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

The non-conference season was brutal to Xavier, but the beauty of the Big East is that opportunities for redemption abound. The climb back to relevance can start today.

NCAA Basketball: Holy Cross at St. John
He definitely seems healthy and not like a vampire at all.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

A season, as the old adage goes, is a marathon, not a sprint. It is also a trilogy of non-conference, conference, and postseason tournament(s). The first volume is closed for Xavier, and it ended in similar fashion to The Fellowship of the Ring. The hobbits have been taken, Boromir's body has gone over the Falls of Rauros, the Muskies are 6-5.

Hope remains though. As we discussed yesterday, the gauntlet of the Big East can reward Xavier with a revived at-large resume if only they can survive it. It's going to take at least 12 wins in conference to make the case come Selection Sunday; that's hardly light work, but it's also not unthinkable.

St. John's is also not off to a flying start, but they're positioned better than Xavier thanks to a lack of bad losses. They picked up their lone Q1 win against Utah at a neutral site and avoided what would have been a surprisingly bad loss at West Virginia. They're still searching for some beef for their resume, but that 6-0 record in the bottom two quads leaves them free of the kind of anchor X is dragging around.

Both of these teams have work to do in the non-conference season. Only one can get off on the right foot.

Team fingerprint

The number that flies off the page is their 44.2% OReb%, good for second in the nation. They're bang average in EFG% and turnover rate and miserable at getting to the free throw line, which is kind of confusing for a team that bangs so hard on the glass. They're slightly above average at 35.5% from deep, but they don't shoot out there very often. They're 48th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and it's largely down to how dominant they are on the offensive glass.

The defense sneaks just inside the top 100, with its greatest strength being the ability to force turnovers. They have a 20.7% defensive TO rate, good for 58th as of this writing. Their defense is tenacious inside the arc, holding teams to just 44.6% on two-point attempts with a 13.7% block rate. They can be had from deep, but they do a good job of chasing teams off the arc to limit attempts. Like many teams that chase blocks and steals, they're bad on the offensive glass and send their opponents to the line a lot.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Daniss Jenkins Point Guard Dayvion McKnight
Senior Class Senior
6'4", 180 Measurements 6'0", 188
11.2/4.1/6 Game line 9.2/5/5.4
38.7/27.3/80 Shooting line 41.5/26.3/81.8
This is Jenkins third team in his college career. He came over with Pitino from Iona and caught strays in a presser for doing so. He's a poor shooter but good moving the ball and excellent on defense.
Jordan Dingle Shooting Guard Quincy Olivari
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 196 Measurements 6'3", 200
11.3/1.7/1.5 Game line 17.6/4.4/1.9
43.9/37/62.5 Shooting line 45.6/44.6/78.3
Dingle scores effectively, but his rates on everything else are subpar. That said, he can hurt the defense from all three levels and isn't hesitant to do so.
Glenn Taylor Jr. Small Forward Desmond Claude
Junior Class Sophomore
6'6", 205 Measurements 6'6", 203
6.5/2.4/2.1 Game line 15.5/4.4/3.8
44.9/45.8/58.8 Shooting line 44.8/23.1/68
Taylor is very, very efficient on limited usage. He's one of those guys that does a little bit of everything and does it all reasonably well (except shoot free throws).
Chris Ledlum Power Forward Gytis Nemeiksa
Senior Class Senior
6'6", 225 Measurements 6'7", 220
10.9/7.9/1.9 Game line 8.1/5.2/1.1
40.8/35.7/75 Shooting line 50/45/61.5
Ledlum is an absolute monster on the glass. He and Soriano combine to hoover up more than a quart of their team's misses when they are on the floor together. Ledlum is relentless on the glass, but is more likely to do damage behind the arc than in close.
Joel Soriano Center Abou Ousmane
Senior Class Senior
6'11", 255 Measurements 6'10", 240
18/10.5/1.5 Game line 7.9/5.9/1
67.3/77.8/75 Shooting line 52.9/0/50
Super, super good. Soriano is a beast in every possible way you'd like a center to be. He'll be the best player on the floor for long stretches tonight.

