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

Providence sits atop the league right now thanks largely to the softest league schedule so far. Xavier needs a win to stay above .500 in conference. Something has to give here.

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Providence Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Providence comes into Cintas on top of the Big East, boasting a 6-1 record in league games. Ken Pomeroy has Providence having played the 10th most difficult conference schedule so far; they've played 3 games in the bottom 2 quads in league play. They've played 2 Q1 games and split them and won a couple of Q2s. They've passed almost every test so far, but it hasn't been the league's hardest material.

On the other end of the spectrum, only Creighton and DePaul have played tougher conference schedules than X. The Muskies have struggled valiantly to 4-3 in the league; all three of their losses have been Q1 games. Only the game against Butler has been out of the top 2 quads, and Xavier handled it easily. There are questions around the team's execution at times, and you've gotta win tough games at some point, but these aren't low hurdles Xavier has tripped over.

Team fingerprint

On the defensive end, Providence has the fastest possessions of any team in the league. If you're thinking it's because they force a lot of turnovers, know they're actually 10th in the Big East in that regard. They're about average on the defensive glass, but they force tough shots, ranking third in 2P% defense and fifth in 3P% defense. Where they excel is the line: no team in the Big East surrenders a lower percentage of their points allowed on free throws. They're second in the league in defensive free throw rate and - for what it's worth - first in defensive free throw percentage.

Providence's offense is a weird one. They're fourth in the league in adjusted efficiency, but it feels like they're holding themselves back a bit. They shoot over 36% from deep in Big East games, but nobody in the conference takes a lower percentage of their shots from deep. They're only 7th in two-point percentage and - while they get to the line fairly frequently - they're only sixth in free throw percentage. They are well below average in ball security, offensive rebounding, and assist rate. Cooley's flex-based offense has them running the longest possessions in the league, but they're not getting tons out of them.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Alyn Breed Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Sophomore Class Senior
"6'3"", 180" Measurements "6'5"", 198"
3.9/1.6/1.1 Game line 11.1/4.7/4.2
27.3/22.2/90.6 Shooting line 40.1/31/72.1
Providence's PG is actually Jared Bynum, but he has come off the bench for 6 of their 7 Big East games, so Alyn Breed is listed here. Breed is an excellent free throw shooter and a good defender. He also turns the ball over like it has been coated in baby oil and shoots miserably from everywhere on the floor. He dropped 9 on Georgetown and 9 total in the other 6 Big East games combined. He's one of the worst offensive starters in the conference.
Al Durham Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
"6'4"", 180" Measurements "6'4"", 192"
13.3/2.8/3.1 Game line 11.3/2.7/1
36.1/24.6/81.6 Shooting line 45.6/41.7/72.7
Durham is almost the definition of a volume scorer. He shoots pretty poorly from all over, including a staggering 41% at the rim. He draws a ton of fouls (his FT rate is 7th in the nation) and is cash at the line, which helps him not be an offensive black hole. He has 2 OReb all year; just a fun fact there. He's a solid defensive player and has decent distribution numbers.
Justin Minaya Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
"6'7"", 210" Measurements "6'6"", 207"
6.2/5.9/1.5 Game line 11.4/8/2.6
42.6/32.6/54.5 Shooting line 48.5/32.4/68.9
Minaya is a South Carolina transfer making good use of an extra year. He's a solid rebounder at both ends and a fairly anonymous player. His shooting line is unglamorous, but he is 8-19 from behind the arc in conference play.
Noah Horchler Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
"6'8"", 220" Measurements "6'8"", 210"
9.9/8.3/2 Game line 6.4/4.1/1.1
45.2/42.9/71.1 Shooting line 33.7/26.5/75.8
I don't know Noah Horchler personally, which makes it easier for me to hate what he represents as a basketball opponent. He's a 38% career three-point shooter who is also an excellent rebounder at both ends. He's a solid defender and blocks more than his share of shots. He's only shooting 43% from two-point range at Providence; he's mostly a perimeter threat at the high-major level.
Nate Watson Center Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
"6'10"", 260" Measurements "6'9"", 220"
14.1/6.2/0.6 Game line 8.2/5.1/1.4
56.6/0/60.9 Shooting line 42.2/16.7/76
Watson is one of the better dirty work centers you're likely to encounter. He's not a great finisher around the rim or a threat to step out, but he's relentless on the offensive glass and draws a ton of fouls. He's just okay as a rim protector and defensive rebounder; his value is in brutalizing the paint on offense.

