It has been two years since Xavier has had a home game this big. Then, the Muskies were #5 in the nation, hosting #1 Nova. Then Nova had a two-game lead in the conference with just four games to play. While Xavier bested the Wildcats then, the Seton Hall team that was a thorn in X’s side that year knocked them off four days later, ending the Muskies’ shot at both a one seed and a Big East title.
This year feels different. Xavier leads the conference by a game and a half over Nova. Seton Hall is already in the rear view, having been vanquished twice. Villanova is scuffling for the first time since Xavier joined the Big East, and - with at Georgetown, Providence, and at DePaul remaining on the schedule - the conference is suddenly there for the taking for the Muskies.
The only thing between them and the title is the most dominant team in the league, fresh off of four consecutive titles of their own. They won’t go gentle into that good night.
They can really score. They lead the nation in EFG%, thanks to shooting 60% from inside the arc and 40% behind it. They take 45% of their shots from deep; their game plan is more or less a non-stop barrage of threes from all positions. They also rarely turn the ball over. They’re not much for rebounding and they’re miserable at getting to the line. Their whole strategy is to get their one shot and nail it, and darned if they aren’t really good at doing just that.
Defense has been a bit of a weak point for Nova this year, relatively speaking. They’re 41st in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, which obviously isn’t horrible. In conference play, they’ve struggled to lock down the defensive glass and have been a bit susceptible from deep. They’re still tough inside the arc, though, and they’ll force about an average number of turnovers. Their defense isn’t a crisis, it’s just kind of... okay.
|Jalen Brunson||Point Guard||Quentin Goodin|
|6'2", 190||Measurements||6'4", 190|
|Nothing much has changed from the first game; he's still dangerous at all three levels. What's remarkable about Brunson is how well he shoots from three considering he dribbles into a lot of his shots from deep; only 62% of his threes are assisted. He's in a bit of a slump from behind the arc right now, and he had 7 turnovers against Providence. Take that for what it's worth.|
|Donte Divincenzo||Shooting Guard||J.P. Macura|
|6'5", 205||Measurements||6'5", 203|
|Divincenzo goes from being the team's sixth man to a starter thanks to a broken hand on Phil Booth. He's tall and freakishly athletic and, like Brunson, can score at the rim, in the mid-range, or from behind the arc. In addition to being able to score, he's a tough defender who does so without fouling.|
|Mikal Bridges||Small Forward||Trevon Bluiett|
|6'7", 210||Measurements||6'6", 202|
|Every bit the scorer Brunson is and a better defender than Dvincenzo, Bridges is a legitimate star. He's not great in the mid-range, but he's a handful around the rim and will stick threes off the catch if left unattended. He is really a top-notch defender both on the ball and in help. To cap it all off, he never turns the ball over and has hit 88% of his free throws in conference play.|
|Eric Paschall||Power Forward||Naji Marshall|
|6'7", 250||Measurements||6'7", 218|
|Paschall was 1-26 from deep in non-conference play; he is 17-32 in Big East games. That 53% mark from deep is first in the league, as is his 74% from inside the arc. He's averaging 12.4 PPG in the Big East, up from 8 in the non-conference. I don't know why he's feasting on the league, but he is. He's also a tough defender thanks to being built like a fridge but being super athletic.|
|Omari Spellman||Center||Kerem Kanter|
|6'8", 255||Measurements||6'10", 240|
|Spellman is honestly Villanova's only defensiver rebounder of note, pulling down 22% of opponents' misses. He's a nightmare matchup for traditional bigs, as he can and will step out and drill jumpers. Lest you think he's a one-trick pony on offense, he also shoots almost 75% from around the rim. He's a good offensive rebounder and second in the league in block percentage.|
Collin Gillespie is a freshman guard who is shooting .483/.422/.667 on the year. He sat out a good chunk of the season with a broken hand, but he has stepped into a bigger role with Phil Booth out and is performing admirably.
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree is a freshman forward worth 3.6/2.7/0.1 per game. He’s a good rebounder on both ends and is 23-29 from the floor in conference play. Jermaine Samuels might also get some run on the wing. He’s a good rebounder who is struggling to find his feet on the offensive end.
- How does Eric Paschall play? Coming off a two-game break due to a concussion, Paschall didn’t assert himself in the Nova loss to Providence. He has the best ORtg in the conference, and he had an ultra-efficient 14/2/4 against X in the away leg. He’s Villanova’s glue guy; if he’s a step off the pace, the whole team suffers.
- Who is “due”? John Rothstein tweeted Friday that a slumping Jalen Brunson was “due” to break out against Xavier after posting a 2-19 mark from deep in his last three games. If that’s the case, Xavier’s own Kaiser Gates - on a 3-23 in his own right - should be counted on to rain righteous judgment on Villanova from behind the arc. I think it’s more likely that guys who are good at something don’t do it badly for too long, and both of these guys will start hitting again because they’re good, not because they’re due.
- Is Phil Booth’s absence decisive? When Xavier visited Nova, Booth dropped a career-high 21 and drilled 5 threes. Now the 11th-year junior is out with a broken hand, and Jay Wright is turning to Collin Gillespie, a mini Ryan Arcidiacono still growing into the media adulation inevitably headed his way. Gillespie is a good player, but Phil Booth gave Nova a dimension they lack with him on the pine.
- Paul Scruggs off the bench. Xavier gave up 18 points off of 15 turnovers at Villanova, and Paul Scruggs had 5 of those turnovers in 20 minutes of play. His confidence hit an absolute nadir that day, but it seems to have swung all the way back around of late. Nova doesn’t have a reserve guard who has the swaggering athleticism Paul does; his play could well be key for Xavier.
- Home Tre advantage. Everyone loves playing at home (unless they just thrive on being hated, like JP does), but Tre especially has been a different guys under the lights at Cintas. His respectable 44.3% mark from deep on the year jumps to 49.6% at home, and he absolutely scalded Seton Hall last time out. If he comes out hitting from the word go again today, watch out.
- Post presence. Villanova’s defense inside the arc remains solid, but they ride freshman big man Omari Spellman like Seattle Slew at center. He’s averaging 33 minutes a game in February because the Wildcats just don’t have anyone else; when he’s out, 6’7” Eric Paschall plays center. Foul trouble for Spellman would hamper Nova, but even beyond that, Xavier needs to make him work on the defensive end every time down. Post touches for Xavier’s bigs will open up options for the perimeter guys and should lead to heavy legs for Spellman in winning time.