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Xavier Musketeers v. UConn Huskies: preview, matchups, keys to the game

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Future and former Big East member UConn gets a preview of their new old home when they take on X in Charleston with a bid to the final on the line.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier fed it to Towson in their first game in Charleston, making a third of their season's tally of threes in one game as the floodgates opened and the Tigers were swept away by a final of 73-51. The shots fell late, but Xavier's defense was locked in the whole way, holding Towson to .77 points per possession and not allowing a single Tiger to put up an ORtg over 90.

UConn took on Buffalo in a battle of mid-majors for their opener, breaking a halftime tie by outscoring the Bulls 24-15 in the ensuing 10 minutes. Brendan Adams dropped 20 off the bench on just 6 shots as the Huskies battled through 17 turnovers to take a 79-68 win.

Team fingerprint

Boy howdy do these guys like to play fast. They're 51st overall in tempo and 23rd in average offensive possession length at just under 15 seconds. Their offense is hamstrung a bit by their inability to shoot, posting a mediocre (though comparatively sensational) 34% from deep and a sincerely poor 45% from inside the arc. They are solid on the offensive glass and good at getting to the line and protecting the ball, ranking just outside the top 50 in each. Their total offensive output comes to an ORtg of 103.9, 73rd in the nation.

Defensively, they're the exact opposite. They force bad shots - ranking 53rd in the nation in holding an EFG% of 43.3%. They struggle elsewhere, being just outside the top 200 in defensive rebound, forcing turnovers, and keeping opponents off the line. Their defense is 75th in the nation with an adjusted efficiency of 93.5.

Personnel

(We will get back to the matchup grid when work schedules and game schedules are not quite so compact. Until then, please enjoy narrative style).

Starters

6-0 junior Alterique Gilbert is who KenPom profiles as the point guard but he and 6-2 senior Christian Vital will do equal amounts of offensive initiation. Gilbert is an absolute train wreck shooting the ball right now to the tune of 19% behind the arc and only 25% inside it. That comes on a high shots percentage of 24.2%. Vital can shoot, is nails at the line, and hits the defensive glass like he is six inches taller. Speaking of shooting, 6-9 junior Tyler Polley loves to. He’s 10-20 behind the arc so far this year and has racked up a 129.6 offensive rating. He doesn’t use the ball a lot and he doesn’t rebound, but he’s not to be walked away from on the arc.

Shot swatting 6-9 freshman Akok Akok is also a respectable 3-8 from deep, but he does his damage in throwing almost 10% of the shots he faces. He’s on the floor nearly 75% of the time because he blocks those shots while also only averaging 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes. Finally, 6-11 junior Josh Carlton is the focal point of the UConn offense. No one will use the ball more than Carlton but, at least to start the season, he’s not always using it well. Carlton turns the ball over 24% of the time he touches it, but he also shoots 50% inside the arc. Carlton is an amazing rebounder who also blocks 8% of the shots that go up when he’s on the floor. Akok and Carlton are why UConn is 16th in the nation in block rate.

Reserves

The Huskies bring firepower off the bench. Brendan Adams went for 20 on just six shots last night and has a season offensive efficiency of 133.2. Sidney Wilson plays the swing and is a decent rebounder and defender. He’s not much for the offensive end. Look for Dan Hurley to use Isaiah Whaley or Jalen Gaffney depending on how the game goes. Whaley is a 6-8 junior and plays more against bigger teams. Thus far, Gaffney is 6-2 and spells the guards against teams (Buffalo, for instance) deeper there. James Bouknight drives drunk, causes crashes, and runs from the cops.

Three questions

-Can Xavier crack UConn's shot blockers? UConn has three legitimate shot blockers in the middle, including Akok Akok and Josh Carlton each comfortably inside the top 100 in the nation in block%. The Huskies as a team have a block% on 16.9%, 17th in the country. Xavier has to score inside the arc to win; shots that end up in the second row are worth zero points.

-What is Q's role? On the one hand, he posted an ORtg of 104 last night and has 9 assists to 2 turnovers in the last two games. On the other hand, he went for 4/0/3 with a usage rate of 11% last night. He had a couple of dudes miss layups on him that could have perked up his line a bit, but I don't think it's a coincidence that Xavier's offense has looked better as Q's game has smoothed out. I wish I had numbers to back it up, but he looks like he's doing well and the team is following him on the rise.

-Is Xavier a defensive team now? I guess so. The offense took a minute to hit a stride against Towson, but the defense locked down the whole time. The turnover numbers weren't there, but they choked out shots and won on the glass. Even when the offense got up through the gears late on, the defensive effort and output stayed high.

Three keys

-Win the freebie war. You heard in this morning's podcast (right!?) that Xavier can win with inefficient offense if they can effectively capture extra possessions that their opponents don't get. The Muskies do that by forcing turnovers and smothering the defensive glass, depriving their opponents opportunities to shoot and score. UConn is good at ball security but not exceptional on the offensive glass, and they don't protect their own glass or force turnovers on the defensive end. Xavier has advantages they can leverage into free possessions and ultimately extra points.

-Take the good looks. The Muskies shouldn't be hunting shots from behind the arc, but when they play inside out, they get really clean shots on catch and shoot opportunities. Before Leighton Schrand and friends came in and started making it rain, Xavier was 7-19 from behind the arc. That's basically 37% success and nearly two-thirds of the shots coming from inside the arc. I'll take that all day.

-Control the pace. UConn gets out and runs, and they do it very effectively. They don't have a team that is structured for half-court ball, and they struggle to execute in those situations. Xavier can win a half-court game against these dudes; the question of whether they can force one is less clear.