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

Xavier (and the Runningman) return to the Cintas with the opportunity for another Q2 win.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Providence
Ed Cooley, uncertain if he is a good coach.
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Big East is a great conference to play in. Opportunities for big wins abound, there are no bad losses, and every opponent is a quality one. The Big East is a terrible conference to play in. It’s stressful, it seems like every possession matters, and there is never a single game where you can relax and watch your team roll over ECU or Tulane.

The two hottest teams in the conference meet at the Cintas on a throwback night tonight. The fever dream that is the old Friar mascot conjures up memories of Austin Croshere and God Shammgod and comes with a team that is following in the footsteps of Pete Gillen’s squads by getting hot at the right time. The Friars have beaten Butler away and the Creighton convincingly at home in their last two games. While Xavier has been piling up big resume wins, PC hasn’t been far behind.

Team fingerprint

Providence, like Xavier, has been getting it done on the defensive end. Their defense is 39th in the nation for the year and held Creighton’s vaunted offense to .89 points per possession. The Friars sell out for turnovers, eschewing the defensive glass to rack up the 12th highest steal rate and at 22% turnover rate. Teams can get shots against the Providence defense, but only if they get set long enough to get a look.

The echoes of Xavier don’t end on defense, because Providence is also a terrible shooting team that has shown signs of life recently. The Friars are 305th in the nation in effective field goal percentage and are genuinely horrible inside the arc. Like X they aren’t good behind the arc or from the line, but they do move the ball around well on the offensive end. They make up for missing a lot of shots by attacking the offensive glass relentlessly through Alpha Diallo, Nate Watson, and Kalif Young.

Personnel

Starters

Starting matchups
David Duke Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Sophomore Class Junior
6'5", 200 Measurements 6'4", 196
12.6/4.6/3.5 Game line 13.4/4.7/2.7
41.9/45.9/81.2 Shooting line 48.5/36.4/70
Like Xavier, Providence doesn't start a true point guard. Duke is more of a sniper than a distributor, but he has the best assist rate in the starting lineup and spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands. He'll dribble into threes more than most players, is deadly from beyond the arc, and excels at getting to and converting from the line.
Maliek White Shooting Guard Naji Marshall
Senior Class Junior
6'3", 190 Measurements 6'7", 222
8.1/2.1/2.1 Game line 16.5/6/3.6
34.8/27.2/69.2 Shooting line 43.6/30.8/69.8
More than half of White's shots come from beyond the arc despite the fact that he's objectively not very good at threes. He's an active defender in the passing lanes, but his offensive contributions have been hamstrung by his performance from deep. He doesn't offer much in the way of distribution or rebounding.
A.J. Reeves Small Forward Jason Carter
Sophomore Class Junior
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'8", 227
7.3/3/1.1 Game line 7.5/2.4/3.8
36.2/31/65.5 Shooting line 34.6/29.5/61.7
Another solid defender who is curiously inefficient on the offensive, Reeves runs hot and cold from deep. He's shooting just 31% from beyond the arc on the year, but he has hit 3 or more threes four times this year, including the 6-8 he just dropped on Creighton. He doesn't distribute much and is a lackluster rebounder for his size.
Alpha Diallo Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Freshman
6'7", 210 Measurements 6'9", 225
12.9/7.8/2.4 Game line 6.7/3.9/0.3
39.6/26.7/56.4 Shooting line 48.3/36.8/79.5
Diallo gets a lot of hype, but he's basically Diet Naji Marshall. He's a good defender, but his offensive numbers are all down as a senior, and his ORtg of 90.2 doesn't merit his 26.7% usage rate. He's not shooting particularly well from anywhere, and his FT% - which has fallen every year he has been in school - now sits just above 56%.
Nate Watson Center Tyrique Jones
Junior Class Senior
6'10", 250 Measurements 6'9", 239
9.8/4.5/0.6 Game line 13.5/10.8/1.3
52.1/0/55.4 Shooting line 54.2/0/59.8
Twice this year, Watson has had more defensive than offensive rebounds. That is illustrative of how good Watson is on the offensive glass but also of how his DReb% is pretty much the same as Kyky Tandy's and worse than Paul Scruggs's. He blocks a decent amount of shots, but he is really prone to foul trouble.

