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

Xavier needs two, maybe three wins out of their final four games. At Providence isn’t the easiest place to start.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Xavier
Nobody in this picture plays for Providence.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

We’re at the pointy end of the season, and you can be forgiven for feeling like it snuck up a little bit. Six games into the calendar year of 2020, Xavier was still in January and had ten regular season games left on the schedule. The Muskies are now six games into the 2021 calendar, and they’ve got just four games left before single-elimination tournaments begin.

Take your pick on what source you use to determine where exactly a team sits in relation to the bubble, but the Bracket Matrix (where Xavier is the last 10 seed) and Bart Torvik’s WAB metric (in which Xavier has 1.0 WAB, which... isn’t great) aren’t bad proxies for the committee’s opinion. Each of the remaining four games on Xavier’s schedule is worth almost exactly .5 WAB. Win tomorrow and X is in the mid-30s, which represents having some breathing room. Take 3 of the last 4 and Xavier is suddenly looking like a 6 seed. Anything less than that and we’re going to be biting nails heading into the Big East tournament.

Speaking of which, the top 5 teams in the league will get byes on the first day of the BET. With the standings determined solely by winning percentage, Xavier is currently 5th at 5-4. A win tonight would push them to 4th with a 60% winning percentage, just ahead of 8-6 UConn. It would also kick Providence down the ladder, leaving them at 7-10 with just two games left on the schedule.

This is a HUGE game, is what I’m saying.

Team fingerprint

The Friars offense has all but literally been running in sand in Big East play. They’re 8th in the league in both pace and efficiency on offense, combining boring play with ineffectiveness. Their shooting has been horrible, with their 45.2% mark from inside the arc dead last in conference and 35% from behind the arc coming on the third-fewest attempts in the league. They’re middle of the road in offensive rebounding, ball security, and free throw rate, but their shooting has been so bad that it hasn’t mattered.

The Friars’ defense leads the league in shutting down the arc; they’re first in the Big East in both 3P% and 3P rate on the defensive end. They’re 8th in the league in two-point defense and things get worse from there. They almost never force turnovers, and they’re pretty poor in defensive rebounding. Teams are going to get shots up against these guys and have a pretty good chance at getting second shots. Unless they’re threes, those shots have a pretty good chance of turning into points.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
David Duke Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Junior Class Senior
6'5", 205 Measurements 6'4", 196
17.1/6.2/4.8 Game line 13.4/4/6.4
38.8/39.8/80.7 Shooting line 45.8/34.9/82
I hope one day, this guy is the only guy people think about when they hear the name David Duke. In the meantime, he's just doing about everything for Providence. He leads the team in assist rate, crushes the defensive glass, and gets a ton of shots up. He's not doing well from inside the arc, but he is a deadly three-point shooter in a ton of volume.
Alyn Breed Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Freshman Class Junior
6'3", 180 Measurements 6'4", 176
6/2.5/0.8 Game line 6.5/1.2/1.5
44.3/29/73 Shooting line 39.7/26.8/85.7
Breed has been forced into action by some injuries, and he has been solid. He is kind of seen and not heard when he's on the floor, keeping his ORtg right around 100 on limited usage. He has shown good mid-range game and solid finishing, and he's good from the line. I don't think Providence fans would have been hoping to see a dozen starts from him this year, but his numbers should be enough to encourage them for his future.
A.J. Reeves Small Forward Nate Johnson
Junior Class Senior
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'4", 195
9.9/3.7/1.8 Game line 11.4/4.2/1.7
35.1/32.8/84.8 Shooting line 42.9/45.2/80
Reeves was recruited as a high-level shooter. Three years on, he's shooting a lot, which isn't nothing. In conference play he has shot 100 threes, more than 6 a game, and cashed out on 37% of them. He's a really good free throw shooter, but he's shooting really poorly inside the arc and a miserable 40% on layups and dunks. He is avoiding foul trouble though, so... good on him.
Noah Horchler Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
6'8", 220 Measurements 6'8", 227
5.7/5/0.5 Game line 6.6/6.8/1.6
38.8/41.5/70.4 Shooting line 41.1/16.2/56.8
After being 1-5 from behind the arc in the non-con, Horchler has shot 16-36 (44.4%) in Big East games. He's a miserable 38.8% from inside the arc in that time, but he defends the rim well and is rebounding well on both ends. He shoots a ton of mid-range shots and isn't particularly good at them, which explains his general struggles from inside the arc. He's the kind of Jimmie Binnie/Ricky Kreklow sort of dude who always seems to pop up to drop like 14 on 6 shots in a game Xavier needs to have.
Nate Watson Center Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Sophomore
6'10", 260 Measurements 6'9", 225
16.7/6.7/0.7 Game line 16.5/8.8/1.3
59.4/0/67 Shooting line 52.4/32.1/58.8
The Ben Bentil to David Duke's Kris Dunn, Nate Watson is being ridden like Seattle Slew by Ed Cooley. He's a really good scoring big man who eats at the rim and is shooting 44% on nearly 100 mid-range jumpers. He's honestly a pretty mediocre defensive rebounder, but he hunts the ball on the offensive glass. He blocks shots at about the same rate as Dwon Odom, which isn't as much of an indictment as you might think.

