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Xavier v. St. John's: Preview, matchups, and keys to the game

Xavier heads to the Big Apple to take on a St. John's team that is barely a shadow of the program's past glories.

Yankuba Sima in action. St. John's lost to Incarnate 22.
Yankuba Sima in action. St. John's lost to Incarnate 22.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Remember how Xavier left the Atlantic 10 to get away from the consistent RPI/KenPom/morale suck that was playing the Fordhams of the world? If you still have post-traumatic symptoms from those games where a 20-point road win dropped Xavier's computer rankings, you may want to look away tonight, because the Musketeers are taking on a sincerely bad St. John's team at Carnesecca Arena tonight.

St. John's losses this year include Incarnate Word, NJIT, and yes, Fordham, and none of those three games was particularly close. The lone feather in the Red Storm's cap at this point in the year is a 12-point win over Syracuse, a result as surprising as it is hilarious. They come into this game with an 0-2 record in conference play, struggling to bed in a new coach, a new roster, and new expectations. I don't think this program will stay down forever, but there's no debating the fact that this team is down this year.

Team fingerprint:

St. John's is first in the nation in defensive block%, turning away 17.1% of their opponents' two-point attempts. I hope that stat was fun for you, because it's downhill from there. They're above average at two-point defense, but their three-point defense has been fairly poor. They don't force turnovers or make steals, they don't protect the glass, and they send opponents to the line at an above-average clip. Basically if they're not blocking your shot, you've got pretty good odds.

The offense is even worse. Much worse, in fact. They get to the line at a rate just a tick above average. Their two-point, three-point, and free throw shooting percentages are all between 290th and 315th in the country, leaving them with an EFG% of 45%, 311th. They turn the ball over like they have to run extra sprints in practice if they don't. Only seven teams commit more live ball turnovers than the Johnnies doe. They couple this all with subpar offensive rebounding; the whole thing adds up to a team that ranks 315th in offensive efficiency.


Starting matchups
Felix Balamou POINT GUARD Myles Davis
Senior Class Junior
6'4", 205 Measurements 6'2", 188
.384/.000/.727 Game Line 10.4/3.2/3.3
8.0/4.6/3.3 Shooting Line .402/.387/.939
The highest usage rate on the team goes to a guy with an ORtg of 86.4. He's actually a fairly effective distributor, but his shooting numbers are bad and he turns the ball over more than you'd like to see out of a point. Balamou is a decent defender and a good rebounder for a guard, but his offensive shortcomings are fairly stark.
Federico Mussini SHOOTING GUARD Remy Abell
Freshman Class Senior
6'1", 155 Measurements 6'4", 185
12.7/2.9/2.5 Game Line 7.9/1.5/2.4
.377/.323/.837 Shooting Line .440/.382/.780
Mussini is an interesting player. Right now he turns the ball over too much and has an EFG% of 44.6%, but he has range on top of range and is trying to do a lot on a team that collectively does very little. Color me intrigued; I think he's going to grow into a big time shooter.
Ron Mvouika SMALL FORWARD Trevon Bluiett
Senior Class Sophomore
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'6", 215
7.9/3.9/1.5 Game Line 14.3/7.1/2.0
.414/.395/.667 Shooting Line .411/.405/.756
The Missouri State transfer is the team's most efficient three-point shooter but, having hit just 17 on the year, he's by no means prolific. He's 16-41 inside the arc against D1 competition, which obviously isn't good. Couple that with a TO rate pushing 25% and 4.4 fouls per 40 minutes and you're not looking at an effective player at either end of the floor.
Christian Jones POWER FORWARD Jalen Reynolds
Junior Class Junior
6'7", 235 Measurements 6'10", 238
7.9/5.9/1.5 Game Line 10.1/6.2/0.7
.435/.000/.568 Shooting Line .535/.667/.680
While not the shot blocker that Sima is (see below for more!), Jones is decently effective in that department in his own right. Beyond that he's a very inefficient offensive player both in shooting and ball security, a mediocre defensive rebounder, and a non-entity on the offensive glass. If X goes with the double post for long stretches, it's not clear that Jones can hang.
Yankuba Sima CENTER James Farr
Freshman Class Senior
6'11", 205 Measurements 6'10", 244
9.0/6.9/1.3 Game Line 10.5/8.6/0.4
.523/.500/.400 Shooting Line .550/.000/.730
Sima is not a highly effective offensive player at this point, but the tools are there. He gets to the offensive glass well and doesn't turn the ball over, and he can score from the post. On defense, the dude is a shot-blocking machine. He's 16th in the nation with an 11.7% block rate. This drags him off the glass a bit, but Coach Mullin is clearly okay with the tradeoff.


The first is 6'6" senior wing Durand Johnson, who started the team's first 13 games before being repurposed as a bench scorer. Despite a shooting line of .373/.314/.740, he comes into the game looking to lift. His high-volume approach nets him 11.5 PPG. Joining him as a former starter off the bench is 6'6" wing Malik Ellison. Ellison is averaging 6.9/2.6/1.3 and is still coming back from the foot injury that cost him 7 games and his starting spot. He's shooting .300/.235/.645 on the year due to a tendency to settle for long jumpers, but he's much more effective when attacking the rim.

Nondescript big men Kassim Yakwe and Amir Alibegovic round out the bench. Yakwe is a slightly better offensive rebounder, Alibegovic is a slightly better shooter but has real turnover problems. Alibegovic likes to step out and shoot the three, but he's only hitting 31.3% of his attempts on the year.

Three questions:

-How much Larry do we see? LAJ did okay against Butler in a game that turned into a walkover late. With Edmond Sumner still out, will Coach Mack try to build on that or will he continue to let Myles Davis take the reins at the point? The answer here - and how Larry responds to it - could really clue us in on Larry's future role with the team.

-Is Tre fading? Bluiett started the year like gang busters, but he's 11 of his last 32 (34.3%) from inside the arc and 6 of his last 26 (23%) from deep over the course of 5 games. Bluiett got less effective as the year wore on last season and - for all the evidence that he has reshaped his body for this year - is inarguably in a slump right now. Is this a blip on the radar or the repeat of a trend? You'd like to see Trevon put up a couple of solid games here to get back on the right track.

-Was that the new Remy or a one-game wonder? Obviously I don't think Abell will score 21 a game and post an ORtg of over 200 every time out from here forward, but seeing him get a few baskets was awesome for Xavier fans. Has he broken out of his offensive slump, or was that just him rising to the occasion with a top-ten team in the building and Ed in a different building? If he can force teams to account for him on the offensive end, Xavier's offense becomes even more of a machine.

Three keys:

-Keep the crowd out of it. There's no question Xavier is the better team here, but there's also no question that weird things can happen on the road in conference play. Better teams lose to worse teams all the time, especially when the worse team is hosting and can really get a boost from a good environment. If Xavier can come out early and remove hope from the fans, St. John's won't have an arena full of 5,602 (assuming they sell out) New Yorkers urging them on.

-Crash the glass. About the only thing the Johnnies do well on defense is block shots. One natural consequence of chasing blocks, though, is surrendering defensive rebounding position. Sima et al. are going to return their share of attempts, but the shots that do reach the rim should have a pretty good chance of bouncing to Muskies if Xavier commits bodies to the boards.

-Take care of business. Remember how Xavier sleepwalked through the NKU game? The opposite of that. This should be the kind of game where Myles ends up watching the last five minutes and Tim Stainbrook tries to reprise his Mutumbo act from the Butler game. Getting to that point requires doing the work to build an insurmountable lead; I suspect X is mature enough to do just that.