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Xavier v. Gonzaga: Phil Knight Legacy preview, matchup, keys to the game

Xavier gets a third crack at a big win Sunday night against Gonzaga.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Gonzaga
An ostensibly sober Mark Few
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

There is a mug that Cleveland Browns fans have up here where I live that says “we almost always almost win.” Recently, that has been the lament of the Xavier Musketeers. You can certainly take positives from Xavier’s performances against Indiana and Duke, but the simple fact is that Xavier is 0-2 in what will be Q1 games come the end of the season and are currently sitting at 0 WAB. The Selection Committee won’t care that Xavier almost didn’t lose or that the game was close, they will only take the L into account.

The good news is that the Musketeers have one more chance to get a win that will stand them in good stead come March 12th, 2023. The Gonzaga Bulldogs lost to Purdue, 84-66 in their Phil Knight game. They have also lost to another top 10 team in Texas. The difference between Gonzaga and Xavier as it stands is that the Bulldogs have hammered UK and beaten MSU to lock down their big wins for the year. This could well be a Q1 for both teams, but Gonzaga doesn’t need it nearly as badly.

Team fingerprint

Gonzaga has a really good offense, they are ranked second in the KenPom, but that comes with a caveat. The Zags offense is good based on their shot making. They’re 11th in the nation in effective field goal percentage at 58.7%, 15th in two point shooting, 37th in three point shooting, and 80th (but still shooting 75%) from the line. They make a lot of baskets, but they don’t do anything else well. They turn the ball over too much, don’t rebound their own misses well, and don’t get to the line a lot. When they don’t make shots they don’t have much to fall back on.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are 90th in the nation once you wash out the preseason assumptions. The best thing they do is rebound, where they are 89th nationally, allowing opponents to grab 26.1% of their misses. They aren’t in the top 140 in any of the other four factors. It’s also worth noting that their biggest weak point is forcing turnovers. This defense is not good.


Please note that the data source from which we draw our stats (which is ESPN, not some arcane secret) had not updated at the time we wrote this. If/when it does, we will update these numbers. Until then, know that these are the stats from before the Purdue game.


Starting matchups
Nolan Hickman Point Guard Souley Boum
Sophomore Class Senior
6'2", 180 Measurements 6'3", 175
7.4/2.2/2.8 Game line 16.8/3.5/3.8
38.2/31.3/100 Shooting line 54.9/50/89.7
Hickman is more of a combo guard than a straight point - not unlike Boum - but he's the closest thing Gonzaga has. He's an okay shooter at best who's doing an acceptable job of initiating the offense. His defensive numbers aren't spectacular and he fouls a little too much, but he's by and large doing enough for Mark Few.
Rasir Bolton Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 185 Measurements 6'4", 185
13.4/1.4/2.6 Game line 11.5/1.2/2.3
50/47.8/100 Shooting line 55.1/45.8/100
Bolton can really shoot the ball; he's hit over 46% of his attempts from deep over the last two seasons. He's slightly less adept from inside the arc, but still qualifies as a threat from all three levels. He's also almost a guarantee from the line; he's 86% from there on his career. He's not a great defender, but there's almost nothing he could do on that end that would counterbalance his offensive contributions.
Julian Strawther Small Forward Colby Jones
Junior Class Junior
6'7", 205 Measurements 6'6", 205
14.4/8/1.2 Game line 14.4/5.4/5.6
45.8/47.6/85.7 Shooting line 47.8/54.5/84.6
How's this for a matchup? Both of these guys are wings who can score it from all over, take care of the ball, and get after it on the glass. Jones has better ball skills and OReb numbers; Strawther cleans the defensive glass better and has a more consistent stroke from deep. Jones is probably a better defender and Strawther hasn't quite hit his stride yet this season, but these are two excellent wings.
Anton Watson Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Senior
6'8", 225 Measurements 6'9", 225
8.2/4.6/2.2 Game line 13.3/7.5/3.8
65.4/33.3/55.6 Shooting line 61.1/50/61.9
Watson is a career 65% two-point shooter who - despite a slow start this season - is always around on the offensive glass. He's a good defender but hampers himself with foul trouble on that end more than Few would like to see. He's not a focal point of the offense at all, but he is good at opportunistically finding ways to impact the game.
Drew Timme Center Jack Nunge
Senior Class Junior
6'10", 225 Measurements 7'0" 245
20.4/7.4/2.2 Game line 14.8/6.8/1.5
65.6/0/56.3 Shooting line 46.9/44.4/65.6
Turn on a TV to college basketball any time in the last three years and you've probably found someone making a big deal about Drew Timme. He's a super clever finisher! He's a persistent rebounder! He grows silly facial hair! All of those things are true. Obnoxious hype sometimes obscures basic facts, and the facts here are that Timme is an excellent player who is capable of taking over games. He's also a sneaky good defender with a knack for avoiding foul trouble. Hopefully a day of rest has helped Jack Nunge.