Reserves

Providence gets 30.7% of their minutes from the bench, near as makes no difference the national average of 30.8%. They’ve tried 8 different starting lineups on the year, possibly in part to address the lingering question of whether or not Ed Cooley is an active coach.

UMass grad transfer Luwane Pipkins started at PG for most of the year, but he has a tendency to dribble the stripes off the ball and has been shooting miserably from all three levels. He’s averaging just 1.3 APG on an assist rate of 11.9% in Big East play, where he might be a hair out of his depth. He’s 47-48 from the line on the year though.

Kalif Young is a 6’9”, 250-pound center who has started 19 games but just 1 of the last 5. The senior is the team’s best overall rebounder, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the lineup to counter Xavier’s size. Like Watson, he blocks a lot of shots and commits a lot of fouls.

Emmitt Holt is a senior big who has been really good on the glass and is 10-25 from behind the arc on the year, but he has gone over 4 minutes just once in the last 6 games, which includes 3 DNPs. Greg Gantt is a freshman forward who has been solid across most aspects of the game without really excelling at anything.

Three questions

- Who wins the offensive rebounding battle? Neither team shoots well, both will likely still insist on shooting in order to score points. This means that there will be a rebounding opportunities aplenty. Xavier is a one man show unless Zach Freemantle is on the court with Tyrique. Providence uses a gang rebounding mentality. Neither team is great on the defensive glass. Both teams will get chances for second chance points.

-Who will hit some threes? Neither of these teams has been lighting the nets on fire from behind the arc, but... in their last six, Providence is 46-157 (29.3%) from deep. Meanwhile, Xavier is 38 of their last 105 (36.1%) from behind the arc, and Naji (34.9%), Kyky (40.5%), and Paul (42.9%) are all shooting well on three-point attempts in Big East games. Whisper it, but Xavier might be the more viable three-point shooting team in this game. When things get scrappy, a moment of magic from deep might be the spark a team needs to pull itself out of the muck.

-Can anyone stop Tyrique Jones? Providence is 7th in the league in DReb% and 9th in two-point defense. Their two biggest bigs each commit more than 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes. Tyrique is averaging 13.0 and 15.4 over his last 5; I’m not sure Providence is equipped to slow that momentum down.

Three keys

-Ride out the lulls. It’s clear at this point that Xavier is not a great offensive teams. There will be spells in which they just can’t buy a bucket despite their best efforts. That doesn’t mean those should turn into long scoreless spells or runs for the opponent; Xavier can get points by getting to the lane or putting in second chance buckets, and they have to lock down defensively. Losing a war 6-3 will happen for this team, but they can ride it out; losing one 17-2 will be backbreaking.

-Don’t let Providence score from their defense. The Friars play as slowly as anyone in the league, owing Ed Cooley’s instructions to run that junior high innovative flex-based offense. Xavier can stop them in the half court, but if the Muskies are turning the ball over and letting Providence attack a defense that isn’t set, Providence will harvest easy buckets. They need all the help they can get on offense; Xavier shouldn’t provide it to them.

-Defend the home court. Travis Steele said he lets Mario Mercurio worry about the resume and what quad games are contested in, but I can’t imagine there’s anyone associated with the team that doesn’t understand how vital it is to win home games for Xavier. At 54th in the NET, Providence is ahead of only DePaul in Xavier’s remaining schedule, and X also has the Blue Demons at home. Losing either of those Q2 games in a vacuum isn’t crippling, but with every other game on the schedule in Q1 and presumed to be a battle, it’s crucial that the Muskies walk through every open door. Hosting Providence is an opportunity to snare a W at a time when every one of them matters.