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

A great day for basketball kicks off with a slugfest in the Big East.

Connecticut v Xavier Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Xavier is third in the Big East. If they don't add any more games to the schedule, they will finish the season having contested just 13 of their initially allotted 20 league games.

The Musketeers have been very good this calendar year, at least in terms of results, winning the three games they've played in six weeks. After ripping through two games in the first ten days of January, Xavier showed little in terms of rust in beating the brakes off of Butler on January 30th before shutting it down again. X has currently postponed more conference games than they've played.

Connecticut has played a robust 10 league games to Xavier's 6, and they're on track to get 17 in before the curtain drops. While the rona hasn't been a positive influence for the Huskies, the real handbrake on their season has been the loss of sophomore guard James Bouknight. They were 5-1 with him in the lineup and coasted on that momentum through wins over Butler and DePaul in their first two games after his injury. From that high water mark of 22nd in the KenPom, they've gone 1-4 and plunged to 42nd as of this writing.

Neither team will have done enough to feel entirely satisfied with their resume at this point. This is a big game for both clubs involved.

Team fingerprint

UConn blocks a ton of shots. Their defense is in the low end of the top 100 in EFG% and turnover rate, posting solid but unspectacular numbers in both regards. Perhaps owing to their appetite for chasing shots, they're 252nd in DReb% and a downright putrid 304th in opponents' free throw percentage. They do an excellent job of chasing opponents off the arc, which I guess is a luxury afforded to you by defensive erasers in the middle.

On offense, the Huskies live and die on the glass, where they're 7th in the nation in grabbing 36.9% of their own misses. That's good, because they're not a good shooting team, hanging on that average/bad line from deep and landing solidly on the bad side of that line from inside the arc. Their ball security and free throw rate are close enough to national average that it's not a distinction worth making.

Also, they want to play slowly. They're 333rd in the nation in offensive possession length and 334th in overall tempo. They want to play in the low 60s of possessions; Xavier averages 71 per game.

Players

Starting lineups represent my best guess. UConn has used 5 lineups in 13 games, and Xavier has been shuffled by Covid protocols and might be again. The best players available will get their run; these are my informed assumptions about which five will get the first minutes for each team.

Starters

Starting matchups
R.J. Cole Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Junior Class Senior
"6'1"", 185" Measurements "6'4"", 196"
11.2/2.9/4 Game line 14.6/3.8/6
36.3/33.9/74 Shooting line 48.9/39.2/83.7
Cole probably shoots a bit much for a guy who isn't that good at it, but he's solid from the line, distributes well, and doesn't turn it over too much. His real value is on the defensive end, where he's an absolute menace. His steal percentage isn't overtly impressive, but he makes initiating and executing anything a painful exercise for his opponent every time down the floor. His influence on this game will show up on Xavier's side of the box score.
Jalen Gaffney Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Sophomore Class Senior
"6'3"", 185" Measurements "6'4"", 195"
6.5/1.8/1.7 Game line 11.5/4/1.5
38.1/34.5/84.4 Shooting line 46.3/52.2/77.8
Somewhat like Cole, Gaffney is a plus defender who doesn't offer much efficiency on the offensive end. Much of his struggles lie in shot selection, as he's a career 80% shooter from the line but can't seem to translate that to live-ball buckets. His career field goal attempts are split almost exactly evenly between twos and threes despite the fact that he shoots under 30% from deep.
Tyrese Martin Small Forward Colby Jones
Junior Class Freshman
"6'6"", 215" Measurements "6'5"", 195"
11.8/7.3/1.3 Game line 6.3/3.7/3.1
48.1/46.4/65.9 Shooting line 54.8/22.2/66.7
A URI transfer with a solid stroke from deep, Martin has moved his shot selection closer to the rim each of his three years in college ball. While he is an excellent three-point shooter, only about a quarter of his shots come from that range. He also lives on the offensive glass, ranking 4th in the conference in OReb%.
Isaiah Whaley Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
"6'9"", 230" Measurements "6'8"", 227"
8/6.2/1.3 Game line 7.1/7.8/1.7
48/36.4/46.2 Shooting line 42.5/18.8/54.5
Whaley had a hugely efficient junior season as an often-used reserve, but he's struggling a bit with a step up in minutes. He has shot just 11 threes on the year, so his percentage from deep is a bit deceptive. He is a very good offensive rebounder and an excellent rim protector.
Adama Sanogo Center Zach Freemantle
Freshman Class Sophomore
"6'9"", 240" Measurements "6'9"", 225"
6.6/3.9/0.5 Game line 15/8.1/1.5
54.2/0/61.5 Shooting line 51.6/33.3/56.8
Sanogo is a big lad and an excellent rebounder on both ends. As is often the case with freshman big men, his efficiency is undermined by a turnover problem and mediocre free throw shooting. He is a good shot blocker, but he averages 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes of playing time, which obviously isn't ideal.

