The last time these two teams met, it was with third place and a legitimate shot at contention for the conference title at stake. Two weeks later, third place still hangs in the balance, but it looks like Creighton and Villanova are running away with the top spot. Since that game, Xavier has dropped a home shocker to Seton Hall and a completely predictable road loss at Villanova. Providence lost on the road to Marquette, beat DePaul by five on the road, and then dropped a home game against St. John's on Tuesday.
As it is now February, everyone is increasingly aware that March looms. Neither team has exactly solidified its place in the tournament at this point. Both teams are looking at more away games than home ones down the stretch, and while the Big East offers more that the regular share of opportunities to get a good win, the possibility that you don't get any wins at all if you don't step up your game is also very real. Both of these teams will be desperate to come away with a good result on Saturday.
Providence is averaging 64.4 possessions per game in conference, which is even slower than their already glacial pace before Big East play. Their shooting has been below average from inside and outside the arc, leading to an EFG% of 47.6% in conference play. They combat this by being the best offensive rebounding team in the league, as well as the best free-throw shooting team and the best at getting to the line. They have turned the ball over on 18% of their possessions, good for 7th in the league.
When they have lost, it has been due to defense. Their D was very good outside of league play, but it has been 7th in the conference with an adjusted efficiency of 106.6. Their Achilles heel has been simple; they don't force turnovers or bad shots. While they do a good job on the glass, that has a lesser impact when teams aren't missing as much. Thanks mostly to Carson Desrosiers, they do block a ton of shots, and they're solid in not sending opponents to the line.
As was the case last time these two teams played, Providence is very tall, very experienced, and has a frightfully thin bench.
(NB: I've added a line showing what each player did when Xavier and Providence last player; you shouldn't have trouble finding it)
The player: 6'1", 165-pound guard Bryce Cotton
The numbers: 21.3/3.3/5.8 on .412/.347/.834 shooting
More numbers: 95.6% min%, 35.5% assist rate, 12-26 (46.1%) on threes in his last four games
Last time: 25/3/7 on 8-19/3-8/6-8 shooting, 1 steal
The words: Every so often in college basketball, a team relies on a guard to do just about everything. He's expected to play just about every minute, have the ball in his hands most of the time, and hold up his responsibilities on defense. Tu Holloway, Corey Fisher, Matthew Dellavedova... the list goes on. Bryce Cotton is in that same mold. He leads the team in scoring and assists and has really been shooting the basketball well over the last couple of weeks. He is the engine that makes this Providence team go, and it's in large part because of him that they're still in the top four of the league.
The player: 6'5", 205-pound guard Josh Fortune
The numbers: 6.6/2.7/2.1 on .382/.312/.650 shooting
More numbers: 25.6% TO rate, 13.8% usage rate
Last time: 7/3/4 on 3-7/1-4/0-3 shooting
The words: Fortune is probably not listed very high on many scouting reports, owing mostly to the fact that he doesn't shoot particularly well or particularly often. His value is mostly on the defensive end and in allowing Providence to go ahead and start five players. He can get hot from deep, though; he hit 3 threes against Boston College, 3 against Georgetown, and was 4-6 from beyond the arc on Tuesday against St. John's.
The player: 6'6", 215-pound forward LaDontae Henton
The numbers: 13.8/7.4/1.7 on .444/.357/.804 shooting
More numbers: 89.5% min%, 17.0% DReb%, 2.7% steal%
Last time: 23/11/3 on 8/15-3-6/4-7 shooting
The words: Henton is 20-28 from inside the arc in the last two weeks but only 6-23 from beyond it. He remains Providence's second-most reliable scorer in terms of being able to get his own shot, leads the team in steals, and rarely turns the ball over. Henton also has a high motor on the boards and is generally a difficult matchup at both ends for whoever draws the short straw on him.