Reserves

How about the team's assists per game leader? Veteran guard Jared Bynum is just that; the 5'10" junior averages 8.9/2.4/4.1 per game and offers good ball security in addition to shooting 35% from behind the arc. He's a better rebounder than you might expect, and he holds his own on defense despite suboptimal size.

AJ Reeves also comes off the bench, though he might not today. The 6'6" wing is day-to-day with a finger injury. If he can go, he's one of the team's best shooters with a 36% success rate from deep. He averages a little over 10 per game.

Forward cover comes in the form of Ed Croswell. He's a 6'8", 245-pound senior who is every bit the bruiser Watson is up front. He crushes the offensive glass and is shooting 72% from inside the arc. He's a decent defender, but foul trouble has hamstrung him; he averages 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes.

With Reeves injured, Cooley's bench is thin. Outside of Bynum and Croswell, Providence has gotten a total of 14 bench minutes in their last 5 games.

Three questions

-Is Providence for real? The Friars have put together a good record in Big East play, but their toughest games have been at Marquette - where they lost by 32 - and a rock fight at UConn that they held on to win by 4. Nothing else has been all that impressive. Now they've got a chance to back up their 6-1 record with a win at Xavier, which would be their first Q2 victory in more than five weeks. In a crowded Big East midfield, both teams have something to prove here.

-Was Xavier's three-point shooting a mirage? We've talked on the pod (subscribe, or whatever you do with podcasts) a couple of times about how a Xavier team that shoots national average from deep will be tough to stop. Through non-conference play, Xavier was doing that and more, hitting 35% of their threes and rolling to 10-1. Since Big East play began, X is shooting just over 30% from deep. Is this a slump? The product of playing good defenses? A reversion to the norm? The season may pivot on the answer.

-What's going on with Dwon? January has not been kind to Xavier's sophomore point. He hasn't scored more than 2 points in any game this year and has 8 assists to 7 turnovers. His defense has still been excellent, but he has been a little more foul prone than usual. Xavier's offense is markedly better when he's clicking, giving Paul Scruggs a chance to get off the ball a little. If he scuffles, the Muskies are missing their highest gear.

Three keys

-Set the tempo. Providence doesn't like to play quickly. It's obvious just by looking at their tempo splits that the book is out on their defense, which is why they have the quickest defensive possessions in the league. Everyone is try to speed them up. On the year, they're allowing an EFG% of 46.2%, which is excellent, but that number jumps to 52.5% in transition. Their half court defense is tough to play against, but they can be had on the run.

-Own the glass. Xavier lost against Nova on the strength of Eric Dixon's second-chance buckets. In Ed Croswell and Nate Watson, Providence has a couple of big men who will eat off the rim if allowed to; they've combined for 29 putbacks on the year (for context, Freemantle, Hunter, and Nunge have combined for 25). The Friars are not a strong rebounding team on the whole, but Xavier's own presence on the glass has been sporadic during conference play. This would be a perfect time to begin to remedy that.

-Make open shots. This is pretty trite to be a key to the game, but that's where we are right now. Xavier has at times struggled offensively, and it is more down to a failure of execution than anything to do with gameplanning. The Muskies have missed clean looks from behind the arc and - more frustratingly - been perplexingly inefficient on layups. Xavier doesn't need to over perform on offense; simply playing to their potential is enough if they do it consistently.