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Xavier v. DePaul: Preview, matchups, and keys to the game

Xavier should beat DePaul, but weird things can happen in conference play.

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Marquette
Courvoisier, not passing.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is better than DePaul. That’s not really a debatable conclusion or a farfetched hypothesis. In a computer simulation that always returned a win for the better team, Xavier would run the table against DePaul. So would Seton Hall, though, and the Blue Demons just beat the Pirates six days ago. Basketball is not a simulation and this game won’t be played in a computer. The 1 in DePaul’s 1-5 Big East record is large. This game, like all conference games, could hold a sting in the tail.

If it does, you’ll be up very late to see it. Xavier and DePaul are slated to tip at 9pm but likely won’t. The end of the game could quite possibly be on a different day than the start, meaning the clock will have struck midnight on more than just DePaul’s season. (SEGUE!) The Blue Demons started out 6-0, lost to Loyola Chicago, won three more, and then started playing good teams. Prior to Seton Hall, DePaul’s best win was over a stridently mediocre Rutgers team. Four of DePaul’s wins are against sub-250 teams. It’s easy to pad the record when you don’t schedule anyone decent.

Team fingerprint

DePaul plays very fast, though it would take a forensic investigator to figure out why. The Blue Demons are very good on the offensive glass pretty poor at shooting, so ostensibly they are in a hurry to miss a shot in order to try to get a rebound. DePaul is 41st in tempo and 33rd in possession length. Any association of speed with sloppiness would be misplaced though, as the Blue Demons care for the ball reasonably well and are disciplined enough to not shoot very many threes. They are one of the worst teams in the nation in assist rate, so part of the low turnover rate comes simply from a lack of high risk/reward passing.

Defensively DePaul has a very solid interior defense predicated mostly on blocking shots. The similarities to Creighton’s defense are very notable, DePaul is just a slightly less successful version. The Demons block shots at an impressive 13.3% rate but get out of position on the defensive glass and are highly susceptible to offensive rebounds. They don’t force turnovers or guard the arc well. Their defense starts and ends with throwing shots.

Personnel

Starters

Starting matchups
Jalen Terry Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Sophomore Class Senior
"6'0"", 165" Measurements "6'5"", 198"
7/2.4/2.8 Game line 11.2/4.5/4.1
36.5/33.3/88.2 Shooting line 38.9/30.9/78.4
Terry splits ballhandling duties with Freeman-Liberty and occasionally one or two players on the other team. He's a solid shooter but doesn't force his way into games; he's not great at the rim. He's excellent from the line, where he went 10-10 in the final 2:35 of the game to put away Seton Hall.
Javon Freeman-Liberty Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
"6'4"", 180" Measurements "6'4"", 192"
21.1/7.4/3.1 Game line 12.3/3/1
44.3/38.6/73.7 Shooting line 49.2/45.7/72.7
Always a volume scorer, Freeman-Liberty is shooting the ball way better from deep this year than he has in the past. He shoots too many two-point jumpers for a guy only making 32% of them, but he's a good finisher at the rim. He has also really stepped up his ball security this year, posting the kind of TO rate normally only seen from catch-and-shoot guys. Defensively, he's incredibly pesky and will pick pockets and camp out in passing lanes with aplomb.
David Jones Small Forward Colby Jones
Sophomore Class Sophomore
"6'6"", 195" Measurements "6'6"", 207"
15.5/7.8/2.1 Game line 11.2/8.3/2.4
47.3/31/67.3 Shooting line 48.3/30.3/68.7
This guy is left-handed. I just highlight that because it's a line that was apparently missing from Izaiah Brockington's scouting report as he had the game of his life against Xavier driving to his dominant side. Jones is a tough defender and he stays super active on the glass at both ends. He probably takes a few too many threes, but he's a good finisher who rarely settles in the mid-range.
Brandon Johnson Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
"6'8"", 220" Measurements "6'8"", 210"
10.9/7.4/1 Game line 6.3/2.3/2.4
43.3/25/62.7 Shooting line 60.9/33.3/80
Johnson is a reasonably efficient offensive option, but he barely makes a third of his two-point jumpers and only a quarter of his threes. He's a solid rebounder at both ends and something of a workhorse, averaging more than 32 minutes per game as DePaul's other bigs rotate around him. He doesn't use a ton of the ball, but his efficiency and ability to stay on the court almost the entire game make him an important foundational piece for the team.
Yor Anei Center Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
"6'10"", 220" Measurements "6'9"", 220"
5.1/4.3/0.2 Game line 8.4/4.7/1.6
54.5/0/65.4 Shooting line 43.8/14.3/78.3
Anei slid into the starting lineup after Nick Ongenda missed the Marquette game due to injury. Anei is just a mediocre finisher for a man his size, but he does have some mid-range game. He's an excellent offensive rebounder and solid on the defensive glass. His shot blocking is let down by the fact that he commits almost 7 fouls per 40 minutes.