Reserves

Let's start with 6'9" senior big Tyler Polley. He doesn't rebound at either end, doesn't turn the ball over, and doesn't shoot layups. What he does is hang out behind the arc and stick threes. Almost 2/3rds of his career FGA are threes, and he hits 38% of them.

There's a big gap in threat level from Polley to the next guy off the bench, 6'4" junior guard Brendan Adams. He's a low-usage player suffering through the worst shooting season of his career right now. He gets 23 minutes a game right now and turns it into not much.

Senior big Josh Carlton was turned into Josh Carltoff by Zach Freemantle last year and he hasn't ever recovered. That was his first KenPom tier-A game coming off a promising sophomore season, but since he has morphed into a low-usage guy who doesn't block as many shots and commits a ton of fouls. He rebounds well at both ends, though, and we all admire his bravery for carrying on.

It should be mentioned that James Bouknight will eventually return from his injury. When he left, he was averaging a cool 20.3/5.3/1.7 with a usage rate over 30%. I don't know when he'll return or how rusty he'll be, but he's a handful for any team to account for.

Three questions

-Can Xavier shake off the rust (again)? Like Tugg Speed man's Scorcher hexology, Xavier's season has been a case of here we go again... again. The Muskies have battled through the breaks pretty well so far, but it's anyone's guess on how long they can keep riding that wave. We're off the edge of the map here.

-Will James Bouknight be back? Xaver has had some success against UConn's star, holding him to a mere 19 points in 25 minutes in their only meeting last year. Bouknight has been out for the Huskies' last 7 games, during which they've struggled mightily without him. Dan Hurley has downplayed the possibility of his playing, but Travis Steele has said Xavier will prepare as though he's 100%. Somewhere between the two is probably where the truth lies, but there's no doubt UConn is more dangerous with him in the lineup.

-Who controls the pace? More than a quarter of Xavier's shot attempts come in transition, where they post an EFG% of 60.4% (to their already excellent 54.6% overall). UConn absolutely hemorrhages buckets in transition to the tune of a 68.4% EFG% allowed, but they only let opponents get out on 23% of their defensive possessions. The difference in the outcome of this game might lie in whether or not Xavier can get out and go.

Also, thanks to hoop-math.com for providing transition stats for freebies, along with the other excellent services they provide.

Three keys

-Seal the glass. Connecticut is not a good shooting team, but they are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. Turnovers aren't a significant part of either teams defensive strategy, so the free possession war will probably be won and lost in rebounding. Xavier has been a mediocre defensive rebounding team on the whole, but they've suddenly become the best in the league once conference play began. They'll be put the test tomorrow.

-Attack the shot blockers. Connecticut's defense on the inside is fairly soft, but it is propped up by an insane block percentage. Zach Freemantle's struggles have been well-documented, but he has shown signs of life inside the arc lately, going 10-18 from there in the last two games. When he's going well, he can neutralize a shot blocker by either pulling him out of the pain or forcing him into fouls. Whichever it is, he's the point of the spear in Xavier's efforts to undercut the Husky defense.

-Make the adjustment. Against St. John's, Coach Steele left it late to switch to the zone that effectively ended the game. In the Providence game, Xavier never did figure out a way to shut down the Friars' three-point shooting and it almost cost the game. Against Butler, nothing mattered because Butler isn't very good at basketball. Travis Steele is a young coach who is also not getting the game reps that sharpen his response time, and there's also no guarantee the team will be able to execute whatever he sends in. Dan Hurley is a good enough coach that you know he'll have something up his sleeve. After playing just once in the last month, it's going to be a big ask for Xavier to be ready to respond before the game slips by.