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Xavier v. Providence: preview, matchups, keys to the game

Xavier needs wins in the worst way to avoid having to take 4 in 4 at MSG. Providence is in the same situation. Both teams are desperate for a win here.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Xavier
There may or may not be a good coach in this picture. Who's to say?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

We ran a piece yesterday about what it would take for Xavier to grab a first round by in the Big East tournament. Basically, the Muskies have to got 4-2 and hope for some other results to break their way. It's not the most likely outcome, but X has twice come back from under 5% win probability to win games this year, so I'm not counting them out at this point.

Providence is in much the same boat. Two separate three-game losing streaks in Big East play have them sitting at 4-8 with plenty of work left to do to get to any sort of favorable position. They were within sight of the surface just three weeks ago, but they've since dropped 4 of 5 and are once more in danger of going under for good.

Whoever loses this game will take sole possession of last place in the league.

Team fingerprint

Providence is the worst offensive team in the league, more than 20 points behind Big East leader Villanova in conference play. They can't shoot at all, ranking 10th in the league in two-point and three-point percentage. Their offensive rebounding is very good, and they get to the line well but convert at the 9th-best rate in the Big East.

Their defense is tops in the league, thanks mostly to being able to force turnovers on more than 22% of opponents' possessions. They also rank 3rd in the league in defensive EFG%; getting and making shots is tough sledding against these guys. If you can get one up, though, opportunities abound. They're 9th in the league in DReb% and 7th in defensive free throw rate. Expect a lot of zone against X.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Makai Ashton-Langford Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Sophomore Class Sophomore
6'3", 185 Measurements 6'3", 200
4.1/1.7/2.5 Game line 12.6/5/3.3
35.0/28.9/61.1 Shooting line 48.5/43.2/79.3
Ashton-Langford isn't out there for his offense. His assist rate is good, but he doesn't take care of the ball terribly well. He is a solid on the ball defender, but that's generally undone by his offensive struggles.
AJ Reeves Shooting Guard Kyle Castlin
Freshman Class Senior
6'6", 210 Measurements 6'4", 193
10.8/2.3/0.6 Game line 4.6/3.5/0.8
44.4/41.6/71 Shooting line 39.4/27.9/73.2
Reeves missed a large portion of the season, but he's been efficient since his return. He's a spot up shooting who doesn't really rebound or pass the ball much at all.
Alpha Diallo Small Forward Naji Marshall
Junior Class Sophomore
6'7", 213 Measurements 6'7", 222
16.8/8.3/3.2 Game line 13.8/6.7/3.4
42.2/36.1/71.7 Shooting line 40.3/26.4/73.5
Diallo is Providence's best player and the one their offense will run through. He's an excellent rebounder who can also step outside and do some damage.
Isaiah Jackson Power Forward Tyrique Jones
Senior Class Junior
6'6", 225 Measurements 6'9" 235
9.0/4.8/2.2 Game line 11/7.2/0.7
36.6/29.5/79.2 Shooting line 60.5/0/66.3
Jackson is not at all an efficient scorer and his size tends to limit his rebounding ability at his position. He has quick hands on defense and takes good care of the ball.
Nate Watson Center Zach Hankins
Sophomore Class Senior
6'10", 250 Measurements 6'11", 245
11.2/5.3/0.4 Game line 9.8/4.9/0.8
57.5/0.0/67.9 Shooting line 69/0/58.5
Watson gave Xavier fits in the first matchup, blocking three shots and scoring efficiently. That's generally his game and he knows it and sticks by it.

Off the bench Providence will bring five guys who average double digit minutes. First, if he doesn’t start, will be David Duke. Duke splits time at the point with Ashton-Langford regardless of which of them starts the game. Duke shoots the ball far better and takes better care of it, but also averages nearly five fouls per game. Maliek White is the Friars leading bench scorer at 6.0 points per game. He’s the safest with the ball of any Providence guard and can make himself a real nuisance in the passing lanes. Kalif Young has started 14 games this year and will spell both Jackson and Watson in the post. He’s a far better rebounder than Jackson due to being 6-9, but he is also extremely foul prone. Drew Edwards will see some minutes as a spot up shooter who has taken more threes than two this year, and Jimmy Nichols rounds off the bench group as an offensive rebounding specialist with a penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team.

Three questions

-Can Paul Scruggs crack the zone? Xavier's best offensive player for much of the year sat large portions of the Creighton game as their 1-3-1 pushed him into uncharacteristic turnover problems. Against the top defense in the league, the Muskies will need him to be on his game. If he is passing to the wrong team or dribbling into blind alleys, this gets ugly.

-Is Eli Harden part of Xavier's best defense? The Muskies had their defensive magnum opus against Creighton, holding a top-ten offense to under .9 points per possession. Was it coincidence that Elias Harden was back in the mix for that? If not, was it because he's a defensive wizard, or just because he actually had fresh legs?

-Can Naji Marshall be a shooter? We've long stumped for Naj to focus on his mid-range game and acumen around the rim, but there's no denying that his 5-11 from behind the arc kept Xavier afloat against Creighton. You wouldn't expect 15 points from deep for him every game, but Coach Steele was explicit that his hard work on his shot has been paying off. If he can be a threat from outside, Providence might have to extend the zone a hair.

Three keys

-Win the freebie war. It's no secret that Providence's best offense is shooting, missing, and grabbing the board. On the other end, they keep teams from getting good first shots - if they get any shots at all. Xavier can win this game by having more looks at the rim than Providence, but that's going to require holding them to one shot at one end and protecting the ball and crashing the glass at the other.

-Rotate the squad. Late in the game against Creighton, Naji Marshall was on the receiving end of a foul that sent the game to a media timeout. After surrendering the ball to the official, he briefly collapsed cruciform on the Cintas floor before dragging himself to the huddle. I wouldn't dare doubt his heart, but his legs could probably use a break every now and then. He and Paul Scruggs are each averaging over 35 minutes a game in conference. That adds up. Elias Harden is a spark plug; maybe get him some run.

-Finish. The last ten minutes of games have been rugged for Xavier lately. It's hard to feel like a lead is safe when there's the danger of the offense sputtering out looming around the corner. It's mid-February and backs are against the wall. Given the chance, Xavier has to kill this game off.