Reserves

Nick Ongenda started 14 games to open the season, so he makes sense as a place to start with the reserves. The 6'11", 210-pound center averages 9.2/4.3/0.8 on 52% shooting, with 60% of his shots coming at the rim. He's a good offensive rebounder but not much on the defensive glass, probably because he blocks a ton of shots. He draws and commits a lot of fouls. Depending on the status of the hand injury that cost him the Marquette game, he might start tonight.

Philmon Gebrewhit is a lanky 6'7" wing that came in via the JuCo ranks. He averages 7.2/3.1/1.5 on 39/29.2/78.3 shooting, still trying to recapture the stroke that made him a sniper in two years at South Plains College. His defense and rebounding numbers are unimpressive and he's a bit prone to turnover issues.

Javan Johnson, most recently of Iowa State, is a grad transfer guard DePaul added in November. After completing his degree requirements for ISU, he has appeared in the last six games and averages 4.8/1.3/0.3. He was a volume scorer in his year as a Cyclone, but he shot 36% from deep on over 200 tries in two seasons at Troy.

Courvoisier McCauley (3.3/1.6/0.7) provides deep cover at the guard positions and might not have even been mentioned here if his parents were less adventurous in their naming practices. Nobody not already mentioned has appeared in more than half a dozen games for DePaul.

Three questions

- Can Zach Freemantle keep it up? Big Frosty was a double double machine last year. His return from injury this year has severely hampered him this season, but he notched his first double double Saturday and looked close to his old self in the second half. There is a way yet to go, but a sharp Freemantle is a difference maker.

- What has happened to Dieonte Miles? Miles started the first nine games he played, missed a game with injury, and has played seven minutes in the Big East this season. While not an offensive weapon, Dieonte’s defensive versatility and energy on that end of the floor were standing him in good stead until the week before Christmas. Now he’s a forgotten man.

- Did Paul Scruggs just need some rest? Since Xavier came back from their Covid break, Paul Scruggs has looked a different man. Prior to that 17 day break Scruggs had posted offensive efficiencies below 100 in five of six games. Since then, Paul has three straight games over 100, has 12 assists to three turnovers, and has three straight double figure scoring games. Sometimes fresh legs matter a lot. Coach Steele will need to find a way to rest his super senior again.

Three keys

- Get on the offensive glass: Nick Ongenda blocks a ton of shots, but he doesn’t defensive rebound at all. This matchup is fairly crying out for another Colby Jones high energy offensive rebounding performance. Backside misses are going to available if Xavier can go get them.

- Attack: DePaul commits a lot of fouls. In fact, if they played all of 40 minute game, their two best shot blockers would foul out. Ongenda and Yor Anei both are unquestionably excellent at blocking shots, but unlike Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner, they play with fire to do it. If Xavier can get them in foul trouble, the Blue Demon defense will collapse.

- Help on drives: DePaul simply doesn’t move the ball well or shoot the three well. They will initiate offense off the dribble and try to make things happen there. Xavier can afford to show a hand worth of help in order to keep penetration limited. Only Freeman-Liberty seems consistently capable of hurting the Musketeers from deep.