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

Xavier once again seems intent on using February to fritter away all the good work they did earlier in the year. This game has become very big indeed.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

One very long week ago, these teams faced off at the Cintas Center. Both were coming off good performances, as Xavier had put together a strong second half to take Seton Hall to the wire on the road and UConn had beaten a Marquette team that was - at the time - scorching hot. Xavier won that game on the back of 22 and 9 from Jack Nunge, who was unstoppable out of ball screen action.

A lot has changed since then. UConn has regrouped and won at St. John's by three and home to Seton Hall by five. The less said about what Xavier has done, the better. At 9-5 in the league, the Huskies are trying to lock down a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. Xavier is just looking to fight off a bubble that is drawing ever closer.

Team fingerprint

What changes in a week? Not much, to be honest. UConn still flies to the offensive glass and blocks a ton of shots. They don't shoot particularly well themselves, though neither did St. John's before completely gashing Xavier's defense in the mid-week game. UConn plays slowly and makes no effort to force turnovers.

The Huskies are tops in the league in defensive three-point rate and defensive assist rate. They do a good job of isolating ballhandlers and forcing solo play. They're excellent on the defensive glass. Basically, they're the same team Xavier hosted on the 11th.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
R.J. Cole Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'1", 185 Measurements 6'5", 198
16.2/3.6/4.4 Game line 12.4/4.6/4.3
40.4/33.1/86.6 Shooting line 43.5/34.2/69.4
Cole has been steady and consistent since the teams last met. That has led to a couple of UConn wins and the feeling that he's due for one of those games where he is just about unstoppable.
Andre Jackson Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'4", 192
6.8/7.5/2.8 Game line 9.8/2.6/1
42.6/41.5/74.5 Shooting line 41.8/39.4/75.6
Jackson had 16 rebounds against St. John's but remains essentially the same player he was a week ago: a good rebounder who can knock down a three and doesn't do much else.
Tyrese Martin Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'6", 215 Measurements 6'6", 207
14/6.8/1.8 Game line 10.2/7.6/2.9
47/43.3/68.1 Shooting line 45.3/27.1/72.3
Martin has scored double figures in all but one game this month and been very efficient in doing so. He's just a metronomic do everything player who rarely puts a foot wrong and is occasionally spectactular.
Isaiah Whaley Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 225 Measurements 6'9" 220
7.5/4.9/1.2 Game line 9.7/5.1/1.4
52.6/28.2/71.1 Shooting line 45/17.2/70.3
Whaley was not good the last time these teams met, but he's blocked six shots since and scored a respectable 18 points. If he gets on the offensive glass, he's tough.
Adama Sanogo Center Jack Nunge
Sophomore Class Junior
6'9", 240 Measurements 7'0" 245
15.1/8.6/0.9 Game line 13.5/7.2/0.8
51.8/0/66.2 Shooting line 54/34.8/74.6
Sanogo has averaged 14/11/1 in the last two games. He has also stayed out of foul trouble. If he can stay on the floor, he'll be as near dominant as ever. If Jack Nunge can get him hacking early again, this game will swing in Xavier's favor.

Reserves

Tyler Polley plays the most minutes off the bench and is kind of what you want in a bench guy. He’s very careful with the ball (like, fourth best in the nation), shoots reasonably well from everywhere, and plays some defense. He’s also 6-9. Right then. Akok Akok blocks shots and has a name guaranteed to make a 12 year old boy giggle. He also has a foot sprain that has cost him the last five games. Backing up the guards will be the solid and unspectacular Jalen Gaffney. His usage is hard to figure out, as he has played 30 minutes in a games this year and also come within an assist of a five minute trillion his last time out. That just leaves Jordan Hawkins, who continues to shoot a lot from everywhere, well from nowhere, and not do a great deal else.

Three questions

-Can Nate Johnson go? The difference between Xavier with an effective Johnson and Xavier without one is night and day. The Muskies cannot get much going on offense if they aren't opening things up a little bit with made jumpers, and they make precious few of them with Nate on the bench. This game could be decided in the training room.

-What if UConn goes zone? Xavier was more or less fine against St. John's until Mike Anderson got the idea to collapse all the way into the lane on defense and dare Xavier to shoot them out of it. Xavier couldn't. X made hay by putting Jack Nunge out top and forcing UConn's big men to make a decision in a ball screen; if they don't have to, it's hard to see where Xavier's points might come from.

-What is Xavier's rotation? Depth is cool if you can use it, but Xavier's roster deployment has been all over the place lately. Coach Steele has made a habit of riding the starters until the wheels fall off to open the second half, but it's not clear how effective that has been. Can Xavier defend effectively with Zach Freemantle on the floor, or does Jerome Hunter or Dieonte Miles need some run? Can Freemantle and Nunge shoulder the interior scoring load on their own, or should Cesare Edwards be out there more? What personnel package makes the most use of Dwon Odom and his absence of a three-point threat? When X can't dictate matchups to their opponents, the whole thing promptly goes off the rails.

Three keys

-Play the glass even. UConn feasts on second chances, and Xavier has been susceptible to them even in good moments this year. Stops will be crucial to keep the Gampel Pavilion crowd at bay, and nothing energizes home support like a run built on energy plays on the offensive glass. UConn will do something like blanking X on the offensive glass; the Muskies have to try to return the favor at the other end.

-Limit silly turnovers. UConn is not a team invested in forcing turnovers, and Xavier is not especially prone to them. They do have a habit of making memorable ones, however, and those often lead to easy baskets on the other end. X is currently 8th in the Big East in defensive efficiency. With as much as they struggle in even routine defensive settings, the last thing they need to do is hand UConn easy points on run-outs.

-Make enough jumpers. Please. Xavier is 9-1 in games they shoot at least 33% from deep and 11-3 in games in which they make at least 6 threes. There is no substitute in the modern game for knocking down jumpers, and Xavier's offense can feast in the paint if teams can't collapse on it with no consequences. We don't need a team full of Steph Currys here, just enough guys to make a couple shots that the defense has to remain honest.