The Big East is hard. Almost everyone can defend their home court, half the conference is in contention for an at-large bid, and the other half is positioned to play spoiler (except for Georgetown). You can fight through all of that to win 90% of your games and be rewarded with a tie at the top of the standings. It’s rough.
It just got rougher for Xavier, who has gone 2-2 in their last 4, as news has broken that Zach Freemantle is out for a month. A team that relies on offense and their top five has lost one of those top five and its second leading scorer. The Muskies have been one of the league’s hottest teams since Thanksgiving, but it’s going to be a tall order for them to replace Freemantle and keep it rolling.
This could have hardly come at a worse time, as Xavier hosts fellow Big East co-leader Providence tonight. The Friars have also lost just twice since the calendar turned to December, with those coming back to back in road games against Marquette and Creighton, two of the toughest matchups in the league. They got healthy with home games against DePaul and Butler and then outlasted Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center. They would need to be at their very best to beat a full-strength Xavier; it remains to be seen what Sean Miller will throw at them now.
Shoot free throws. Providence is fourth in the league in offensive efficiency, but no team in the league gets a higher percentage of their points from the line. They’re seventh in percentage of points from inside the arc and ninth in percentage of points from threes. They lead the league in free throw rate and are fourth in free throw percentage. They’re also first in offensive rebounding percentage. They’re pretty middle of the road in two-point (50.9%) and three-point (35.2%) percent. They’re also tenth in TO rate; these guys live by getting the ball onto the rim and going after it until they put it back or get to the line.
Their defense is third in the league, and they’re particularly smothering from behind the arc. They have allowed Big East teams to shoot just 27.7% from deep and are third in the league in defensive three-point rate. They don’t force many turnovers and can be a little foul prone, but they do well on the defensive glass and are third in defensive EFG%. For a team that isn’t particularly tall, they’re a surprising third in the Big East in block rate.
|Alyn Breed||Point Guard||Souley Boum|
|6'3", 190||Measurements||6'3", 175|
|Since Jared Bynum went down with an abdominal strain, Breed has stepped into his role in the starting lineup. He put up 14/4/3 in his first game as a starter against St. John's, then just 25 total points in his next 5. He's not really built to be a scorer, but he's an excellent defender who uses his length a quickness to smother opposing guards. He might make life miserable for Souley tonight.|
|Devin Carter||Shooting Guard||Adam Kunkel|
|6'3", 195||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|Carter transferred in from South Carolina and has immediately blossomed. He's a plus defender and a solid rebounder for a guard. He gets to the line well and converts consistently for it to be a weapon. He's not a great shooter, but he's good enough to need checked, which sets up his driving game. He's a good finisher, though he's subpar if he can be made to pull up.|
|Noah Locke||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'3", 210||Measurements||6'6", 205|
|Another transfer find for Ed Cooley, Locke has been an excellent tertiary scoring option for Providence. He doesn't board much or distribute, but he also doesn't turn the ball over basically at all and has posted a 57.1% EFG% in Big East play. He's shooting 39.7% from deep in league games and has a deadly mid-range game. Only 10 of his 197 shots this season have come at the rim, and 4 of those have been putbacks. He's not driving all the way to the bucket at all.|
|Bryce Hopkins||Power Forward||Jerome Hunter|
|6'7", 220||Measurements||6'8", 215|
|The true transfer treasure of the Friars squad. Hopkins was overlooked by full-time recruiter and part-time basketball coach John Calipari in ihis time at UK, but he has hit Providence and immediately exploded. He's extremely strong, lives at the rim, and shoots the three just well enough to make defenses respect him beyond the arc. He crushes the glass on the defensive end and - despite mediocre OReb% numbers - scores a ton of putbacks. He's a really dangerous player.|
|Ed Croswell||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'8", 240||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|Croswell is a touch undersized for a five, but he makes up for it by being relentless on the offensive glass. He's 10th in the nation in OReb% and has 38 putbacks on the year. If you don't spend your days perusing hoop-math.com to put that number into context, trust me that it's massive. Jack Nunge leads Xavier with 24. Croswell is a good defender but a below average defensive rebounder. He maximizes his talents in a way that's both admirable and irritating.|
First up is 5’10” point guard Jared Bynum, who was a starter before he went down with an abdominal strain. He is averaging 9.3/2.2/4.4 on a fairly unimpressive 38.8/26.2/82.2 shooting line, but he never turns the ball over and distributes as well as anyone on the roster. He got his feet wet with 11 minutes against Butler on his return before dropping 19/2/5 on 7-8/3-4/2-2 shooting against Villanova. He’s fairly convincingly back.
