Seven deep on most days, in the first year under a new coach, playing defense that at its best would embarrass André Maginot, and now down their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, Xavier somehow stands on top of the Big East more than halfway through the season. That's obviously not the end goal, but it's a giant step in the direction thereof.
Fresh off the heels of a gritty two-point win against Providence, Xavier plays host to KenPom #80 St. John's. It's perhaps a measure of how far Xavier has come since last time Sean Miller was head coach here that a home game against a team sitting at #80 feels like something halfway between a respite and a trap. In the last year of his first tenure at Xavier, only 6 of the Muskies' 16 conference games were against teams ranked 80 or above, and two of those were against #78 Dayton. Things have changed.
St. John's has taken a rocky path to this point in the season. They sat at 10-1 after non-conference play, though that schedule included 7 (!) Q4 games and only 1 game in each of the top two quads. They hit Big East play and somewhat predictably faceplanted, though they do hold a road win at UConn. Their prospects for at-large consideration are incredibly bleak; they're more focused on staying out of the first day of Big East Tournament games at this point.
These guys play fast. They're the fastest offensive team in the league and indeed the nation, though the outcomes of their possessions aren't anything I'd be in a rush to get to. They're 9th in the league in EFG%, 8th in TO rate, and 10th in free throw rate. They're a reasonable 5th on the offensive glass, which is good, because they miss a lot of shots. Nobody in the Big East gets a higher percentage of their points on twos or takes a lower percentage of their shots from deep. It all adds up to the 9th best offense in an 11 team league, and they play worse than their numbers if you keep them out of transition.
Their defense is 7th in the league. They're 3rd in TO rate and don't don't anything else particularly well. They're 7th in DReb%, 8th in defensive EFG%, and 9 in free throw rate. They don't defend the arc very well by attempt rate or success rate, are 10th in defensive two-point percentage, and don't really block shots. If their ball pressure doesn't get you, nothing else is likely to.
|Andre Curbelo||Point Guard||Souley Boum|
|6'1", 175||Measurements||6'3", 175|
|Curbelo took this spot when Posh Alexander was out. Since he's been there the last two games, we'll leave him there. Curbelo runs hot and cold, but has been brutal lately. He's had an ORtg over 100 once in Big East play. Last game the stress seemed to get to him and he got ejected for protesting a call by slamming his glasses to the floor.|
|Dylan Addae-Wusu||Shooting Guard||Adam Kunkel|
|6'4", 230||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|Addae-Wusu plays as a big two or a three depending on how the Red Storm match up. He's a ball hawking defender, but the quickness of either Kunkel or Jones will trouble him. On offense he's solid inside the arc, but undermines that by shooting too many threes and turning the ball over too much. He's an absolute monster for his size on the defensive glass.|
|AJ Storr||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'6", 200||Measurements||6'6", 205|
|Storr can shoot it from deep and hunts his spots from there. He doesn't bring a lot else in terms of filling a stat line, but he's steady on the ball and doesn't make dumb choices to undercut what he does well.|
|O'Mar Stanley||Power Forward||Jerome Hunter|
|6'8", 230||Measurements||6'8", 215|
|This is a revolving door position. Stanley has started here recently, but he played eight minutes last game. He is great inside the arc, doesn't bother outside it, and is solid on the glass. He's very efficient, so if he plays serious minutes he's likely to produce. He turns the ball over and fouls way too much.|
|Joel Soriano||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'11", 260||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|Soriano is the only member of the Red Storm to have started every game this season. He is very good at basketball and does good at basketball things. About the only he doesn't do is dole out assists, but he does everything else you'd want from a big man. He's a legitimate handful.|
These guys might not all be bench players tonight. Posh Alexander is healthy again and could take his starting spot back. If he does, he brings far less than he did last year. His assist rate is down significantly, his turnover rate is way up, and he is shooting worse both inside and outside the arc than he ever has. He is still a menace on defense. David Jones is a 6-6 swing man who also starts from time to time. He’s the second leading scorer on the team, more by volume than anything else. He’s not a great shooter, but he eats glass for a 6-6 guy.
Esaiha Nywie will spell the big men. He’s a 6-10 stick who scored eight in his last game after scoring eight in Big East play all season prior to that. He blocks shots well, but it really only playing because Montez Mathis is down for the year and Rafael Pinzon has been out with injury. Kolby King will also play. I’m sure he tries hard.
-Is Xavier's bench one person deep? It functionally was against Providence, and neither Kyky Tandy nor Cesare Edwards played very long or very convincingly in short stints in relief. Coach Miller mentioned those two and possibly Kam Craft as candidates for more time to supplement Des Claude among the reserves, in particular pointing out that Cesare has been given a tough row to hoe. His biggest non-buy game minutes have come in a road Shootout, a couple of early Big East road games, and then at Creighton and the dogfight at home to Providence. You'd hope someone steps up while Zach Freemantle is out and makes himself a candidate for big minutes; the pointy end of the season is almost upon us.
-What is going on with Posh Alexander? Still every bit the defensive menace he was last season, Alexander's offensive game has taken a huge step back. He's shooting 10 points worse at the rim than he did a year ago and 13 points worse on all twos. He's never been much of a perimeter threat, but he's now also struggling mightily inside the arc. He's back healthy after a couple games out through an ankle injury, but his struggles this year have made his presence less menacing than it otherwise might have been.
-Where does St. John's go for points? Center Joel Soriano has been the Johnnies' best offensive player all season, but Xavier held him to just 4-10 from the floor last time out. St. John's used their best three-point shooting performance of the year to make the score closer than the game was, but if Soriano isn't able to be a reliable presence for them, they're not overburdened with other options.
-Play in the half court. I'm not splitting the atom here. St. John's has trouble scoring against a set defense and Xavier has trouble getting stops against an offense with a pulse. To get stops, X has to keep St. John's from running out. Of course, that's predicated on not turning the ball over against the Red Storm's pressure defense. If Xavier can, at the very least, get the ball on the rim, they vastly increase their chances of scoring while simultaneously decreasing those of St. John's doing the same.
-Run to the glass. Xavier actually had one of their worse shooting nights of the year at MSG in the away leg of this matchup, but they made up for that by grabbing 40% of their own misses. That was their third-best mark of the season to date, and the 16 second-chance points they tallied came up big in a game they ultimately won by 5. Jerome Hunter and Jack Nunge are #3 and #4 in the league in OReb%, and Cesare Edwards has a chance to make a case for himself if he can get to the offensive boards. You'd hope it won't be the difference in the game, but it may well be.
-Play all 40 minutes. Xavier led by 18 points at St. John's with 9:30 left in the game. Less than three minutes later, they had given up a 14-2 run and were up by just 6. A game that should have wrapped with the starters sitting on the bench with their shoes untied ended up seeing Souley Boum playing all 40 minutes and the other three non-Freemantle starters each playing 32+ and staggering under the weight of the opposing press down the stretch. Every chance to steal a few minutes of rest for the main rotation players is doubly vital now; they can't afford to lose it by losing focus if they get on top.