Not much, to be honest. Like Xavier, Gonzaga relies on their starters for most of their production.

Malachi Smith is a guard who can play all three perimeter positions; he averages just over 9 PPG and is an excellent defender. He also snipes; in the past three seasons - two at Chattanooga and this one at Gonzaga - he’s made 97 of his 236 three-point attempts, good for a cool 41.1%. Hunter Salis also helps out on the perimeter; he averages 5.5 PPG and hits the offensive glass really, really well. He’s a good mid-range shooter but not much from deep.

Ben Gregg and Efton Reid are a pair of big sophomores who account for the depth up front. If they’re good, they’ve been deprived of the chance to show it because of foul trouble. Gregg fouls over 11 times per 40 minutes and Reed over 14. Gregg is a better scorer and defensive rebounder. Reid crushes the offensive glass but has a higher TO rate - 49.8% - than I can recall seeing in the time we’ve been doing these. Few left Gregg in the Purdue game, probably just to see what happened. He was rewarded with 9 points in 9 minutes, which was all the time it took Gregg to foul out.

Three questions

-Is Xavier good? If you think so, you probably see X having been a right-handed layup away from taking down Indiana and a rough day from a couple exhausted big from punching with Duke. If you don’t, you probably see X needing Kowacie Reeves sitting out to beat Florida, a total of 5 reliable contributors, and two potential big wins gone by the boards already. I’m not convinced this Gonzaga team is the kind of power we’ve seen in the past few years, but Xavier needs to step up and take advantage of chances before the pointy end of the season.

-What does Miller have drawn up for Drew Timme? A big-to-big double scheme wasn’t the ticket against Indiana big man Trayce Jackson-Davis, who almost single-handedly won that game. The Muskies went man-up on Colin Castleton, allowing Jack Nunge to bully his son again and Xavier to win the game. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski got out of the blocks hot but was neutralized for most of the game. Timme can wreck a game in a hurry; Xavier better have multiple looks drawn up.

-Will either bench contribute? These are two of the less deep major teams in the nation, with both being outside the top 200 in bench minutes. Xavier gets slightly more of their minutes from the bench - 29.1% to 26.4% - but less production. Gonzaga’s bench has outscored Xavier’s by 45 through the first 6 games of the season, with players outside their starting five averaging 21.2 PPG to Xavier’s 13.6. Neither of these benches has done much of anything so far, but in the 3rd game in 4 days for these teams, one of them might.

Three keys

-Help middle. Xavier has not been great at forcing tough shots this year. They’ve actually been quite bad. They’ve allowed opponents to take 43% of their shots at the rim, which is 321st in the country. That’s right above Mercer and Presbyterian, which isn’t great company. They’ve defended okay in spite of that, ranking 115th by allowing just a 54% success rate on those shots, thanks largely to blocking 15.5% of opponents’ rim attempts (42nd nationally). It’s not clear to me that allowing Drew Timme to shoot from close and hoping for the best is a viable plan; Xavier needs to drop and help on deep touches. Gonzaga shoots well from deep, but they don’t shoot them often. Their bread and butter is the paint, and Xavier has to work to take that away.

-Limit turnovers. Xavier’s biggest offensive issues - and some of their defensive ones - have stemmed from their inability to avoid turning the ball over. Fortunately for Xavier, Gonzaga doesn’t turn opponents over very much at all. X has only played 3 teams with a worse defensive TO rate than the Zags, and they’ve beaten them all. Florida and Duke are both good TO defenses; Gonzaga is not. Xavier can’t give them any freebies.

-Set the defense early. Gonzaga is an offense that plays quickly, but they’re not necessarily hunting shots in transition. Only 27% of their initial shots come in transition, which is 190th in the nation. Instead, they’re just looking for the first good shot they can get, even if it’s early in the half court. Defensive lapses like not immediately finding a man or being a second late to get back will be punished with easy buckets.