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Xavier v. St. John’s: preview, matchups, keys to the game

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These teams have taken broadly divergent paths since meeting six weeks ago.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Xavier
Give me more of this Jason Carter.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of January 6th, but Xavier outlasted St. John’s that day at the Cintas Center. The Muskies went back and forth with the Red Storm in a frankly ugly game that featured the teams combining for .78 points per possession. Xavier trailed by 4 with 10 minutes to play, but the switch to a zone defense proved decisive, triggering a 17-1 that pulled hearts from throats for the Xavier faithful.

Since then, Xavier has played three times and practiced some amount of times that Travis Steele can count on one hand. The Muskies have gone 2-1 in that time, beating Providence and Butler before losing to UConn their last time out. During a season short on chances to establish a rhythm, Xavier has been going in fits and starts more or less since the calendar turned.

During the same stretch, St. John’s has played ten times, going 7-3. It’s amazing to see the difference in any page listing their results; it looks like either theirs or Xavier’s is suffering from a coding error. After dropping 2 of 3 off the back of their loss to X, St. John’s reeled off 6 straight wins, including at UConn and home to Villanova by 11 in a game they controlled from tip to horn. Only an OT loss at Butler has put a recent blemish on their form.

Team fingerprint

Fast. The Johnnies are in the top 10 in the nation in offensive pace and well clear of the number 2 team in the Big East (none other than your Xavier Musketeers!). They’re 5th in the league in offensive efficiency, thanks largely to excellent ball security and shooting 37.2% from behind the arc as a team. They won’t rush the offensive glass or get to the line much, but they’ll get out and go and make teams earn their stops.

Defensively, they’re all-in on forcing turnovers. Their TO% in conference is 20.5%, 2nd in the league. If you can get a shot up, it’s pretty much all good news from there. They’re 8th in EFG%, 9th in defensive FT rate, and 11th in defensive rebounding. This defense feasts on live-ball turnovers and is honestly fairly impotent in every other important regard.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Posh Alexander Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Freshman Class Senior
6'0", 190 Measurements 6'4", 196
11.6/3.4/4.2 Game line 14.2/3.9/6.4
47.7/34/72.9 Shooting line 47.6/37.5/82.6
You'd feel good with Alexander suiting up for your team for this season and the next three. He's a good finisher around the rim but not a more than average jump shooter. He has gotten preogressively better with ball security as the season has gone on and his distribution has been reliable all year. He's an active defender, but he can be had by guards who have the skill set to work him into the paint.
Rasheem Dunn Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Senior Class Junior
6'2", 190 Measurements 6'4", 176
8.4/2.7/3.9 Game line 7.9/1.3/1.3
40.9/10/69 Shooting line 38.5/38.6/81.8
I feel like Dunn always performs against Xavier, and a quick check of the historical stats shows he averages 14 PPG against X. He's a solid combo guard who can distribute a bit and score a bit, but he's not a world-beater at either. Like most of the team, he has a good steal percentage. Dunn is maybe a bit underappreciated among the St. John's faithful, but he is a solid glue guy on the perimeter.
Vince Cole Small Forward Nate Johnson
Junior Class Senior
6'6", 185 Measurements 6'4", 195
9.3/2.7/1.2 Game line 11.7/4.1/1.5
41.1/38.2/82.9 Shooting line 46.6/52.6/80
Cole is literally more dangerous as a jump shooter than at the rim. He shoots 41.6% on all jumpers (including 38.2% from deep) and just 38.7% from the rim. He doesn't distribute much or do a whole lot on the glass, but he's a good defender and stays out of foul trouble. He has a lot of high-usage guys around him who draw the defense's attention, but he can be deadly if left unattended.
Julian Champagnie Power Forward Jason Carter
Sophomore Class Senior
6'8", 220 Measurements 6'8", 227
19.7/7.4/1.4 Game line 6.6/7.4/1.6
44.6/42.5/86.4 Shooting line 40/18.2/54.5
A total stud. He can score reliably at all three levels, rebounds it well, and defends the rim reasonably without getting into foul trouble. His turnover rate is exceptional, he's cash from the line... If there's one hole in his game, it's that he gets relatively less efficient the closer he gets to the rim. Chasing him off his jumper is a better bet, but he's a handful however you approach him.
Josh Roberts Center Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Sophomore
6'9", 220 Measurements 6'9", 225
2.8/2.9/0.3 Game line 16.1/8.6/1.4
64.1/0/80 Shooting line 51.4/32.7/57.5
Roberts is kind of a placeholder starter, as his minutes have been diminishing steadily of late. He hasn't played more than 20 minutes in over a month and he got just 7 minutes last time out in the OT game against Butler. He's a good rebounder on both ends and a good shot blocker, but he's being called for 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes of Big East play.

