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

Xavier hosts a national title contender with a chance to make a huge statement and turn the conference race on its head.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Connecticut
If you like watching grown men with the impulse control of toddlers, Danny Hurley is the coach for you!
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is off to a perfect start in conference play. They’re an unblemished 3-0 against Big East teams, having tossed aside Georgetown at their place and fought off Seton Hall at home and St. John’s on the road. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it has been beautiful. You can’t be better than 3-0 after 3 games.

UConn is off to a perfect start, full stop. They’re 6-0 in Q4 games, but they’re also 3-0 in Q2 and 3-0 in Q1. It’s not just who they’ve beaten, it’s how they’ve made it look like light work. They beat KenPom #9 Alabama by 15 at a neutral site and clobbered KenPom top-50 teams Florida, Oregon, and Iowa State. They were actually in a bit of a fight with Georgetown, trailing by as many as 7 in the second half at home, then they got up through the gears in a 5+ minute, 20-3 run to go from trailing to tense to transcendent, turning the game into a prolonged celebration by the end. They’re currently 14-0 (3-0) and rolling.

The Muskies haven’t had a resume chance like this since they came back from Portland. UConn is rock solid right now, and it would take something borderline unprecedented for this to not be a Q1 game by the end of the season. UConn looks like a Final Four contender and the runaway favorite for the league; this is Xavier’s best chance to stake a claim to the Big East.

Team fingerprint

Uh, really good? On offense, they shoot 57% from inside the arc and 36.7% from beyond it. They love the three ball, taking almost 44% of their attempts from beyond the arc. A little surprisingly for a team that hucks from deep so much, they’re excellent on the offensive glass, easily inside the top 50 nationally. They hang around the top-100 line in ball security and free throw rate, but they’re so good at shooting and they do so much of it that they’re 7th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.

They’re even better on defense, at 4th. That comes largely from forcing bad shots; they’re 7th in defensive 3P% and 15th in 2P%. They also win the freebie war both ways, sitting at 31st in the nation with a TO rate of 23% and 12th with a DReb% of 77.5%. They force bad shots, don’t let you get a shot off in almost a quarter of their possessions, and almost never allow second shots. The only crack in their wall is free throw rate, where they’re 322nd in the country. They foul a lot.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Tristen Newton Point Guard Souley Boum
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 190 Measurements 6'3", 175
9.9/4.2/4.4 Game line 17.3/3.9/4.7
34.4/34/83.3 Shooting line 51.8/50/86.8
Newton jumped to UConn from East Carolina and is posting the best efficiency of his life. He's not shooting great from the floor, but he does a good job of getting to the line and is money when he arrives. He also has good distribution numbers and increasingly excellent ball security. In conference play, he's got a TO rate of 18.9%. Like Boum, he's a good rebounder for a guard.
Jordan Hawkins Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Sophomore Class Senior
6'5", 195 Measurements 6'4", 185
14.9/3.3/1.5 Game line 10.3/1.8/2.3
41.3/40.9/79.4 Shooting line 46.9/39.3/81.8
Hawkins has taken a huge leap forward in his sophomore season. He's a bit of a volume guy, but he's an excellent three-point shooter and his efficiency is helped by the fact that he never turns the ball over. He's only an average finisher and he can be made to pull up, where he's shooting just 26% in the mid-range. He is foul prone, most notably in when he picked up 4 fouls in just 6 minutes against Iowa State.
Andre Jackson Small Forward Colby Jones
Junior Class Junior
6'6", 210 Measurements 6'6", 205
6/6/4.8 Game line 14.2/5.3/5.7
39/30/78.6 Shooting line 48.8/44.4/78.6
This guy is bonkers athletic. He's not the most refined scorer on the team, but he might be the most versatile guy they have. He's had 5+ assists in 7 of the 11 games he's played, crushes the defensive glass, and can guard just about anyone on the floor. He's a really good player whose stat lines don't do justice to his contributions. He, like Hawkins, can be a little foul prone.
Alex Karaban Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Freshman Class Senior
6'8", 210 Measurements 6'9", 225
9.8/3.9/1.8 Game line 14.3/7.6/2.9
47.4/37.5/80.8 Shooting line 59.3/60/66.7
Karaban is a legit stretch four; two-thirds of his field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. He's not going to make his own shot; 23 of his 24 threes and 35 of his 46 total makes are off of assists. He's not much of a rebounder, but he holds his own on the defensive end. He's an excellent free throw shooter in decent volume.
Adama Sanogo Center Jack Nunge
Junior Class Junior
6'9", 245 Measurements 7'0" 245
17.8/6.8/1.3 Game line 15.2/7.9/1.8
61.4/40.9/76.6 Shooting line 54.1/42.5/66.7
The preseason conference player of the year for a reason. Sanogo's game last year consisted largely of trying to bully through the dude in front of him to finish at the rim, but he has significantly branched out this year. He has added catch-and-shoot range from behind the arc in just enough volume that it needs to be noted, and his post and mid-range games have become a lot more diverse. He's a good rebounder at both ends - more by real estate than athleticism - but doesn't have much in the way of rim protection. With 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes, he can be had by the whistle.

