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

Xavier hasn’t won at Nova since they joined the Big East. If there’s an opportunity for the Muskies to break their duck, this may be it.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is good this year. With a combination of legitimate stars at the top and high-level depth down the roster, the Muskies are well-equipped to handle almost anything a college basketball season is capable of throwing at them. It’s a mark of where expectations are for this team right now when a solid home win against a game Marquette squad in a game in which the Muskies had a couple of stars have trouble getting out of first gear is met by mild concern but little in the way of real pathos from the fanbase.

Part of that is down to the good work Travis Steele is doing so far this season. Armed with an impressively deep roster and a season free of the kind of issues that hampered the team’s consistency last year, he has pulled a lot of the right strings in having the team at 11-1 and undefeated in the Big East.

He’ll have his work cut out for him today. Jay Wright is a man whose coaching resume speaks for itself. You can quibble with his sideline demeanor - he seems incapable of going more than a possession or two without complaining to the officials - but he is a machine in terms of setting out his side. This iteration of the Nova squad is a tick below the usual standard, which is impressive considering they’re still 12th in the KenPom. If games were 35 minutes, they’d be 10-1 and have three more Q1 wins. They aren’t, though, and Nova is 7-4 and not matching results with their impressive tempo-free numbers. They come in on an 0-2 slide, having backed a 21-point loss to Baylor with a 20-point loss to Creighton.

Team fingerprint

Slow. Boy do these guys love to grind it out. That starts on offense, where they’re 336th in pace in the nation. The necessity to play a ton of defense is backed up by their ball security, where their 13.6% TO rate is 8th in the nation. They also grab a third of their own misses, which is floating around the top 60. This is all fairly standard for a Wright team; what isn’t is how they’re shooting. They’re a viable 36.2% from behind the arc - where they take almost half of their shots - but are a miserable 46.9% (255th) from two-point range. That puts them at 150th in the country in EFG%; Jay Wright hasn’t had a team finish that low since 2013. They’re also 290th in free-throw rate. They don’t get to the line basically at all.

Defensively, they’re pretty good. They are excellent at keeping opponents off the line and a bit above average in forcing turnovers. Their defensive rebounding and defensive EFG% are just below average, and they more or less dare teams to beat them from beyond the arc. They also block very, very few shots. They block 1.9 shots per game as a team; Jack Nunge blocks 1.7 per game by himself.

Players

Not many, it bears mentioning. Villanova is 348th in the nation in bench minutes, getting just 19.7% of their run from non-starters. They just don’t have a lot of guys Jay Wright trusts right now. What they do have is experience. They’re in the top 50 nationally in that category; for comparison’s sake, Xavier is 140th.

Starters

Starting matchups
Collin Gillespie Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 195 Measurements 6'5", 198
16.2/3.4/3.3 Game line 10.8/4.3/4.2
42.5/40.7/87.1 Shooting line 40/31.7/75
The living embodiment of Villanova, which is not entirely a compliment. He's shooting it well from deep and at the line and securing the ball well, but his distribution numbers are well off his career norm. He's a solid positional defender, but his best move on-ball is getting close to the man he's supposed to be guarding and then falling down. If the official is buying what he's selling, it's a long night for the opponent. When he drives, it's rarely to get all the way to the rim.
Justin Moore Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Junior Class Senior
6'4", 210 Measurements 6'4", 192
14.7/5/2.6 Game line 13.3/3.4/1.3
40.5/36.4/69.2 Shooting line 49.1/47.3/72
Moore is a much more two-point oriented guard than Gillespie. He takes 30% of his shots at the rim and 55% of them inside the arc, but he has met with limited success in each area. Despite his struggles, he leads the team in shot rate by a wide margin. He's a very solid defensive rebounder for a two guard and rarely turns the ball over.
Brandon Slater Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'7", 220 Measurements 6'6", 207
11.2/3.7/1.5 Game line 12.4/8.2/2.8
48.4/34.1/80 Shooting line 52.8/36/70.2
Slater is a dangerous offensive player who picks his spots more than hunting shots. He's a serviceable three-point shooter in low volume and persistent and effective slasher who pulls up less than his teammates. He doesn't board much, but he's a good defender and nails from the free throw line. The ball tends to find him less against better teams for whatever reason.
Jermaine Samuels Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
6'7", 230 Measurements 6'8", 210
11/6.4/1.1 Game line 6/5.5/1.5
43.3/30.2/72.7 Shooting line 28.8/18.9/73.9
This guy feels like he's been here forever. He's the same player he has been for years: good rebounder at both ends, excellent defender, slightly worse from beyond the arc than you remember. He's also the only rotation player on Nova with a block rate higher than Dwon Odom's. He takes about half his shots from behind the arc, which is a favor he does for opponents.
Eric Dixon Center Zach Freemantle
Sophomore Class Junior
6'8", 255 Measurements 6'9", 220
7.9/5.9/1.4 Game line 10.8/4.3/4.2
41.6/58.3/80 Shooting line 40/31.7/75
Dixon is far and away the best offensive rebounder on the team, but he only shoots 38.5% from inside the arc, blunting his effectiveness as an offensive force. His three-point percentage comes on just 12 attempts. He's not much of a rim protector and is prone to foul trouble.