Reserves

Injuries and ineffectiveness have thinned the bench a bit for Providence, but 6’8” sophomore forward Greg Gantt has been a consistent presence off the pine all year (except for the five games he started). He averages 4.2/3.4/1.9 in 22 minutes per game. He’s a below-average rebounder and shoots just 40.7/23.5/68.2. La Salle transfer big Ed Croswell is a husky 6’8” rebounding machine who shoots 50% from the floor on almost all layups and just 23.8% from the line.

Giving David Duke a bit of a breather off the bench is Actual Point Guard Jared Bynum. He’s a 5’10” Saint Joseph’s transfer who distributes the ball well and rarely turns it over. He averages 5.2/1.6/4 on a miserable 29.9/7.1/66.7 shooting line.

Three questions

-Can Paul Scruggs shake off his funk? Paul is the unquestioned leader of this team, and his effort and intensity haven’t waned a bit during a tough year. What has waned is his scoring; he’s getting just 8.3 PPG this month on .310/.167/.714 shooting. He’s averaging 8 assists per game, but this team really needs him to be putting the ball through the net on a consistent basis to be effective.

-Who will slow down Nate Watson? In the previous matchup between these two teams, Nate Watson dropped a cool 17 and 14 on 8-11 shooting. The last time he faced a Xavier team with Tyrique Jones on it, he dropped 2 and 3 and picked up 4 fouls in 16 minutes. Xavier needs someone mean in the paint on defense. It’s not clear that Zach Freemantle or Jason Carter is that guy; Bryan Griffin is my pick for the role, but Danny Ramsey and Dieonte Miles deserve their looks if the starters aren’t getting it done. X can’t wait for something to develop while Watson eats in the middle of the floor.

-Can Providence score? The Friars put together one of their best offensive performances of the season against Xavier at Cintas, thanks largely to going 13-22 (59.1%) from deep. Remove that game and Providence is averaging just 6.6 made threes per game on a 33% success rate. If they shot the way they usually do, Colby Jones’s three just before the horn would have just been an insult that gave Xavier a 20-point win. The Friars have the worst two-point percentage in the league and aren’t lighting the nets on fire from beyond the arc. It’s reasonable to ask where - if Xavier allows the same shots they did last time - Providence’s points may come from.

Three keys

-Get the rotations right. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Xavier starts hot, some weird combination of second-unit guys gives up the lead with alarming quickness, Xavier uses the rest of the time on the clock to chase the game. There just isn’t any slack left in the season at this point. If Xavier has a lead, they cannot afford to let off the gas. If that means playing Paul Scruggs all 20 minutes in the first half despite his having 4 fouls, well, it’s like that sometimes.

-Seal the defensive glass. As discussed above, Providence is a sincerely bad shooting team. Coach Steele identified defensive rebounding as the key to this game; he said if Xavier doesn’t do that, they will not win the game. Simple enough, right? The Muskies are, despite what your eyes might have told you recently, the second-best defensive rebounding team in the Big East. They have to play like it tonight.

-Pound the middle. Remember when Xavier beat St. John’s despite not making a single three? That was accompanied by 52 two-point attempts; more than 80% of Xavier’s shots came from inside the arc. In a weird confluence, Xavier’s offensive two-point percentage in Big East play is almost the same as Providence’s defensive two-point percentage (~51%), and the same holds true behind the arc (~30%).

This is obviously incredibly reductive, but just from those numbers - without counting things like the likelihood of drawing fouls and whatnot - every time Xavier shoots a three instead of a two, they cost themselves about a tenth of a point. That doesn’t seem like much, but the game came down to a single point (ironically, one scored from behind the arc) last time. X doesn’t have to be living exclusively inside the arc, but that should be where they pay the bills tonight.

BONUS KEY!

-Get Nate Johnson going or get Kyky Tandy in (or both). Nate Johnson is 8-29 (27.5%) from deep in Xavier’s 4 losses and 34-64 (53.1%) in their wins. When he is cashing out from behind the arc, this team is nigh unstoppable. To his credit, he has found other ways to impact the game, but Xavier absolutely needs him to be hitting threes. Speaking of exactly that, Kyky Tandy has looked - in his limited run of late - like a guy desperate to do whatever it takes to get some dang minutes. Aside from being an irrepressible ball of energy when he has been out there, he’s also a 38.8% three-point shooter. Play the man.