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Xavier v. St. John’s: preview, matchups, keys to the game

After easing into the Big East season with Georgetown and a home game, Xavier is about to jump into the deep end.

NCAA Basketball: LIU at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is not in as strong a position as they were a year ago. I know that’s not a popular position, especially among a fan base that adulates Sean Miller and burns Travis Steele dolls in effigy, but that doesn’t change the truth. The team’s 1 Q1 win an 3 “good losses” have put them hanging around the mid-20s with 1.1 WAB. A year ago, they had almost twice that total and a legitimate claim on a protected seed. Sorry to drop that truth bomb on you without so much as an air raid siren for warning.

Legends aren’t made in December though; Xavier fans’ gripe with Steele always had more to do with the way his teams finished seasons than the way they began. This year’s team has had a solid but unspectacular start to the season, but there are opportunities ahead in the Big East. In the next 11 days alone, they’ll have 2 Q2 games and a Q1, a chance to more than double their heretofore modest WAB tally.

First up is a tricky road trip to St. John’s. The Johnnies are 11-2, but it hasn’t been a very impressive schedule thus far. They’re 0-1 in Q1, 0-1 in Q2, and 11-0 in the bottom 2 quads. Of their 11 wins, 9 are Q4. They’re undefeated at home and on neutral courts and 0-2 in true away games. This is a team with a hollow shell of a resume that they are desperately looking to shore up from within.

Team fingerprint

It’s all about tempo for the Red Storm. They run the fastest offense in D1 at under 15 seconds a possession. It’s not clear what they’re in such a hurry to do except maybe get the ball on the rim; they’re 24th in the nation in OReb%. They’re just a tick above average in TO rate and EFG%, mostly dragged down by a 30.6% mark from beyond the arc. To their credit, they don’t chuck, taking only 30% of their shots from deep. They don’t get to the line much and they’re only mediocre once they do; in all, it adds up to the 73rd-best offense in the nation.

Defensively, St. John’s isn’t as chaotic as they’ve been in years past. They’re just inside the top 100 in TO rate, a factor that had been their bread and butter in seasons past. They’re similarly solid in defensive EFG% and keeping teams off the line. The defensive glass has actually been rock solid for St. John’s; they’re allowing an OReb% under 25%, a number that puts them inside the top 50. They come close to conceding the arc, letting teams launch almost 40% of their shots from deep, albeit at a very low 31.5% success rate. They’re 48th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Andre Curbelo Point Guard Souley Boum
Junior Class Senior
6'1", 175 Measurements 6'3", 175
10.9/3.5/4.9 Game line 17.3/3.7/4.6
47.2/31.8/77.3 Shooting line 53.1/52.7/85.3
Curbelo is the kind of guard who keeps both teams in the game. Sometimes he drops 23/3/6 on 9-13 shooting like he did in leading St. John's to an OT win over Syracuse. Sometimes he turns the ball over at least 4 times - which he has done on 6 occasions this year - or misses at least half a dozen shots while shooting less than 35% on the game - which he has also done 6 times. He's all action, but that's not always good. He might well be the reason Xavier loses this game; he might also be the reason they win it.
Posh Alexander Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Junior Class Senior
6'0", 200 Measurements 6'4", 185
9.5/3.7/4.8 Game line 10.5/1.9/2.3
36.4/13/73.8 Shooting line 47.8/40.4/81.8
Posh has taken a step back this year, and much of that has happened inside the arc. His shooting percentages from both at the rim and in the mid-range are down at least 10 points from last season. In addition to that, his TO rate is up and his assist rate is down from last year. He's still an incredibly destructive defender and he still stays out of foul trouble, but he's distinctly not as valuable a two-way player as he has been in the past.
Montez Mathis Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Junior
6'4", 210 Measurements 6'6", 205
9.8/2.3/0.7 Game line 14.8/5.3/5.8
49.4/44.4/74.1 Shooting line 49.6/44.1/79.2
The Johnnies are struggling for shooting right now, but Mathis is their best threat. He's taking 4 threes a game and hitting almost 2 of them. It's almost all catch and shoot; if you let him get his feet set from deep, he's deadly. He needs to be, because he's not statistically impressive in any other major regard aside from having the elevated steal rate that everyone who plays for Mike Anderson has.
David Jones Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Senior
6'6", 210 Measurements 6'9", 225
14.6/7.5/2.1 Game line 14.3/7.5/3.2
40.7/27.8/80 Shooting line 60.6/62.5/67.5
The rare intraconference transfer, Jones went from being basically the only good guy at DePaul to one of the main options on a much better team. Jones crashes the glass hard on both ends and defends really well. He shoots a ton of threes - more than 7 a game - despite shooting well under 30% from deep. He's a bit of a volume scorer, but he can be a handful when he gets rolling.
Joel Soriano Center Jack Nunge
Senior Class Junior
6'11", 260 Measurements 7'0" 245
15.4/12.6/0.7 Game line 14.6/7.5/1.7
59.7/0/69.3 Shooting line 52.3/39.5/67.3
Soriano is an absolute load. He's a bully in the paint, where he's shooting over 70% at the rim. He also absolutely eats glass at both ends, easily averaging a double-double and being maybe the best rebounder in the nation by rate. He's an okay rim protector, but not elite. With a grand total of 0 three-point attempts on his career, he clearly knows what dude he is.

