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

It's easy to look past games like this when the opponent is as bad as St. John's. As the game in New York proved though, this is anything but guaranteed win.

The long lost Manning brother in action.
The long lost Manning brother in action.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be the start of a new era for the St. John's Red Storm. Hometown boy Chris Mullin was coming home and he was going to bring with him a raft of playing knowledge and, more importantly, recruiting nous that would cause the New York high schoolers to swoon. Mulling was going to resurrect a program that Steve Lavin (what could he know about basketball?) had only taken to the NCAA tournament twice in the last five years. Yes, this was the beginning of the turnaround for SJU.

Only, it hasn't been. As Xavier and their locally based coach, who has the added benefit of actual coaching experience, have stormed out to a 19-2 start and the number six spot in each poll, St. John's has become the worst team in the KenPom Era of the Big East. Ranked 252nd in the KenPom and riding an impressive 12 game losing streak, the Red Storm are genuinely putrid. Major recruit Marcus Lovett has missed every game, the only player (yes, one) with an offensive rating over 100 is hurt, and Mullin is so incredibly out of his depth that he's been photographed multiple times simply sitting on the scorer's table and watching the game go by.

Team Fingerprint:

There are 326 offenses in the nation that are better than St. John's. Good news though, Red Storm fans, that means 24 are worse! Yankuba Sima was their best offensive player with an astounding offensive efficiency of 100.1, and he's hurt for this game. No other Red Storm player is even average. To give an idea of how bad that is, imagine that each of the 351 division one teams has 10 players. If that is the case, no St. John's player is in the top 1755 offensively. I don't intend to pile on, but SJU doesn't do anything well offensively. Absolutely nothing. This team somehow scored 66 and managed an in game efficiency of 89.6 against Xavier the first time the teams met.

Defensively things are better, or at least they were until Sima got hurt. The Red Storm block 16.3% of their opponents shot attempts, first in the nation. Thanks to Kassoum Yawke, they haven't dropped off much there. St. John's also forces turnovers on 20% of possessions, perhaps thinking a layup in transition would be the one offensive thing even they can't botch. If SJU doesn't block the shot or get a steal though, they get destroyed from deep (36.2%) or on the offensive glass (30.5%). They are almost the very essence of an all or nothing half court defense.

Starters:

Starting matchups
Felix Balamou Point Guard Edmond Sumner
Senior Class Freshman
6'4", 205 Measurements 6'6", 183
6.9/3.8/2.4 Game Line 10.4/3.3/3.3
.387/.200/.706 Shooting Line .396/.327/.695
This should be Marcus LoVett, a 4* PG recruit that Coach Mullin was counting on for good minutes, but he has been ruled ineligible this year by the NCAA. Instead St. John's is going by a committee of not actual point guards and Balamou's number is up. He turns the ball over a lot and isn't really even an average shooter from anywhere on the floor. Other than that he's a great fit.
Federico Mussini Shooting Guard Myles Davis
Freshman Class Junior
6'1", 160 Measurements 6'2", 188
12.5/2.8/2.8 Game Line 11.0/3.3/3.7
.364/.333/.873 Shooting Line .406/.375/.891
The Mediterranean Eli Manning is not the most efficient player on the floor, but he'll definitely put in a shift. His distribution numbers aren't great and he turns the ball over too much to work as a pure point. He's a fearless shooter with a good stroke from deep, and he can get hot and rip off a scoring run on his own if left unattended. He's also a fairly solid defender, especially for a freshman.
Durand Johnson Small Forward Remy Abell
Senior Class Senior
6'6", 210 Measurements 6'4", 185
12.1/4.3/1.5 Game Line 6.2/1.5/1.9
.373/.315/.769 Shooting Line .394/.356/.733
There's probably something this guy loves more than taking bad jump shots, but I don't know what it could be. He spends a lot of the game lingering in the 15-21 foot range handing out rebounds. When he's not doing that, he's a fairly good defender. He doesn't get back enough possessions on defense to make up for what he gives away on offense.
Ron Mvouika Power Forward Trevon Bluiett
Senior Class Sophomore
6'6", 210 Measurements 6'6", 215
8.9/4.2/1.8 Game Line 15.4/6.6/2.2
.414/.425/.667 Shooting Line .427/.387/.823
Mvouika is hands-down the best outside shooter on the team. He's actually just the team's best offensive player, with decent assist and turnover rates to go with his jumper. He'll hold his own on the boards but rarely dominates.
Kassoum Yakwe Center Jalen Reynolds
Freshman Class Junior
6'7", 205 Measurements 6'10", 238
5.8/5.0/0.4 Game Line 9.7/6.7/0.7
.369/.000/.500 Shooting Line .524/.400/.662
Yakwe is not an offensive threat in any way. He's bad near the rim and gets worse as he goes farther out. He is a fairly solid rebounder and does a decent job defensively in the paint for a man his size.

Reserves:

Christian Jones is a 6'7" forward who had been starting until very recently and figures to get good minutes off the bench. He's a decent rebounder who can score a little bit in the paint; his game line is 7.5/5.2/1.4. Amir Alibegovic is another big man who will come off the pine, but he operates more as a stretch big. He doesn't mix it up inside much but he has launched 56 threes despite making just 28.6% of them. Malik Ellison is the closest thing the team has to a reserve guard. A 6'6" freshman, he'll get 18 or so minutes per game all around the perimeter. His EFG% of 35.4% and TO rate of 28% add up to a lot of empty possessions for the Johnnies. Mullin has used five starting lineups in conference play, so don't be surprised to see one or more of these guys out there for the opening tip.

Three keys:

-Defend patiently. St. John's shoots a ton of jump shots in lieu of ever really getting to the rim. They're pretty bad at it, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that they hit a hot streak. When that happens, there's no need to panic. If Xavier stays disciplined and remains content to watch them shoot, rebounds will soon be coming off the rim in bulk again.

-Protect the ball. One thing the Red Storm does do pretty well is force turnovers. If they can't do that, their defense is going to struggle all night. As long as Xavier is making smart plays and not giving away possessions, they'll be able to get the ball where they need it to be eventually.

-Bury it early. I'm sure they don't come into the game expecting to lose, but the St. John's players aren't stupid, either. They know that a big deficit on the road likely means that they're dead and buried. The longer Xavier lets them linger, the more hope they have that this is the game they've been waiting for to break that duck. There's plenty of time for showboating if/when the game is in hand, but the Muskies need to be all business early.