There are two slowly separating pieces in the Xavier fan base. The great Travis Steele debate has taken over almost all of the discourse around the program. As the team wades through another February fraught with problems, the unusual thing is that both sides of the debate are correct enough on the facts. Xavier is 16-6 (6-5) and in commanding position to get a bid to the NCAA tournament. Xavier is also struggling mightily on offense and showing some signs of coming apart down the stretch.
Seton Hall is doing much the same thing X is right now. Since the 29th of December the Pirates are in a pattern in which they win two, lose two, then rinse and repeat. The last couplet for them has been wins over Georgetown and Creighton. While that would suggest that Seton Hall is due to lose a couple, the patterns don’t actually mean much more than that two talented but inconsistent teams are about to meet each other in
South Orange Newark.
Seton Hall with and without Bryce Aiken are a different team. The Pirates are 10-5 with Aiken, just 3-2 without him. Aiken isn’t just a super senior, he’s in his sixth college basketball season. He brings three point shooting and assist rate to a team that really struggles with both. The Pirates offense isn’t great. Thinking of it as a better version of what DePaul does wouldn’t be far off. The major difference is that Seton Hall will play very slowly.
On defense is where SHU will make their hay. The Pirates are absolute death on post players. Ike Obiagu is the third best shot blocker in the nation and because of that Seton Hall is the second best shot blocking team in the Big East. Opponents shoot an appalling 44.6% inside the arc against the Pirates and a not much better 31.2% from deep. Seton Hall won’t force many turnovers, but they do very effectively limit ball rotation.
|Kadary Richmond||Point Guard||Paul Scruggs|
|6'6", 200||Measurements||6'5", 198|
|Pressed into action by Bryce Aiken's injury issues, Richmond has stepped up admirably as the starting point guard. He's 4th in the league in assist rate and 1st in steal rate in Big East games. He doesn't shoot it as well as Aiken does, but he's a difficult defender to elude. He has a tendency to hunt shots in a way that his efficiency numbers don't support. Look for him to post up on the offensive end.|
|Myles Cale||Shooting Guard||Nate Johnson|
|6'6", 210||Measurements||6'4", 192|
|Cale took advantage of the covid year to come back for what feels like his eleventh season of college ball. It's actually just his fifth, and he remains as he has always been: a good defender with the capacity to really go off on offense three or four times a year. He's having a really bad year from the free throw line, just in case that becomes pertinent.|
|Jared Rhoden||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'6", 210||Measurements||6'6", 207|
|An excellent support player for three years, Rhoden is melting a bit under the pressure of being the man. His efficiency numbers are down thanks to a big step back in his shooting, but he's still getting after it on the glass and protecting the ball. His highest volume games have coincided with Seton Hall losses; the team is at its best when he doesn't have to carry the whole load.|
|Tray Jackson||Power Forward||Zach Freemantle|
|6'10", 210||Measurements||6'9" 220|
|Stretch fours have been a thorn in Xavier's side for a long time, and Jackson is a really good one. He's 14-28 from behind the arc in Big East play. He's also 14-28 from inside the arc during that time and not a dominant rebounder. He's capable of getting hot, as evidenced when he wrecked Georgetown to the tune of 21 on 7-11 shooting. He starts but splits minutes with Alexis Yetna.|
|Ike Obiagu||Center||Jack Nunge|
|7'2", 265||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|The best rim protector in the league by some margin and one of the best in the country, Obiagu throws nearly one in five shots when he's on the floor. He's a good offensive rebounder but not especillay present on the defensive glass. He also doesn't score much or really attempt to. Crucially, he is almost entirely immune to foul trouble.|
Bryce Aiken is a question mark for this game. Travis Steele said he expects Aiken to start, but there has been no official announcement that the veteran will be back from concussion symptoms. If he is, he goes for 14.5/2.1/2.7 and is the best shooter on the team. Alexis Yetna has started seven of Seton Hall’s 11 Big East games this season. He averages 9.1/7.6/0.6 and is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Itinerant guard Jamir Harris is with his third team of his career and is value added from behind the arc (38% in Big East play) but posts a shocking 3.7% assist rate to go with his 19.6% turnover rate in conference play. The rotation ends with 6-10 shot blocker Tyrese Samuel. Samuel would rate as a great shot blocker if not eclipsed by Obiagu and is a stellar rebounder.
- Can Xavier (please) get off to a good start? There is likely no need to remind anyone reading this, but the Musketeers have been burying themselves with horrid starts recently. They elevated that to an art form last Saturday against DePaul when they scored seven points in the first ten minutes and averaged a point a minute for the first 15. If they do that today, you might as well just turn the game off.
- How does Xavier solve the shot blocking issue? Against Creighton in that brilliant second Travis Steele played both of his bigs and used Jack Nunge to move Ryan Kalkbrenner away from the rim. It would behoove Xavier to get Nunge a couple clean outside looks early to make the Pirates react the same way that the Bluejays did. It then just becomes a matter of Zach Freemantle finishing near the rim.
- If Nate Johnson isn’t hitting, should he play? Nate is mired in what is fast becoming more than a slump. The worse he shoots, the more despondent he looks. While his effort can’t be questioned, he doesn’t bring a lot else when his shot isn’t falling. Adam Kunkel and Dwon Odom do.
- Rebound: These teams mirror each other in rebounding. X doesn’t offensive rebound terribly well, SHU doesn’t defensive rebound well. Seton Hall crushes the offensive glass, Xavier defensive rebounds at the top rate in the conference. X needs to grab a serious advantage in one of those categories in order to control this game.
- Stretch the defense: If the game turns into a half court grind it out sort of affair, Seton Hall will both feel at home and have the advantage. Xavier can’t just throw the ball into the paint and hope for the best, because Obiagu and Samuel will erase interior offense. Someone, anyone, needs to get at least warm from behind the arc.
- Attack the rim: Byron Larkin mentioned that Xavier’s players on Saturday looked as if they were fearful of shot blockers and so were hesitating around the rim. The shot blocking tonight will be just as swarming, so Xavier’s players need to drive into contact and be aggressive. Jack Nunge flashed it against DePaul when he thumped an elbow into Nick Ongenda. That needs to be the norm tonight.