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

The Butler game was an opportunity for Xavier to wake up after 17 days between games. Villanova presents an opportunity for the Muskies to burnish their resume and do damage in the league.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Villanova
Jay Wright, seen here absolutely butchering the Payne Train, Handlebars dance.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The last meeting between these two teams was something of a springboard for Villanova. Heading into the game, the Wildcats were 7-4 and had been falling out of games late. Since that game, Nova has clicked into form. They went into New Jersey and knocked off Seton Hall much the same way they beat X, turning a close game into a laugher late. They then avenged their loss to Creighton with a 34-point butt kicking at home. DePaul was perfunctory, as one might expect; a 17-2 run out of the half functionally ended the game.

Almost nothing has happened for Xavier since then. They kept their resume intact by winning a Q3 game against Butler. That's it. Two games were lost to covid pauses and Xavier spent more than two weeks attempting to stay sharp while playing against themselves.

Now it's time to face down Nova again, this time at Cintas. Xavier is 2-1 in conference, trailing only Nova and Providence, both of whom boast 4-1 Big East records. A loss risks dropping Xavier into the gray middle ground of the league. A win adds value at the top of the resume and marks Xavier out as a top contender in the league. Opportunities come often in the Big East, but they never come cheap.

Team fingerprint

Five games into Big East play, Nova has the #1 offense and #1 defense in the league. Despite playing three of their games on the road, they've lived at the line - possibly influenced in part by fouling in the late stages by Xavier and Seton Hall - and hit 83% of their FTs. They're actually a surprising 8th in the league with a 3P% of 30.3%, but they continue to take almost 40% of their shots from deep. Their 14.2% TO rate represents excellent ball security, neatly balancing their almost complete absence on the offensive boards.

Defensively, Villanova is neither excellent or poor in any area. They're between 4th and 6th in the league in the four factors (eFG%, TO%, DReb%, and FT rate). Nova stands out in allowing (or forcing, depending on your perspective) teams to take 42% of their shots from deep, a rate that is second-highest in the league. They're only allowing a 27.3% 3P% though, which might explain why they're content to watch opponents chuck. Beyond that, they almost inexpressibly middle-of-the-road in all aspects of defending early in league play.

It's also probably worth noting that they are the slowest offense in the league. Creighton plays at a slower overall pace, but nobody uses as much of their own shot clock as the Wildcats do.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Collin Gillespie Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 195 Measurements 6'5", 198
16.9/3.3/3.4 Game line 10.8/4.6/4.3
45.9/41/88.6 Shooting line 38.6/31.9/79.1
Are you ready to hear the announcers wax rhapsodic for two hours? I hope so, because Collin Gillespie is playing tonight. He's annoyingly good, he's great with the ball, and he slid under Naji Marshall.
Justin Moore Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Junior Class Senior
6'4", 210 Measurements 6'4", 192
15.7/4.9/2.3 Game line 12.7/3.2/1.1
41.9/37.1/74.4 Shooting line 49.2/46.4/70
Moore takes care of the ball well, shoots it from the outside well, and is a good defender. He's a tough matchup for Nate Johnson and has been scoring a lot recently.
Brandon Slater Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'7", 220 Measurements 6'6", 207
10.2/4/1.7 Game line 11.2/8.1/2.4
48.6/33.3/82.5 Shooting line 50/35.7/69.8
Slater is a prototypical Nova forward. He's not a great rebounder but he shoots it well, especially inside the arc, and he takes great care of the ball.
Jermaine Samuels Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
6'7", 230 Measurements 6'8", 210
10.7/6.5/1.4 Game line 6.3/4.8/1.3
42.4/26.5/72 Shooting line 31.3/22/77.8
Samuels is Nova's best defensive rebounder and shot blocker. He's not a good outside shooter, but he doesn't let that slow him down. Like almost all Wildcats, he's good inside and nails at the line.
Eric Dixon Center Zach Freemantle
Sophomore Class Junior
6'8", 255 Measurements 6'9", 220
8.3/6.1/1.4 Game line 10.8/4.6/4.3
46.9/57.1/77.4 Shooting line 38.6/31.9/79.1
Dixon rebounds and shoots free throws well, but he's the rare Villanova player who isn't a great shooter. His job is to do the dirty work, and he does that well. He picks his spots to shoot well enough that his efficiency is over 118.

Reserves

Caleb Daniels and Bryan Antoine. Daniels is a 6'4", 210-pound guard averaging 9.7/3.8/0.9 on the year. He shoots an even 40% from behind the arc; when he drives, he's shooting 71% at the rim and 17% from the mid-range, where he takes a third of his twos. He can rebound fairly well for a guard but is prone to foul trouble.

Antoine, also a guard, stands 6'5" and weighs in at 180. He's a talented scorer at all three levels, but an inability to stay healthy has kept him from ever finding a rhythm as a college player. His minutes at this stage are too limited to say much about his rate stats.

Because Antoine and (to a lesser degree) Daniels are so injury prone, 6'5" wings Chris Arcidiacono and Jordan Longino have seen some limited action. Only about a dozen teams in the nation get fewer minutes off the bench than Nova.

Three questions

-Can Xavier shake off the rust? Butler was a gentle re-entry to intercollegiate competition, and Xavier definitely needed that. The offense was clicking on all cylinders, but the defense was overly permissive, allowing Butler to find their way into the lane virtually at will. A similar showing tonight will leave Cintas a sad place indeed; X has to be back to midseason form defensively or the Wildcats will walk away with this one.

-Did 17 days off rescue Jerome Hunter's season? You can be forgiven for taking this with a massive grain of salt, but Hunter was excellent offensively against Butler. Coach Steele said Hunter has been working on his shot rhythm with Dante Jackson, and it was on display as he dropped 12 points on 4-6/2-3/2-2 shooting against Butler. The Muskies don't need the 147 ORtg Hunter posted in Indy every time out, but if he can be even mildly threatening on offense, that opens the door for more minutes for him to display his superb glue guy skills. If his offense is better than Zach Freemantle's defense, Coach Steele suddenly has some decisions to make.

-Is Nova going to walk away with the league (again)? Predictive metrics love the Wildcats. Despite their 4 losses, they're currently 4th in the KenPom and 8th in the Torvik. Torvik gives them a 68% chance of claiming a share of the league title at a 56% chance of winning it outright. Xavier, UConn, and Seton Hall are tightly clustered behind Nova in most rankings, but Seton Hall and UConn already each have two league losses. This game could be the league's last best chance to slow down the Wildcat machine.

Three keys

-Finish the game. Did you enjoy the last four minutes the last time these two teams played? Me neither. It was really just the culmination of a flaccid performance that had been brewing the whole second half. Zach Freemantle pointed out in the locker room at halftime of the Butler game that they led Nova by a similar margin to which they led Butler; these guys haven't forgotten giving away a potential resume-defining road win.

-Win on the glass. Both of these teams are okay offensive rebounding squads who have taken a step backward in that department since the start of conference play. Xavier has compensated by becoming the best defensive rebounding squad in the league, while Nova has ratcheted up their ball security. For Xavier to get the edge in free possessions, they have to hold Nova to one-and-done and snare a few second chances of their own.

-Liberate Colby Jones. Jones had his worst game of the year in the first matchup, shooting 0-3 and turning the ball over 4 times. His size and strength allow Xavier to matchup against Villanova's variety of small lineups, but X needs more out of him on the offensive end than he showed in Philly. He hasn't really found a stride in conference play yet; the outcome of tonight's game may ride on his ability to do so now.