La Salle transfer Clifton Moore is a 6’11” senior big man averaging 5.5/3.6/0.4 who can shoot out to the mid-range a little bit. He’s a good defender but can be a bit foul prone. He has 19 points in two games against Butler and 10 total points in 9 Big East games against non-Butler teams.
There’s a bit of additional guard depth available in freshmen Jayden Pierre and Corey Floyd. Pierre is a good distributor who can be a little turnover prone and hasn’t shot particularly well. Floyd is basically the exact opposite, shooting 9-16/5-10/2-2 in limited Big East action and not providing much else, statistically speaking.
-Who steps up to replace Zach Freemantle? It’s clearly going to have to be a team effort, but Jerome Hunter is likely to be the man taking Freemantle’s place in the starting lineup. He’s going to have to stay out of foul trouble for Xavier to have a chance in this game. Cesare Edwards and maybe Dieonte Miles are also going to have to grab some minutes to help Xavier keep Providence off the glass. The Muskies will probably also have to go small for a bit, which means Kyky Tandy and/or Kam Craft will have a chance to make an impact on this game.
-Should Xavier keep pushing the pace? X has played fun and fluid basketball all year despite not being particularly deep in the first place, but losing a starter and prolific offensive player will challenge that philosophy. With Hunter in the starting lineup, Xavier’s bench is frightfully thin. Souley Boum and Colby Jones are already playing more than 85% of the team’s minutes in conference games; can they take on a larger load and keep the pace up? Should Sean Miller ask them to?
-Can Providence win with a road whistle? It’s not as binary as home/road, but the Friars rely on the line a lot and they’ve been well below their season mark in free throw rate in 3 of their 5 losses. It’s not all the Muskies have to do to win this one, but keeping Providence from living at the line would go a long way towards making this a tough row to hoe for the visitors.
-Keep the ball hot. Providence is first in the league in defensive assist rate; in other words, they do a good job of forcing teams into isolation situations. Xavier is of course the ball-sharingest team in the league and thrives by putting teams into rotation. It remains to be seen if this holds true when three or four quick passes lead to Jerome Hunter alone on the top of the key rather than Zach Freemantle, but attacking the first side on your own is a surefire recipe for disaster against this defense.
-Stay close in the freebie war. This is going to come down largely to working as a unit on the defensive glass. Hopkins and Croswell both feed on the offensive boards, and Xavier’s best defensive rebounder is in a walking boot right now. Xavier’s perimeter guys are going to have to get in there and help out when the ball comes off the rim. They’re also going to have to keep turnovers to an absolute minimum. None of the four factors correlates more highly with cracking Providence’s defense than TO rate does. The Friars will probably get more than a few free possessions on the glass; Xavier has to limit those and avoid giving them anymore by throwing the ball away.
-Commit to the paint. I know this seems a little paradoxical with one of Xavier’s biggest paint weapons sidelined, but 12 teams have taken more than 30% of their shots from deep against Providence, and of them only Marquette (34.5% 3P rate, 8-19 from deep) won. On the flip side, 6 teams have gone under Xavier’s three-point rate of 28% in conference games, and 3 of them have come away with victories. Xavier will have to change their personnel in this game, but they’d do well to stick with the paint-first offensive plan that has gotten them this far.