Reserves

It’s grim, to be honest. Only guard Chris Arcidiacono has played in all 11 games off the bench. He’s averaging 1.9/1.7/1.2 in 14 minutes per. Caleb Daniels is a 6’4” wing who will play 2-4 depending on how small Wright is going. He averages 8.9/3.9/1 on .423/.366/.737 shooting in 21 minutes per game.

Up front, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree provides some depth, but he’s getting minimal time and is just there because he has five fouls and two functioning legs. Beyond that, anyone you see checking in is doing so because of severe foul trouble or crippling fatigue. This is a borderline tragically shallow team.

Three questions

-How does Steele deploy Dwon Odom? Marquette didn’t have a single dude or a strategy involving multiple dudes that could keep Odom out of the paint; he went 8-8 from inside the arc and carried the day for Xavier. Nova also has 0 former state triple jump champions on the roster and less guard depth than Marquette boasted. Odom is a destructive weapon that it’s not clear Villanova can counter, but the team and the coaching staff are loaded with savvy veterans. How and when Steele decides to use Odom may be decisive.

-Who controls the pace? Xavier, as Travis Steele explained in the press conference after the Marquette game, plays its best in attack mode. When X kept its foot on the gas after breaking the Golden Eagles’ press, they were able to find gaps that led to easy scores. Villanova lives to keep the game as slow as possible. Xavier doesn’t need a sprint, but they are better served to not play this one at a walk.

-Who can win the freebie war? In this context, “free” possessions are definitely paid for in effort and discipline, particularly on the offensive glass and in ball security. Villanova has the edge in the latter category; they never turn the ball over and Xavier’s defense is about average in forcing opponents to cough it up. On the other end, Nova is a tick above average in forcing turnovers, and Xavier is significantly below average in avoiding them. In rebounding, Xavier is excellent on the offensive glass and Nova is below-average on the defensive boards. Both teams are solidly above average on their respective other ends. Whoever can scrap together some second chances or avoid giving away first chances has a leg up.

Three keys

-Keep the pressure on for 40 minutes. Up 7 with 6 to play against UCLA, Nova was outscored 30-14 the rest of the way to lose handily in OT. Up 9 with 7:30 to play, they coughed up a 29-14 closing stretch to lose that one, too. They made it a hat trick of collapses by being down just 2 with under 9 left on the clock against Creighton before watching the Jays finish the game 23-5 to close it out. Outscored by 49 in 27 minutes to turn three close games into three losses. This is a Nova team with a top-end talent to play with anyone... for a while. Xavier has depth on top of depth; they have to find a way to deploy that to wear the Wildcats out.

-Chase Nova off the arc. This is evergreen advice, I know, but Villanova is 10th in the country in percentage of points coming on three-pointers. Only a dozen teams take threes at a higher rate. Over their last three games, Nova is a cool 23-100 (23%) from behind the arc, but they’ve had 7 games in which they’ve made double-digit threes this year. They’re slumping, but they’re still a very dangerous shooting team. They’re also a horrible two-point shooting team. Some combination of Jack Nunge, Dieonte Miles, Zach Freemantle, and Jerome Hunter need to be trusted to secure the area around the rim while the rest of the defense closes out on shooters.

-Believe. Much has been made (by us) of the difference in mentality between the way Travis Steele approaches this game and the way Chris Mack did in his day. Intangible things like effort and commitment can influence the process, but the outcome is ultimately determined in points on the board. There’s a lot of way to get those points up there though, and faint heart isn’t going to accomplish anything when taking on Nova in enemy territory. Xavier is taking the fight to the champ today, and half efforts won’t get the job done.