9/1.1 on .605/.00/.610.
More numbers: 12.5% OR%, 19.4% DR%, 8.3% block rate.
The words: Even the big man on this team can pass, which is why the Wildacts are 17th in the nation in assisted field goals. Ochefu erases mistakes on defense and tries not to make too many (he only attempts 3.6 shots per game) on offense.
Freshman guard Josh Hart plays more than Ochefu and gets 8.7/4.5/1.1 in his 21.7 minutes per game. 6-2 senior Tony Chennault also comes off the bench for more than 15 minutes, in which he will focus solely on ball movement and taking good shots. He's the rare Wildcat guard who doesn't shoot from deep. Dylan Ennis (6-2 guard) and Kris Jenkins (6-6 forward) will also see the court a bit.
- Can Xavier survive the three point onslaught? Opponents are shooting 35% from deep against Xavier, 42% since conference play started. Villanova blazes away from deep without compunction. If shots start to fall for Villanova this will get very ugly, very fast.
- Can Xavier make some three pointers? Villanova can be had behind the arc, but Xavier has gone 5-32 in the Providence and Seton Hall losses. This may come as no surprise to the discerning reader, but that kind of effort isn't going to beat one of the best teams in the nation.
- Who else chips in? Semaj and Stainbrook are relative locks to get theirs, but Xavier really needs someone else to provide a consistent threat. JMart is doing his thing again, Dee is struggling, Myles Davis is four for his last 15 from deep, and James Farr has fallen off. Someone needs to get it going.
- Keep Villanova out of a zone: Providence and Seton Hall both dared Xavier to beat them from deep, and each got a win for that show of temerity. Xavier needs to either knock down shots or greatly increase the pace in order to keep Villanova from employing the same tactic. If Xavier is standing in the half court in the second half of this game, things are probably going badly.
- Shoot well: In their two losses Villanova has allowed opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 64.7%. In their wins, the Wildcats haven't allowed an opponent within 9% of that number. Xavier needs to shoot judiciously and well from deep, and be effective inside. It's that simple.
- Play some defense: Don't kid yourself into thinking that Seton Hall's 68 points means the defense is healed. A step in the right direction after Providence (the Musketeers second worst defensive showing), the 110.8 defensive efficiency number the Musketeers put up still won't win you many games. It's time to actually get after someone, or this thing is going way off the rails.