Reserves

Wings are a good place to start, and Greg Williams is a good one. He’s not a high-usage player, but he averages 9.7/2/2.2 on 47.1/44.2/70.7 shooting. He has stayed hot in Big East play, third in the league at 46.7% (14-30) from behind the arc. Alongside him on the bench is the almost comically thick Marcellus Earlington, who uses what his mama gave him to pull down a DReb% of 21.4%, third in the Big East. He averages 6.5/3.7/0.7 in just 16 minutes per game, shooting 42.5/34.8/54.2 on the year.

Speaking of guys getting less than half the available minutes, big man Isaih Moore is a 6’10” junior big man averaging 9.2/4.8/0.8 in his 19 minutes per game. Only foul trouble keeps him off the floor, as he’s very efficient and a solid rebounder and shot-blocker. Bringing us full circle by being both thick and below the 50% mark in minutes is Dylan Addae-Wusu. He’s a 6’4”, 235-pound wing who is a respectable offensive rebounder and a handful on the drive. He’s not going to shoot the lights out, and he’s prone to a bit of foul trouble.

Three questions

-Who are Xavier’s starters? More pertinently, who is Xavier’s third guard alongside Nate Johnson and Paul Scruggs? For the season’s first seven games, it was Dwon Odom. When health concerns dropped him to the bench, Colby Jones jumped into the vacated spot. When Jones went down, Adam Kunkel found his way into the starting lineup against Butler, maintaining the place two weeks later against UConn. You could be forgiven for feeling like Xavier runs a bit better with someone other than Paul Scruggs having to handle the point guard responsibilities; it’s not clear that the starting lineup generally reflects that.

-Have the Johnnies hit a stride? Since the week beginning January 17th, St. John’s is 7-1 and has gained 1.9 WAB. According to Bart Torvik, they’ve been playing like a top-20 team during that time. Their results have backed the metrics, and the wins against UConn and Nova may be the difference between sides of the bubble before all is said and done. Of course, if they keep winning 7 of 8, the bubble won’t be a concern.

-Can Xavier’s big men come good? The Johnnies don’t do well on the glass on either end, and Jason Carter and Zach Freemantle combined for 26 boards against them the last time out. That came with just 16 points on a shooting line of 3-13/0-2/10-16. Bryan Griffin and Ben Stanley combined for 10 and 12 in just 22 minutes of play that day, but neither will figure tonight. It’s going to be all on Freemantle and Carter to press Xavier’s advantage in the middle during this game.

Three keys

-Pick on Posh. I watched, somewhat agog, as Butler won the game at Hinkle by throwing the ball to Aaron Thompson and - I promise you this is true - telling him to go get a bucket against Posh Alexander. Thompson isn’t a dynamic offensive threat, but he’s a reliable ball-handler and a savvy enough player to work a mismatch. Alexander is going to have to spend time on some combination of Adam Kunkel, Dwon Odom, Paul Scruggs, and Nate Johnson, and Xavier would do well to find that guy and give him opportunities to press that matchup.

-Crush the glass. Xavier is the top defensive rebounding team in the league, but they have been miserable on the offensive glass. They owned the glass on both ends last time out against St. John’s, though Griffin and Stanley had a hand in that. Xavier isn’t going to win the free possession war in turnovers, so they’re going to have to do it in second chances on both ends of the floor.

-Travis Steele. He wasn’t bathing himself in glory 30 minutes into the home leg of this matchup, but he flipped the switch with a zone and his team walked away with the game. Everybody loves to pile on Steele when things don’t go well, but it may be his ability to identify and implement the appropriate adjustment in a timely manner that keeps Xavier in this game. St. John’s plays too fast for a coach to ruminate on what levers to pull and when; they’ll run away with a game in the blink of an eye.