When you play in a major conference, there's a sense in which the non-conference season is just warm up for the main event. For the next 18 games plus the Big East tournament, Xavier will be facing the same nine teams they have for the past two years. Everyone has seen the cross-screen action, everyone knows not to turn their backs to the inbounder. They know James is a lefty and Jalen can be riled. Coach Mack said in his presser yesterday that there are no secrets in conference play. Xavier has ripped through a dozen straight wins; things are about to get significantly tougher.
First up is a trip to Villanova, where the Wildcats are somehow underrated. Both of their losses have been heavy - coming by an average of 17 points - but they were both away from home to teams easily in the top 5. They have 4 KenPom top 100 wins already and have slapped around a handful of lesser opponents as well. There's no shame in losing the two games Nova has dropped so far, and they remain worthy of considerable respect at the top of the Big East until someone in the conference roughs them up.
Did you know Nova shoots a ton of threes? They do; just less than half their shots come from distance. That's devastating when you're hitting them and less so when you're shooting 31%, which is what Nova is doing this year. Aside from that and an inability to get to the line, their offense is very good. They never turn the ball over, shoot over 60% from inside the arc, make their free throws, and do okay on the glass. They also share the basketball about as well as any team Xavier will play this year.
Their defense is also good. They concede the arc a little bit, but they force turnovers at an elite clip and hold teams to under 40% shooting from inside the arc. That's less down to blocked shots and more about just swarming the ball and making life in the paint difficult. They are also fairly solid at avoiding putting opponents on the line. Their one major weakness is defensive rebounding, where they rank 272nd in the nation currently. It doesn't take a genius to see how that correlates to what Xavier does on offense.
|Ryan Arcidiacono||POINT GUARD||Edmond Sumner|
|6'3", 195||Measurements||6'6", 185|
|I didn't think Arcidiacono merited conference POY honors last year, but he's putting up a darn good line this season. In addition to his obvious merits as a ball manager and scorer, he's also a fairly solid defender in terms of picking his spots to go for steals. He's a rock-solid veteran point that all but a very few teams in the nation would love to have.|
|Jalen Brunson||SHOOTING GUARD||Myles Davis|
|6'2", 199||Measurements||6'2", 188|
|Brunson would be the point guard if Arcidiacono hadn't already taken that spot. He was a huge recruit for Nova and has lived up to expectations so far this year. He distributes well, doesn't turn it over too much, and can score at all three levels. He's a problem.|
|Phil Booth||SMALL FORWARD||Remy Abell|
|6'3", 185||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|This is usually Kris Jenkins's spot, but he is nursing a sprained knee and probably won't start, so Booth gets the call. Booth's shooting has taken a big step backward this year, but he's still effective enough at distribution to merit plenty of touches while he shoots himself back into form.|
|Josh Hart||POWER FORWARD||Trevon Bluiett|
|6'5", 205||Measurements||6'6", 215|
|Hart is to Villanova what Bluiett is to Xavier, or vice versa if you prefer. He defends and gets to the offensive glass a bit better, but Tre is a better shooter and defensive rebounder. Hart does a little bit more of his work in the paint, but Trevon is a little less of a ball stopper. This is going to be a matchup to watch; both of these guys are stars.|
|Daniel Ochefu||CENTER||Jalen Reynolds|
|6'11", 245||Measurements||6'10", 238|
|Ochefu is a defense and rebounding type big man who has put in a lot of work on his offensive game. He's still at his most dangerous at a distance from the rim measured in inches, but he can hit the occasional face-up jumper if you don't make him do it over a hand. He's a great rebounder at both ends, but his primary value is in being the kind of rim protector that might actually not let Ed Sumner dunk over him.|
Kris Jenkins is a 6'6" wing who usually starts, but he is still nursing a sprained knee. He'll play, but my money has him coming off the bench. He's good for 10.2/3/1.5 on .375/.288/.840 shooting, though his threat level should be assessed in light of the fact that he was a 37% three-point shooter coming into this year. Freshman Mikal Bridges is a 6'7" tweener forward who flies to the glass on the offensive end. He gets 7.1/3.7/1.0 per game, but his primary value is on the defensive end, where he is disruptive both in terms of forcing turnovers and blocking shots at very high levels. The only other bench player to feature in every game is 6'8" forward Darryl Reynolds. His shots% is a stunningly low 4.4%; he's out there to clean the glass and protect the rim, and he does both fairly well.
-Does Xavier want to run? The Musketeers play at a much faster pace than Villanova prefers to, with Nova's tempo being 291st in the nation. The temptation would be for Xavier to try to leverage their athletic advantage both in the paint and in the back court to get out and go. Transition buckets might be there for the taking, but this feels like a high-risk strategy with a freshman point guard playing his first conference game at the gym of the reigning champs while matching up with last year's conference player of the year. Other than that, there aren't really any red flags on this one.
-Will Nova be hitting? This is in a sense the one question that will frame all the others. If the Wildcats shooting 31% from three, I think it will be a tight game. If they come out and make it rain on Xavier like they've done five times in five Big East matchups, things could get ugly. Xavier's defensive style is always going to allow for open looks from deep; this game might hinge on how Villanova answers that challenge.
-How do the bigs line up? Here are two facts: (1) Nova doesn't seem to have an answer for the way Xavier's big men hit the offensive glass, but (2) neither of Xavier's big men plays perimeter defense all that well. The question then becomes how Coach Mack tries to work those two facts into his game plan. If Farr and Reynolds are on the court together, Xavier will really concede the arc but should really have a monster advantage on the offensive glass. Is that trade off worth it? We'll find out what Coach Mack thinks tomorrow.
-Beast the glass. No matter who is on the floor for X, they have to win on the boards. Villanova will attempt and likely make a lot of threes, sometimes on two or three consecutive possessions. Keeping those from being 9-0 runs will be vital for Xavier, especially on the road, and second-chance points will be a huge key in that department.
-Keep Ed moving. For all the Nova back court is, it's not particularly athletic. Sumner, you may have noticed, is. Arcidiacono, Brunson, and Booth will have their work cut out to stay in front of Ed. If Xavier can get him in positions to catch with his defender chasing him off a screen instead of squared up in front of him, he'll have a much better chance of beating the first man off the bounce and getting into the middle. When that happens, Xavier's offense will be set up to break down a tough Villanova defense.
-Avoid the early hole. Xavier fans will recall getting trounced by Villanova by a total of 72 points; only one of those games has had a single-digit margin of victory. This is the kind of team that can get you behind early and never let you back into the game. The runs are going to come; Xavier needs to stay poised when that happens rather than rush to make up the gap and only compound things. This is the first of two monster games in 48 hours for X, but it feels like a chance to make a real statement of intent in league play.