Reserves

Despite playing the game at a blinding pace, St. John’s doesn’t go that deep into the bench. They’re 232nd in the country with 29.1% of their minutes coming off the pine. I guess they trust their conditioning.

Guard Dylan Addae-Wusu has transformed into a shameless chucker this year. He’s averaging 6.3/4.3/1.8 on 39.4/26.8/64.3 shooting, a big step down from a guy who shot 38% from three last year. He’s posting a career best TO rate and a career worst assist rate and, as you’d expect from a Mike Anderson guard, causing a lot of turnover troubles for the opponents.

Wing AJ Storr is a 6’6” freshman averaging 6.1/0.8/0.5 off the bench. You can tell by that line that he’s not offering much other than scoring, but he’s a sniper with a 50/46.7/71.4 shooting line. Rafael Pinzon (does anyone call him Rafa? has that been workshopped?) has had some injury issues, but he’s played 9 games and posted a game line of 6.1/2.9/0.9. He’s a more versatile, less offensively efficient answer to Storr.

Big man O’Mar Stanley might get a look. He averages just over 10 minutes per game and puts up 3.8/2.6/0.3. He’s 6’8”, 230, not a great rebounder, and basically the only bench option over 6’6” that St. John’s regularly uses.

Three questions

-What’s the pace going to look like? St. John’s and Xavier are both in the top 25 in the country in adjusted tempo on KenPom, and both especially love to get out and go on offense. We could end up looking at a possession count in the high 70s to low 80s, which gives plenty of time for a lead to grow and then evaporate. Will either coach pull back on the reigns? If so, will either team respond effectively to that?

-Who will dictate the paint battle? Xavier runs two traditional bigs in Nunge and Freemantle that work well off of each other. Soriano is an old-school back to the basket masher, but Jones is a modern stretch four whose agility might present issues for Xavier’s defense. On the other hand, Nunge has the stroke to pull Soriano out of the paint, and Freemantle has the size and touch to work Jones on the block. Whichever team has to adjust first will be ceding some impetus to the opponent.

-Can Xavier contain St. John’s drivers? I know Posh Alexander is having a slow start to the year and Andre Curbelo is a bit of a loose cannon, but both of them are the kind of guard that can get into the middle and cause havoc. It’s not clear that any of Xavier’s perimeter players are elite (or even average) on-ball defenders; that might be a key point in deciding this game.

Three keys

-Collapse the defense. Mathis and Storr can shoot, and Xavier needs to be ready to recover to them. Beyond that, the team as a whole is shooting 30% from deep but 53% from inside the arc. Soriano has established himself as a menace, and a big-to-big double might be employed to shake him. St. John’s guards can drive, but they Alexander is struggling at the rim and Curbelo - while an excellent finisher - is prone to being cut off before he makes it to the rim. A lot of help on those two especially will go a long way towards short circuiting the St. John’s offense.

-Take the right shots. The Muskies were 5-20 from deep against Seton Hall, which is obviously not great. The game before that, they baptized Georgetown with a 14-26 performance from behind the arc. St. John’s will give up some looks from deep; Xavier has to make sure they take the ones that suit them, not simply the ones that the Johnnies leave available.

-Limit stupid turnovers. While St. John’s press isn’t what it has been in years past, they still will put pressure on decision makers on the ball. The Red Storm will turn turnovers - as well as missed shots, made shots, and any other sort of end of possession - into quick shots on the other end. They’re posting a 63.9% EFG% in transition after turnovers, well above their 50.7% EFG% in general and their 50.2% EFG% in all transition situations. They absolutely thrive on taking the ball and running it the other way for quick baskets; X has to limit their opportunities to do that.