The player: 6'9", 215-pound forward Tyler Harris
The numbers: 12.3/5.3/1.4 on .442/.339/.860 shooting
More numbers: 22.2% usage rate, 8.5% OReb%, 11.9% DReb%
Last time: 12/6/2 on 2-5/1-2/7-8 shooting, 1 block
The words: Harris is not unlike Isaiah Philmore in his commitment to the offensive glass, but he is very unlike Philmore in the fact that the defense has to respect him during the flow of play as well. A face-up four with ball skills to go with his aggressiveness on the boards, Harris can convert from all over and will punish teams with second-chance points if left unattended. Xavier pretty successfully held him in check last time out.
The player: 6'9", 245-pound center Kadeem Batts
The numbers: 12.2/7.7/1.2 on .407/.417/.750 shooting
More numbers: 24.2% usage rate, 13.2% OReb%, 17.5% DReb%, 5.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
Last time: 12/8/1 on 4-10/0-0/4-4 shooting, 1 steal, 3 blocks
The words: Batts - listed at 6'9", but visibily not - is one of the premeir rebounders in college basketball right now. His high effort and not inconsiderable girth have him in position to go after most boards, and he's a hard man to move once he has position. He battled Matt Stainbrook to a draw on the boards last time, and neither player scored particularly effectively. While he has a reasonable three-point percentage, he has only 12 attempts all season.
Seven-foot center Carson Desrosiers had 7 rebounds and 6 blocks last time these two teams played. That is in keeping with what he does, as his DReb% is 95th in the nation, and his block% is 6th. Remarkably, nobody else on the Friars got more than two minutes against Xavier. That was guard Ted Bancroft, who averages 6 minutes per game. Forward Lee Goldbrough averages 7 minutes per game, but neither player is an especially big part of the plan for the Friars.
-Who guards Bryce Cotton? Dee Davis did it fairly effectively for about 25 minutes last game, but the physical toll of chasing Cotton off of a never ending parade of screens just to have to play him face-up on the ball in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock wore on Davis, and Cotton began having his way later in the game. Nobody else who attempted to stop Cotton met with much more success, as his line attests. He is the straw that stirs the drink for Providence, and someone has to make life difficult for him for X.
-Will a third contributor step up? I could probably just cut and paste this one, because I think it's going to be the theme of the rest of the year for Xavier. Stainbrook and Christon can't win a game with merely good performances if they don't get some help. Unless one of those two plays an incredible game against a lot of defensive focus, Xavier is going to struggle to win. If Farr, Martin, or Dee Davis can make the defense respect them - or punish them for not doing so - things open up by a factor of ten for the Muskies.
-Is fatigue piling up for Providence? The Friars faced an athletic St. John's team on Tuesday and gave up 1.28 points per possession at home. Much has been made of how durable the players they've been suiting up have been, but everyone has a limit. If legs are starting to get a little tight for the Friars, this thing may yet fall apart on them. It will be interesting to see if Ed Cooley does anything to manage the miles he's putting on his top players tomorrow.
-Charge down shooters. Xavier has been the worst three-point defense in the conference to this point, and opponents are just bombing the Muskies into submission. Providence hit 8 threes to Xavier's 3 last time these teams played; if those numbers are a little closer, Xavier is playing for baskets late rather than sending the Friars to the line. The Muskies' defense has practically begged opponents to take open shots, and opponents have obliged; whether by better individual effort or a change in schemes, they have to do something to change things up.
-Get to the glass. Providence's defense has not been good during conference play, but the one cog in the machine that is still holding up is their defensive rebounding. If Xavier can get second chances off their misses while scoring at the same clip Providence's conference opponents have been, they have a chance to put up a lot of points. Obviously, that's halfway to a really good win.
-Play with urgency. "The rest of the season" is shortening at a frightful clip, and chances to make hay are dwindling. Xavier has looked like a baseball team going through its paces during Spring Training the last couple of times out, which is overtly unacceptable. Too many more listless performances from this squad and I'll be linking to NIT bracketologies again come Selection Sunday. The time to get it done is now; Xavier can't afford to take anything for granted at this point.