Just about six weeks ago, Xavier went to Finneran Pavilion and beat Villanova. That was Xavier’s offense at its high-octane finest. Souley Boum was 10-10 from the line on his way to 22/10/6. Zach Freemantle stole the headlines though, shooting 12-17 from the floor and putting up a cool 29/11/4 with 0 turnovers. Nova had enough to keep it close, but they never had an answer to Xavier’s star forward.
A lot has changed since that game, most notably that Freemantle has picked up an injury and sat out five games. Xavier has had their two worst performances of the year, losing by single buckets at DePaul and Butler. Despite that, they’ve more or less kept their heads above water, treading through injuries and bad games to hold onto the final spot in the early top 16 reveal and the same #16 ranking in the polls. According to Bart Torvik, that 7-4 spell has seen Xavier play like the #26 team in the country.
On the same website, Villanova has been 5-6 and 90th in the nation in that time. They’ve been finding their feet of late though. Since guard Justin Moore returned from an Achilles injury, they’ve been #69 (nice) in the Torvik. They had the ball with a chance to take the lead with less than a minute to play against Providence, had Marquette on the ropes before surrendering a late 14-1 run, and had possession down 2 with under a minute to play at Creighton. They also beat DePaul, Butler, and Seton Hall at their place during that time; this is a team that is close to something.
I’m always nervous when Xavier plays Nova. The Wildcats have run some good teams to the wire since these two last played, and about all X has done is stack up injuries. The NET says this will be a Q3 game, but it will be a legitimate test for the Muskies.
These guys play extremely slowly on offense, boasting the longest possessions in the league. They’re the sixth-best offense in the league by efficiency, lingering in the middle in most categories. They’re 4th in the league in EFG% despite being 10th in three-point percentage. They don’t let that stop them from launching though; 45.9% of their shots are from deep, tops in the league. They don’t get to the offensive glass much, but they’re okay at getting to the line and excellent (82.2% as a team) when they do.
They’re a weird mirror of their offense on defense, sitting fifth in the league. They seal off the defensive glass really well; only Creighton does it better. They sit fifth in defensive EFG%, sixth in free throw rate, and seventh in forcing turnovers. They’re the most permissive three-point defense in the league by rate and last in defensive free throw percentage. They can also be had inside the arc, sitting eighth in the league in defensive two-point percentage.
|Daniels has been a workhorse for Nova this year. He plays a lot of minutes and leads the team in shots and shots percentage. When they need something done, he's first in line to make it happen. He can score from three levels and is almost automatic at the line. He doesn't distribute much at all and can be foul prone, especially against good teams. He only shoots 28% from deep in KenPom Tier A games, which this will be. Make of that what you will.
|Despite missing almost a year with an Achilles injury, Moore is still built like a brick outhouse. He has had some good games since coming back (17/0/4 at Providence) and some bad ones (1 point on 0-4/0-2/1-4 shooting home to Seton Hall); he's still getting his legs under him. It's hard to take too much from what he has done so far except that he's still a very good, very dangerous player.
|The best free throw shooter in the league, Slater is a big wing with just enough range to keep defenders honest. He's a good finisher, but not a great one. He doesn't rebound quite like you'd expect for a man his size, but he holds his own on the defensive end. He's a really efficient shooter who doesn't add much else on the offensive end and has a tendency to get into foul trouble.
|Whitmore doesn't distribute at all. I mention that because he does about everything else. He's a monster athlete who finishes like a post around the rim. He doesn't have a really solid jumper and his three can be spotty, but he's tough to stop when he's hitting. He does more on the defensive glass than the offensive end. He's an excellent defender who manages to stay out of foul trouble.
|Do you love watching a guy who throws his arms around defenders and hooks them out of the way? Eric Dixon is the player for you! Aside from getting away with a comical amount of hijinks around the paint, Dixon is an effective below the rim scorer and a good offensive rebounder. He's not much of a rim protector, but he stays out of foul trouble and eats a ton of minutes. He is a very good free throw shooter, especially for a big man.
Villanova is 243rd in the nation with 28.6% - or 2 of every 7, if you prefer - of their minutes coming off the bench. When he’s healthy, the most notable of the players grabbing those minutes is big guard Jordan Longino. He’s a 6’5” sophomore averaging 5.6/2.1/1.1. He’s not much of a shooter, doesn’t distribute much, and can be a bit turnover prone.
Beyond him are a couple of fairly under the radar guards, with freshman Mark Armstrong averaging 4.8/1.7/0.9 in 18 minutes per game and senior Chris Arcidiacono somehow even more anonymous with a game line of 3.4/3/1.9 in 27 minutes. Arcidiacono shoots 40% from three but has a usage rate of just 8.6%. Both of these guys have grabbed some starts, but neither has lit the world on fire.
If you want to get really deep, you should know that 6’4” freshman guard Brendan Hausen exists. He has made 23 threes on the year at a success rate of 42.6%. He dropped 15 on Oregon and 12 on Marquette, so he can get hot. It’s worth noting Nova lost both of those games.
-Can Xavier replace Freemantle’s production? Big Frosty couldn’t be stopped the first time these two met. He will score about 29 fewer points this time around, as he’s still out rehabbing his injured foot. Jack Nunge and Jerome Hunter combined for 9 points on 4-14 shooting that day; they’re going to have to step up or hope one of the guards can get scalding hot or the Muskies might need to get a few more stops than they’re used to.
-Who guards Cam Whitmore? He dropped a pretty efficient 26 in the away leg of this matchup. Some of that might have been down to having Zach Freemantle being one of the options to guard him, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself for comfort’s sake. Colby Jones is quick and strong, but he’s giving up some size to Whitmore. Jerome Hunter might be a better fit, though the question of what then to do with Brandon Slater then arises. Des Claude gives up some size in either matchup, but he might be a viable emergency option to steal a few minutes.
-How will the guard matchups shake out? Both Caleb Daniels and Justin Moore are thicker than the windows on a submarine, giving them a significant breadth advantage on Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel. Xavier’s guards are shifty and savvy, but they’re giving up some strength to their counterparts. Daniels was good for 23 the first time out while Moore was still rehabbing. Keeping them out of the paint is going to be a tough but vital task for Boum and Kunkel today.
-Make Dixon uncomfortable. He only shot 8-16 against Xavier in the first game, but he was all over the offensive glass and couldn’t really be moved out of the paint. It’s always a risk to dig against Nova because my heart tells me they shoot about 80% on threes from kicks out of the post, but Dixon can’t be allowed to sit on the block and go one-on-one against Nunge for 35 minutes. X needs to offer something to make Dixon think, if for no other reason that to offer Nunge some protection.
-Keep it out of winning time. With such limited depth and some lingering questions around Des and Jerome, Xavier doesn’t want to be playing this one to the wire. As if that’s not bad enough, Nova is nails from the line as a team, which is of obvious value down the stretch in tight games. Xavier burst, hesitated, and then buried DePaul at Cintas. This is a bigger ask, but the Muskies have to build on any upper hand they get. If they don’t, the Wildcats might pinch this one at the end.
-Des Claude. Xavier’s defense has been improving - or so I’ve been reliably informed - and a big part of that against good teams is the emergence of Claude as a versatile perimeter option. He was still growing into his role a little bit in early January, but he has grown into a destructive force to be unleashed on opposing guards. Both of Nova’s starting guards are bigger than their Xavier counterparts, but neither has the physical beating of Des. His quickness and strength when defending on the ball are valuable assets for Miller to deploy.