Reserves

UConn goes deep. They get almost 37% of their minutes off the bench, good for 59th in the nation. It’s not just warm bodies running out there, either; they’ve got some good players in reserve.

First in line is freshman big Donovan Clingan. He’s 7’2”, 265 and pretty much swaps out with Sanogo. He averages 9.1/6.4/0.4 per game, boards like an animal at both ends, and blocks a ton of shots. He can be foul prone and his range is about the same as his wingspan, but he’s a handful in the paint on both ends.

San Diego transfer guard Joey Calcaterra has found new life in Storrs. He never posted an ORtg of even 100 in San Diego, but he’s got a scalding 131.5 this season. He averages 8.4/2.6/1.8 thanks largely to his 51.9/51.1/83.3 shooting line. He’s a live wire off the bench who can turn a game on its head in an instant.

Former Xavier opponents round out the bench. Va Tech transfer Nahiem Alleyne offers some guard depth, averaging 5.6/1.4/1.1 on an EFG% of 44.9%. Texas A&M guard Hassan Diarra is now UConn guard Hassan Diarra; he put up 12/2/3 against Xavier in the NIT final and is averaging 3.2/1.9/2.7 for the Huskies.

Three questions

-How does Xavier defend Sanogo? Xavier had good success against Joel Soriano by dropping from the guards and cutting off his supply on the post. That’s fine when Posh Alexander and Ander Curbelo are combining to shoot 7-23 from the floor; it’s probably less viable against the firepower that UConn brings to the perimeter. Sanogo is an absolute horse if he gets position; defending him one-on-one is a big ask for any player. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles Sean Miller has to deploy here.

-Can Xavier contest the arc enough? The Muskies do a good job of chasing teams off the arc, ranking 30th in the nation in defensive three-point rate, but teams are still shooting 37.4% on the threes they get away. UConn shoots a lot of them and shoots them fairly well. If Xavier gets drawn away from the wrong guys on the arc, they’ll get buried under a barrage of threes the way Nova used to do back in the day.

-Is there enough depth? UConn has a ton of it. Xavier has Jerome Hunter and Des Claude. We know Souley Boum is good for 40, but it has appeared that the Muskies have worn down down the stretch in more than a few games. Can Cesare Edwards effectively spell the bigs enough to keep them fresh? Can Kyky Tandy find a way to Hugh Glass his way onto the floor for a bucket or two? It feels like it will take more than 7 guys to win this game.

Three keys

-Move Sanogo around. Sanogo is clearly a monster; it’s less clear that he’s super mobile. Jack Nunge has the capability of making long jumpers, and he needs to be in full effect to force Sanogo to chase him all over. I don’t care how many threes he has to glass; it’s imperative that he either makes UConn’s bigs follow him out of the paint or punish them for not doing so.

-Push the pace. UConn plays at about an average pace, which is fine, but it’s not the sprint at which Xavier is used to playing games. Teams are posting an EFG% of 46.8% in transition, which is objectively bad, but it’s better than the 41.9% they’re posting overall. UConn defends well in all settings, but they’re more vulnerable in the full court. Xavier needs to get out and go at every opportunity.

-Find the home whistle. Yeah, I know, it’s not sexy, but it is a reality. UConn sends teams to the line a lot, and Xavier is solid at converting from the stripe. Sanogo, Clingan, and Jackson are all fairly foul prone and Hawkins, Diarra, Karaban, and Alleyne can all run afoul of the zebras from time to time. Xavier can’t settle for pull-ups or long jumpers; they have to go hunting bodies in the middle.