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

It's a quick turnaround for Xavier as they host a hot UConn team.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Marquette
This guy is a problem
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The good thing about the Big East is that it always serves up another opportunity to right the ship. The bad news is that there are very few respites in the league schedule, and Xavier just botched one of them by losing at home to DePaul. The Muskies would be in easily if the season ended today. It doesn't though, and X needs to back up twenty(ish) games of good work with a few more wins down the stretch if they want it all to mean anything come March.

Next up on the docket for Xavier is UConn. The Huskies are 7-4 in conference with losses by four, three (in OT), four, and 11. A reasonable case could be made that they could just as easily be 10-1. Of course, they're currently 11th in conference SOS in the 11 team Big East, so they're something like flat track bullies just now. All you can do is beat the teams in front of you, and as Xavier proved last weekend, that's never a given in this league.

Team fingerprint

This team is an elite offensive rebounding group. They're first in the Big East, grabbing 3 of every 8 of their own misses. They're a solid three-point shooting team, but they're pretty average inside the arc. They're also in the middle of the pack in ball security. They shoot really well from the line, and very few of their shots get blocked. It's worth noting that they play fairly slowly, coming in at 8th in the Big East in offensive tempo. It all adds up to the #2 offense in the league.

The Huskies are 5th defensively, with glaring deficiencies in forcing turnovers and avoiding fouls. They are excellent in defending inside the arc, allowing teams to shoot just 43% on two-point attempts. While their 3P% against is high, they're first in the league in limiting opponents' attempts from beyond the arc. Also, they're first in the conference with a 15.5% block rate. They swat a ton of shots.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
RJ Cole Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'1", 185 Measurements 6'5", 198
16/3.8/4.5 Game line 12.4/4.7/4.4
39.6/32.8/89 Shooting line 42.6/34.2/70.3
Cole's shooting line isn't great, but he's doing everything else well. He moves the ball without turning it over, scores, and gets to the line frequently. He's quite good.
Andre Jackson Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'4", 192
7.1/7.5/2.7 Game line 9.6/4.9/1.3
41.6/41.7/76 Shooting line 43.8/18.5/70.6
Jackson is a great rebounder for a guard and a good three point shooter in limited attempts. He's not much of a scorer and is a poor shooter inside the arc. It's on the glass and defense where he adds his value.
Tyrese Martin Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'6", 215 Measurements 6'6", 207
13.5/6.7/1.9 Game line 10.5/7.6/2.6
48.4/43.1/64.9 Shooting line 45.8/29.5/71.6
Martin does a little bit of everything, and does it all well. He can rebound, score, and set the occasional play up. If Xavier goes man up, Colby will have his hands full.
Isaiah Whaley Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 225 Measurements 6'9" 220
7.6/4.9/1.1 Game line 9.6/4.9/1.3
54.4/30.3/70.3 Shooting line 43.8/18.5/70.6
Whaley scores in the post and throws shots. His defensive rebounding suffers from his block rate, but he's a good offensive rebounder and a consistent threat to score around the rim.
Adama Sanogo Center Jack Nunge
Senior Class Junior
7'2", 265 Measurements 7'0" 245
15.4/8.4/0.9 Game line 12.7/7.1/0.7
52.9/0/68.8 Shooting line 54.3/36.2/75.8
Sanogo hoovers shots that have bounced off the rim and shots that haven't gotten there yet. He's a rebounding machine who isn't a great scorer but gets his in bunches by virtue of being around the rim. He'll be a brutal matchup for someone.

Reserves

Tyler Polley is the first body off the bench. Polley gets 8.0/2.0/0.5 and plays over 20 minutes per game. Polley never turns the ball over and is very efficient on offense. Akok Akok is one of the few Huskies to have started a game that isn’t currently in the starting five. His raison d’etre is shot blocking. He won’t add much elsewhere, but he’ll throw shots prodigiously. Jalen Gaffney is another member of the Huskies deep bench. He’s more a facilitator than a scorer in his own right and has the best assist rate on the team. Finally, Jordan Hawkins rounds up the UConn players getting double digit minutes. He’s a scorer, but not a terribly efficient one.

Three questions

-Who are Xavier's best five? It's clear to all but the most naive fan at this point that Zach Freemantle is not the panacea we were hoping for. I think most would agree that Paul Scruggs and Jack Nunge belong on the floor in winning time. After that, you can make a case for (or, more likely, against) any number of about a half a dozen guys. Travis Steele will look down the bench and see Freemantle, Jerome Hunter, Cesare Edwards, Dieonte Miles, Colby Jones, Adam Kunkel, Nate Johnson, and Dwon Odom looking back at him. Would you like to stake your job on picking the right three from that group in a close and late game right now? I'm not sure I would.

-How will X handle Sanogo? Sanogo is huge, physical, athletic, and skilled; think if Ike Obiagu were slightly smaller but good at basketball. He can be prone to fouls and turnovers a bit, but he is averaging 15 and 10 in Big East play. Left poorly attended, he'll run rampant in the paint. The Muskies can't afford to take too much time to find the right strategy against him.

-What is this team's identity? Is it toughness? Defense? Effort? Statistically, they're very good at defending without fouling, getting to the line, ball security, and defensive rebounding. Is any of those the first thing you think of when you think of this team? They're pretty okay at a lot of stuff; it's not clear what they hang their hat on.

Three keys

-Defend the glass. Offense begins with the first miss a lot of times for the Huskies. They've got a ton of guys who fly to the glass on that end and it turns into a lot of second chance points. Xavier got crushed on the glass - especially in the first half - against Seton Hall. A repeat of that performance will almost undoubtedly lead to another loss.

-Protect the ball. It's simplistic, but these two things are what made the difference last time out. Of Seton Hall's 37 first-half points, 24 were off either second chances or turnovers. Xavier played well enough to win the game, they just shot themselves in the foot too hard to actually accomplish it. Simple things will lead to good results if Xavier can execute them.

-Play two halves. The standard men's college basketball game contains within two 20-minute periods. You all know that, but it's not clear that Xavier does. In their last 10 games, Xavier has outscored opponents by 59 points in second halves, but it has only been enough to go 5-5 thanks to trailing at the interval in a stunning nine of those games. Xavier is +14 in the second halves of those five losses. The Muskies have followed a pattern of looking confused and listless in the first half and then like a completely different team in the second half. If they can have two second halves against UConn, they'll win.