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

X hosts a dangerous St. John's team in a game the Muskies can't afford to lose.

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

Xavier put together what was inarguably their most complete performance of the calendar year last time out, matching UConn blow-for-blow in the first half before pulling away from them in the second. Since their loss to Villanova on January 12, Xavier has mostly treaded water in the league, alternating winning and losing streaks of two games. If the pattern holds, X is a lock to win tonight.

Looking to ruin the symmetry Xavier has carefully cultivated over the last month is St. John's. The Johnnies have dropped tough games to Nova and UConn by a total of 9 points over the last week. They've been without talismanic point guard Posh Alexander during that time, as he has been out with an ankle injury. At-large hopes have gone by the wayside for them, but they've still got pride to play for, as well as a shot at some favorable matchups in the Big East Tournament to see if they can make a run at the automatic bid.

Team fingerprint

Boy do these guys love to play in a hurry. They're the second-fastest offensive team in the entire nation, averaging just 14.7 seconds per possession. They play fairly clean ball, ranking third in the conference in TO rate. They also fly to the offensive glass. Unfortunately, all those extra shots lead to very little; they're 9th in the league in EFG% and are not a threat from deep by success rate or volume. They're also miserable from the line, shooting 63% in Big East games. They do lead the league in assist rate though, so... good on them?

The Red Storm's offense is 7th in the league; their defense comes in at 8th. The obvious headliner to their defensive efforts is their ability to force turnovers, a department in which they lead the Big East. They'll press full court and swarm in the half court, forcing teams to work to get the ball up an into their actions. Beyond that, though, their defense is bad. They're 8th in EFG%, 10th in DReb%, and 11th in defensive free throw rate. They're 5th in 2P% defense, thanks largely to being second in block rate. By and large though, they are a team that either forces a turnover or plays bad defense.



Starting matchups
Posh Alexander Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Sophomore Class Senior
6'1", 185 Measurements 6'5", 198
14.9/4.6/5.2 Game line 12.3/4.7/4.3
50.2/21.2/73.8 Shooting line 42.9/33.8/68.4
Travis Steele is preparing as if Posh Alexander will play. If he does, he's deadly inside the arc and moves the ball well. He's also excellent with ball security for as aggressive as he is. His one major weakness is that he is a horrible three point shooter but just keeps shooting them.
Dylan Addae-Wusu Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Sophomore Class Senior
6'4", 235 Measurements 6'4", 192
9.4/4.4/4.3 Game line 9.7/5.2/1.3
41.9/38.2/61.5 Shooting line 44.4/18.5/70.3
Addae-Wusu is a very good three point shooter and, like Alexander, a menace on defense. He has a high assist rate, but will turn the ball over. He's a big body guard who struggles at the rim and the line.
Julian Champagnie Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'8", 215 Measurements 6'6", 207
18.3/6.8/1.9 Game line 10.3/7.5/2.8
41.2/34.7/75.6 Shooting line 45.1/28.3/72
Champagnie is, in an overused term, a dude. He scores at all three levels, rebounds, and plays good defense. No matter who Xavier uses on him, it's going to be a tough matchup.
Aaron Wheeler Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 205 Measurements 6'9" 220
9.8/4.1/1.3 Game line 9.7/5.2/1.3
48/38.5/67.5 Shooting line 44.4/18.5/70.3
Wheeler blocks shots and scores with aptitude. He's not a great rebounder despite his size, but he can step out and be a threat. He's going to pull one of Xavier's bigs out of the paint and make him defend on the perimeter.
Joel Soriano Center Jack Nunge
Junior Class Junior
6'11", 255 Measurements 7'0" 245
6/5.6/1 Game line 13.1/7.2/0.8
53.7/0/69.2 Shooting line 54.4/35.9/76.2
Soriano blocks a lot of shots and rebounds at a really high rate. He scores effectively, but not frequently. His penchant for hacking gets him into trouble. In 25% of SJU's games he's had at least four fouls.


If Posh Alexander can’t go, Stef Smith will probably start in his place. Smith is scoring 6.3 points per game, but the step down from Alexander to him is significant. Montez Mathis is another guard who starts on occasion. Mathis is a good defender and scores 8.6 per game, but he doesn’t get it efficiently and he’s a brutally bad shooter. Despite the pace that Mike Alexander demands, those seven players are most of his rotation. Tareq Coburn is a three point shooter who doesn’t do much else. O’Mar Stanley is the only real backup big. He blocks shots and steals well, but he has limited range. He is very efficient, but that is limited immensely by a horrendous 29.4% mark at the line.

Three questions

-Which vital guard(s) will play? On the Xavier side, the Muskies are almost unstoppable on offense when Nate Johnson plays well and very, very stoppable when he doesn't. He's a game-time decision after hyperextending his knee against UConn. For the visitors, Posh Alexander is an all-league level guard who is a menace spearheading the Johnnies' defense, but he's day-to-day with ankle trouble. Either of these guys has the capacity to swing this game.

-Can Xavier play two bigs together? St. John's is garbage on the defensive glass, but they are a solid defensive team on the interior and aggressive on the offensive boards. Xavier can counter that with Nunge and Freemantle together, but that lineup is predicated on Xavier's ability to handle St. John's ball pressure without having to go small. The Muskies will have the advantage in the paint; they can only keep that advantage if they don't cede it elsewhere.

-Can Xavier lock in from the line? Nobody in the Big East sends opponents to the free throw line as often as St. John's does. (They also are fairly permissive from behind the arc, but for the purposes of this point, I'm assuming it's more likely X get to the stripe than makes it rain from deep.) Nobody in the league gets to the line as well as X does. The Muskies have been extremely spotty from the line as a team; they can win this game with uncontested 15-foot set shots if they manage to get out of their own way long enough to make it happen.

Three keys

-Move Soriano around. St. John's center is 3rd in the Big East in block rate. Also well inside the top 10 are Adama Sanogo and Ryan Kalkbrenner, both of whom Jack Nunge ate for lunch in recent Xavier wins. Nunge's 41% mark from deep in league play has made him almost impossible for immobile big men to guard. Soriano is a formidable rim protector, but Xavier should be repeatedly challenging his ability to make the right decision every time in ball screen action around the perimeter.

-Protect the ball. The number one way to lose to St. John's is to allow them to get easy baskets off of turnovers. They're not a good half court team on either end, but they'll kill teams who let them play from end line to end line in a hurry. The Muskies have somehow turned into a team with rock-solid ball security in the conference after struggling with it for the early portion of the season; they desperately need to continue that trend tonight.

-Pack the paint. St. John's gets 57% of their points from inside the arc; they're easily first in the league in that category. Wheeler and Addae-Wusu merit some attention from deep, but most of the offensive threat is carried by slashers and post ups. Xavier needs more than a hand's worth of help on anyone who tries to close range to the rim; more than almost anyone on the schedule, the Johnnies are a team you can collapse the defense around without getting burned.