Reserves

Pitino has publicly flirted with the idea of starting Nahiem Alleyne in this game, but I'm listing him here for now. He's averaging 6.9 PPG on an excellent 125.5 ORtg thanks to shooting really well, especially from deep, and never turning the ball over. He's not a great rebounder or distributor and hasn't wholly gained Pitino's trust on defense, but he can be a flamethrower on the offensive end.

Zuby Ejiofor is a 6'9", 237-pound sophomore big who is an absolute monster on both ends of the glass and as a rim protector. He also commits 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes and is shooting 40.6% from inside the arc. He averages 4.3 and 3.9 in just 11 minutes per game; he's got some rough edges, but he changes the tenor of the game when he's in there.

Guard Simeon Wilcher is notable for being CJ's brother; he plays about 11 minutes per game and averages 2.5 fairly inefficient PPG. Drissa Traore is a 6'8" who doesn't board much but is shooting 44% from deep in about 9 minutes per. He boards it okay, doesn't protect the rim at all, and commits a ton of fouls.

That's about it for the bench. The Johnnies only gets about 30% of their minutes from the reserves, which is a couple points below average.

Three questions

-Can Xavier force the pace? St. John's defensive EFG% gets almost 8 points worse in transition, which is likely why they try to slow the pace down on that end. When they get their shot blockers back, they can be tough to get shots on. Xavier has a knack for getting the ball out and going, and opportunities will be there with the Johnnies flying to the glass. If X can secure the ball and get it down the floor quickly, they can put St. John's on their heels.

-Can the Muskies get (the right guys) to the line enough? St. John's fouls a lot. Xavier (as you may have noticed) has a knack for getting to the line but doesn't execute at a high level when they get there. They were able to shoot a combined 34-41 (82.9%) from the line in wins against UC and Winthrop, thanks largely to getting 27 combined attempts from Quincy Olivari, Dailyn Swain, and Dayvion McKnight. Those guys are shooting a combined 80% from the line this year; if X can get them into the teeth of St. John's slappy defense, they'll harvest easy points from the line. If it's Ousmane, Nemo, and Djokovic taking the brunt of the punishment, the equation changes significantly.

-Can Des gets downhill? My man is shooting 52.9% from inside the arc and 61.8% when he gets all the way to the rim. St. John's is going to run some different looks at him, but the long and short of the whole ordeal is that Xavier needs him to be strong and effective with the ball to win this game. He has 17 assists to 5 turnovers in the month of December after going 25 to 17 in November. Those more recent numbers holding would be a huge boon for X against a ball-hawking Johnnies team.

Three keys

-Front court depth. Last time out, Sasa Ciani and Gytis Nemeiksa combined for 13 and 11; in the Shootout, they were good for 10/9/5 with just 1 TO. Each time out it was a different one carrying the mail, but that hardly matters. Against St. John's relentless attack on the glass and in the paint, the Muskies need bigs off the bench to produce. This is going to be a bruising game; it's all hands on deck for Xavier.

-Ball security. I know I'm not splitting the atom here, but it's so vital to St. John's defense to force turnovers. They've lost 3 of their 5 lowest defensive TO rate games and won all of their 5 highest. When they force turnovers, they win. That's the bottom line. Dayvion McKnight, Des Claude, and Quincy Olivari have all been incredibly secure with the ball, especially of late. Tonight, the big men need to clamp down and the reserves need to be on their A game to keep St. John's from building the kind of momentum it's hard to come back from with their pressure. Speaking of which...

-Survive the run. St. John's is one of the most veteran teams in the nation, playing in a sold out on-campus arena, in a game that would be a huge boost to their attempt to successfully navigate the conference season. Xavier is 124 places behind them in KenPom's D1 experience metric and has struggled to put together complete games all season. It's going to happen at some point; it's almost inevitable. Xavier's ability to limit a run to like 9-2 instead of 14-0 and punch back may end up determining the outcome of the game.