Three days to dance. Xavier can either win three games straight or go to the NIT. After a shaky start, a plunge to the worst ranking the team has held in the analytics era, and a staggering by Butler, the Musketeers are still in position to fight their way into the NCAA tournament. The bubble has all but popped but, somehow, Xavier is still standing.
The first hurdle in the way are the Bluejays of Creighton. As Xavier has come storming back into the picture, Creighton has rallied from 4-9 in the Big East to a .500 finish. If anything they are even hotter than the Musketeers right now. There’s no doubt that they need this game just as much. It comes down to this. One of these teams is going to watch their season slam to halt.
The Jays are playing excellent defense right now. While it’s the Creighton offense that often comes to mind, it’s the defense that has carried them on this winning streak. During those five games, only DePaul cracked a point per possession, and that likely because the Blue Demons added nine points after the game was over as a contest. In their last ten games, the Jays sport the 21st best defense in the nation. Their last two opponent’s have gone 12-42 behind the arc. They’re on it on defense right now. (See the above linked article for further details.)
Which is good for them, because they offense has been a bit up and down. They’ve torched Georgetown and DePaul, but struggled against Marquette and Providence. They Jays were a blistering 14-25 from deep in their last game, but 9-38 against the Friars before that. Creighton is what they are on offense. They can shoot, they don’t get on the glass, and they are mediocre with the ball. They either shoot you into submission, or they struggle.
|Davion Mintz||Point Guard||Quentin Goodin|
|6'3", 185||Measurements||6'4", 194|
|Mintz is just good enough to be scary. He's not likely to go bananas and rip off 25, but he is always a threat to score like 14 points on 6 field goal attempts with 4 assists for good measure. He can be pressured into passing the ball to the wrong team a bit, but he's otherwise a quiet and steady option for Creighton. He's also a really solid on-ball defender.|
|Marcus Zegarowski||Shooting Guard||Paul Scruggs|
|6'2", 180||Measurements||6'3", 200|
|Xavier beat Creighton when this guy was out and lost to them when he played. It's probably not quite that simple, but it might not be much more complicated than that, either. He can score without much separation and he's pretty good with the ball in distribution and security. Here's hoping he hits a freshman wall or something.|
|Ty-Shon Alexander||Small Forward||Naji Marshall|
|6'4", 195||Measurements||6'7", 222|
|Alexander has 16 points in 76 minutes on 6-21 shooting against Xavier this year, and he hasn't even attempted a free throw against the Muskies. Creighton has plenty of dudes who can hurt you, but leaving Alexander is a mortal sin. He can get hot and carry the day; he had 5 straight games of 14 or more points until he got 8 in just 21 minutes before resting his legs in Creighton's walkover of DePaul last time out.|
|Mitch Ballock||Power Forward||Tyrique Jones|
|6'5", 205||Measurements||6'9" 235|
|Ballock is 11 of his last 12 from deep, and they all came in one game. He's burning nets in NBA Jam hot right now. If you've watched Xavier in the last decade or so, you fear a flex four who can step out and hit them. It would behoove the Muskies to be all over him on the catch all day. He's 2-8 from three against X this year; more of the same would be ideal.|
|Martin Krampelj||Center||Zach Hankins|
|6'9", 235||Measurements||6'11", 245|
|Krampelj ran wild in the first matchup between these two teams, as Travis Steele's plan of switching every ball screen turned out to be a really bad one. He had a slightly less efficient 18 in the second game, but he was still definitely a problem. Xavier can't afford to watch Mitch Ballock hoist threes, so someone is going to have to take responsibility to Krampelj and make his buckets at least a little difficult to get.|
Not a barrel of fire, honestly.
Reserve guards Connor Cashaw and Kaleb Joseph are both senior transfers. Joseph has a solid shooting line of 47.1/46/68.8 but hadn’t seen much action until the last couple of months. During their five-game winner, Creighton has seen him slap 16 on Georgetown and 12 on Providence but combine for 5 points in 37 minutes in the other three games. He’s a real wild card.
Cashaw has breached double digits once; other than that, he’s a fairly anonymous 10-minutes-per-game guy.
The reserve bigs are Christian Bishop, a 6’7” freshman who shoots 70% from inside the arc, crushes the offensive boards, and turns the ball over like it has been greased, and Damien Jefferson, who is working his way back from ankle surgery.
- How healthy is Naji? There is playing with a sore ankle, and then there is going 38 minutes in an elimination game. Xavier needs the latter from Naji. Marshall has been practicing and moving well. Here’s hoping.
- Can Xavier extend the bench? Coach Travis Steele is in the precarious position of absolutely having to win today, but also absolutely having to win two more. In the win over Creighton in February, Elias Harden played 21 hair on fire minutes of defense and Ryan Welage got 27. If both players can get that much time today, Xavier should be in good shape.
- Who steps up? Naji Marshall is the obvious choice to throw this team on his back and March hero his way through MSG for three straight days. Zach Hankins and Tyrique Jones, though, have been almost bloodlessly efficient all season and both are looking at very favorable matchups inside. Xavier could flip the script a bit by daring Creighton to stop their bigs.
- Good Q: Quentin Goodin was 1-6 from the floor against St. John’s but was almost the perfect point guard for X. He kept the pace under control, looked almost Hollowayian in his composure, and dished out seven assists against only one turnover in 39 minutes. If he does that again, Xavier is very hard to beat.
- Value the ball: If Xavier gets shots up they have both a good chance of making them and a good chance of grabbing their misses. Creighton’s recent defensive success has been based on turnovers. If the Musketeers don’t turn the ball over, the Jays defense suddenly becomes very pedestrian.
- Get Welly hitting: Dancing sensation Ryan Welage is Xavier’s best chance of instant offense. When he makes three or more threes, Xavier is 7-1. When he plays 20+ minutes, Xavier is 11-4. If the game is played in a way that Welly can get rolling, the Musketeers tend to roll right along with him.