How did we get here?
Xavier beat St. John’s 88-60 in a game that was close until Xavier outscored the Johnnies 55-31 in the second half. It was nothing so much as an announcement that Xavier was absolutely not taking the Big East tournament lightly. After the game, irate Red Storm players instigated a bit of handbags in the postgame handshake line because Sean O’Mara had the gall to not take a shot clock violation. One can assume it has been pointed out to them that one way to not get dunked on at the end of a 28 point loss would be not get blown out on your home court.
Providence needed overtime to get past Creighton in the next game. Neither team scored more than a point per possession and Providence was a wretched 36.9% from the floor. Kyron Cartwright did the damage for the Friars in overtime and Alpha Diallo led the team with 19 for the game. Creighton simply never got going, as Marcus Foster’s efficiency of 82 can attest. They now wait, probably comfortably, for the Selection Show.
What’s at stake?
For Xavier, next to nothing other than a shot at their first Big East conference tournament title. The Musketeers remained on the one line with a win over St. John’s, and a loss to Creighton wouldn’t figure to damage that too much. If Xavier beats the Bluejays it would take a complete brain malfunction (or another 20+ point loss to Nova) for the committee to drop them down a line.
Providence has their mental comfort at stake. The Friars should be in already, something they were happy to trumpet in their postgame presser. Should be in and a lock are two different things, though. If PC were to get destroyed by X in the semifinals, they would be feeling some trepidation come Sunday. Beating the #2/3 team in the nation would, obviously, alleviate that.
How much fight is Providence bringing to this? If you go solely by postgame comments, you’d think it was Chris Mack’s team that was fighting for a tournament berth. While Mack addressed what he perceived as unfair media coverage and praised his team for the tenacity they showed, Ed Cooley nearly dislocated his shoulder patting himself on the back and his team followed his lead. It will be interesting to see if that attitude affects the way the Friars approach the game.
Is Kaiser Gates back? The game against St. John’s was a tantalizing reminder of what Xavier can do when Gates is stretching defenses. The Musketeers scored 88 despite their post men only going 9-19 from the floor. Kaiser put the ball on the floor, shot 4-5 from deep, and got himself going with an offensive rebound. It’s hard to imagine Xavier losing a game in which Gates goes for 16 and something truly horrific doesn’t happen.
Can Xavier stay motivated? The one flaw that college basketball may have (and it brings me no joy to point this out) is that there is occasionally no actual import to the conference tournaments. Xavier already owns the Big East title, Xavier and Villanova are already one seeds, and the rest of the bubble teams are pretty comfortable. A good coach, of course, points out that people remember the tournament winner and that there are no bad trophies.
Win from inside. Not like in an inspiring, “win from within” kind of way, but by getting the ball close to the basket. Providence’s defense can be had in the middle, and Xavier has three dudes who can do it. Seankerique O’Jonter went 15-22 from inside the arc in the first game, and their 9-19 in the rematch was mitigated by going 6-7 from the line. Xavier has only hit 10 threes in the two games these teams have played; the points are coming from the paint and the line.
Crush the glass. X outscored Providence 32-12 in second-chance points and had an astonishing 46.5% OReb% in the regular season games. If you haven’t picked up the thread just yet, I think Xavier’s bigs are going to be a big part of this game’s outcome. There’s nobody on Providence who can battle the waves of muscle X boasts in the middle. The Muskies should be eating glass tomorrow.
Kaiser Gates. In Xavier’s loss to Providence, Kaiser played 23 minutes and posted an ORtg of 0, a feat I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. In the home leg, his 6 points on 2-4/0-1/2-2 shooting didn’t light the world on fire, but it allowed him to stay on the floor without Xavier having to play four-on-five on the offensive end. If he’s serviceable, he gives X a dude who can help defend the four guys between 6’7” and 6’9” that Providence starts. If he does what he did against St. John’s, the Friars are going to need something special to stay in this game.