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Xavier v. Villanova: Preview and keys to the game

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Two of the top 15 teams in the nation meet up tonight in Philly.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Butler Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

These are the two premier programs in the Big East. One just won the national championship in one of the better games in recent memory after dominating a conference for what seems like forever. The other is the up and comer in that conference, a perennial Sweet 16 team with the chops to consider itself a Final Four contender. As the saying goes though, the be the best you have to beat the best. That’s where Xavier has fallen against Villanova, racking up a truly uninspiring 1-6 record against the Wildcats since joining the Big East.

This year looks to be more of the same. Nova is 15-1 and has won all of its games played in an actual basketball arena. Xavier is 13-2 and has only lost two road games in early December. The Wildcats just mopped the floor with Marquette, Xavier just pounded St. John’s. Yes, Butler and Creighton look good this year and fancy themselves contenders, but these are the two teams that everyone looks toward when they think of the Big East come March.

Team Fingerprint:

Villanova’s defense is 31st in the nation, which only looks mediocre when compared with their offense. The only weaknesses that jump out are a relative lack of turnovers forced, and a susceptibility to let opponents shoot well inside. The Wildcats have the lowest free throw per field goal attempt rate in the nation, they close off the offensive glass, and only 11 teams in the nation hold teams to a lower shooting percentage behind the arc.

On offense no team in the nation compares. The Wildcats have the most efficient offense, they shoot 60% inside the arc, 39% behind it, and 78% from the line. They never get blocked, the turn the ball over on only 16% of their possessions, and 46% of their attempts come from deep. Only their offensive rebounding isn’t elite, but that could be because misses take them by surprise. In short, there is nothing that they don’t do very, very well when they have the ball.

Starters:

Jalen Brunson runs the show for the Wildcats. He’s getting 14.6 points per game on 54% shooting and 45% behind the arc. His turnover rate of only 16.6% is excellent for a point guard running such a prolific offense. Josh Hart goes a long way toward helping with that. His assist rate is 22.9% and his turnover rate is somehow only 10% despite having a usage rate 26%. Not down with tempo free? Hart gets 19.8/6.8/3.7 on 55% shooting. He’s not bad. Neither is Kris Jenkins. On this team, the guy that stroked the championship winner settles for being fourth on the team in usage rate. Jenkins is still a big body swing man who gets his 13.8 on 42.5% from deep and, like everyone on Nova, hammers the defensive glass.

Someone has to do the dirty work for those guys, and that is partly 6-7 forward Mikal Bridges. Bridges is the fifth most efficient player in the nation but has to settle for whatever offense is left over. His effective field goal percentage is 69% and he shoots 41% from deep. Darryl Reynolds does the rest of the dirty work. He’s shooting a casual 75% from the floor and represents Villanova’s only real threat on the offensive glass.

Reserves:

Nova goes two deep off the bench. That’s not an exaggeration, after the two listed here, the next Villanova bench option plays roughly as much as Tim Stainbrook. Donte DiVencenzo backs up the guards. He shoots a paltry 34% from deep and his offensive efficiency is second worst on the team at 107.5. He’s talented enough that on any other team he’d feature, here he waits. Eric Paschall is the backup big man at 6-7. The 65% he shoots from the line is worst on the team by some margin. Paschall is a shot blocker and rebounder who is out there mostly to do those things. Any offense he provides is a bonus.

Three questions:

- #Myleswatch: He’s back! That fairly well answers that part of the question, but what should fans expect from him?

- Can Xavier get on the glass? The Musketeers thrive on keeping possessions alive on the offensive glass. Villanova holds opponents to grabbing only 25% of their misses. Something will have to give here and, frankly, it’s going to have to be the Wildcats for Xavier to have a chance.

- How will Coach Mack counter? Nova can shoot and they love to do it. You know that guy in your open run who pulls up on the fast break and jacks a three? That’s Villanova. Somehow, Xavier has to figure out how not to get buried under an avalanche of threes. Sitting in the packline and daring the Wildcats to beat them from deep is a recipe for complete disaster here.

Three keys:

- Run: Villanova is not deep at all. They have seven rotation players and they play very slowly to protect them. St. John’s just found out what happens when you try to speed up the Musketeers. Xavier goes deep (now) and they have the horses to go very fast. Making Nova run with them could be a way to win.

- Pound: Xavier also has a size advantage on Villanova. The Wildcats have Darryl Reynolds at 6-9, but no one else really any taller than Trevon Bluiett. Rashid Gaston, Sean O’Mara, and Tyrique Jones are all going to have some height to work with. Look for the Musketeers to feed especially O’Mara early to see if he can get his back to the basket game going.

- Weather the storm: In looking at the games that these teams have played since X joined the Big East it was readily apparent how often the Musketeers got buried and couldn’t come back. There is going to be a stretch in this game where Edmond Sumner turns the ball over and Nova bangs in a couple of threes. Xavier can’t let themselves start to slip, or this will be a rout before you can blink.