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

Another chance to stop the slide.

Syndication: The Enquirer Jeff Dean for The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

It hasn't been that long since these teams played, though it has certainly felt like it. Heading into that game, Xavier was 17-7, playing for seeding, and coming off a home win against UConn. The biggest questions for X fans were how long Nate Johnson would be out and how the Muskies would fare without him. The answers to those were "at least four games" and the barfing face emoji. Xavier lost to the Johnnies at home, surrendering 30 points in the last 10 minutes and kicking off a four game skid that has them screaming towards the bubble.

St. John's hasn't fared much better since then. They followed the win over Xavier with a 91-57 demolition of Butler, then turned around and lost home to Creighton and at DePaul. Both of these teams will play Wednesday in the Big East Tournament. The way things are going, Xavier may be lucky for a Wednesday game in the big dance.

Team fingerprint

St. John's loves to play fast; it's their defining trait. They're second in the nation in offensive tempo and first in the league in that department. All that speed doesn't lead to turnover issues, as they're first in the Big East in ball security. They're also third in OReb%. All those possessions come in handy, because they don't shoot it well. They're 7th in the league in EFG% and last in FT% at a grim 64.4%. It all adds up to the #5 offense in the league.

Their defense is based on a series of presses and traps and geared towards forcing turnovers; they're first in the league in TO rate. They get gashed from inside and beyond the arc, don't defend the glass well, and foul a ton. If they don't force a turnover, they generally hemorrhage points. They're 7th in the Big East in AdjD.

Players

Starters

Montez Mathis Shooting Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'4", 210 Measurements 6'5", 198
8.6/3.7/2 Game line 12.2/4.3/4.1
43/22.9/61.5 Shooting line 42.8/33.3/69.4
Mathis is a guard suited to St. John's pressing style and is capable of creating turnovers and hassling shooters into poor showings. That being said, he is maddeningly inconsistent as an offensive force and struggles to score the ball efficiently at any range.
Julian Champagnie Small Forward Colby Jones
Junior Class Sophomore
6'8", 215 Measurements 6'6", 207
19/6.6/2 Game line 10.7/7.7/2.9
40.8/35.7/77.9 Shooting line 47.1/29.6/72.2
Champagnie should be in the hunt for some all-Big East honors come the start of next week. His shooting numbers are down from a year ago, but he has had to shoulder an even larger load than last season and torched Xavier for 27 last time. He went for 26 last time out against DePaul and is always a threat to get hot and carry the Johnnies to a win.
Aaron Wheeler Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 205 Measurements 6'9" 220
10.2/4.4/1.3 Game line 10.1/5.3/1.4
48.8/40.6/65.2 Shooting line 44.7/20.5/65.1
Given how the last pick and pop 4 did against Xavier, Wheeler will be hoping to improve on his 11 points in the first meeting. Since joining the starting lineup permanently at the end of January, he has cemented himself as a solid number two option behind Champagnie and is currently 4th in the conference in 3p%.
Esahia Nyiwe Center Jack Nunge
Junior Class Junior
6'10", 220 Measurements 7'0" 245
1.7/2.3/0.6 Game line 13/7.3/0.9
47.5/42.9/40 Shooting line 52.1/32.9/74.6
Nyiwe has started the past two games because of Joel Soriano's knee problems and has a serviceable 11 and 10 in 36 minutes in those outings. He rebounds decently, blocks shots well, and fouls at an absurd rate. He hasn't played more than 20 minutes since December 5th.

Reserves

Posh Alexander has struggled with an ankle injury for almost a month, but is coming off of his best game since returning. When healthy, he is the best defensive player in the league and can create havoc for opposing ball handlers while also being an explosive driver himself. His high school teammate and personal friend Dylan Addae-Wusu is another defensive menace and a solid distributor with the ability to knock down three pointers. A big question will be the status of Joel Soriano who is by far the best rebounder on the team and a great shot blocker. If Soriano is not a go after miss the past two games, that means a bigger role for O’Mar Stanley, who went for 14 points in 12 minutes against Creighton last week, but has been pretty unspectacular otherwise. Tareq Coburn is a super senior guard and is used mostly as a spot up shooter. He had his best game of the season in the first meeting, going 3-3 from deep on his way to 13 points.

Three questions

-Is Nate Johnson healthy? This might be the only question that matters. Xavier has been abject without Nate out there as he desperately tries to recover from a hyperextended knee. Without his floor spacing, there's no room in the paint for Xavier's big men and slashers to operate and the offense grinds to a halt. If this season is going to go anywhere, it's going to be on the back of Nate Johnson's knee... or whatever. You know what I mean.

-How does Xavier guard St. John's big wings? Julian Champagnie and Aaron Wheeler combined for 38 on 13-24/4-10/8-8 shooting at Cintas two weeks ago; the Muskies couldn't keep them from getting whatever they wanted. If the starters stay the same, some combination of Colby Jones and Zach Freemantle will have to start in these matchups; that's a recipe for disaster. Something beyond playing this straight has to be part of the plan.

-Can Xavier get back to defending the glass? As we discussed on the podcast, Xavier has been miserable on the defensive glass for a month. The defense frankly doesn't need the help, but when they do get a stop and can't finish it with a defensive rebound, it just adds insult to injury and also often adds points to the opponent's score. There will be plenty of defensive rebound opportunities tonight; Xavier can't afford to not take advantage of them.

Three keys

-Play all of both halves. In the four-game losing streak, Xavier has been down at the half three times and tied once. The gave up the last 5 points of the first half against Seton Hall, let UConn finish the first half on an 18-3 run, and trailed by 4 at the half against St. John's despite actually finishing the period well. The Muskies have been struggling for the whole year to put together an entire game; it would behoove them to do it now.

-Figure out a rotation. There isn't too much to be done at this stage of the season to get a massive change in strategic approach; one thing that can still be shuffled is personnel groupings. Cesare Edwards and Ben Stanley have looked lively in short stints in a way that some of Xavier's starters haven't. It might be time to shuffle the deck a bit to try to find a spark.

-Score off the press. Xavier hasn't looked like a consistent, viable threat in a half court setting for a while now, but St. John's opens up opportunities by committing bodies up the floor in their press. Xavier has to get the 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 opportunities that come from breaking pressure and attack off of them. Everyone not named Champagnie or Alexander on the Johnnies is prone to foul trouble; if Xavier is getting scores and drawing fouls against the press, they'll be solidly positioned to win this game.