For about half an hour on Friday, it looked like Xavier’s return to the NCAA Tournament might be unexpectedly truncated. The offense that had carried X for most of the season was running in sand, and the defense was allowing almost unopposed penetration. Only a sincerely heroic effort from Jerome Hunter - en route to a career-high 24 points - was keeping the 3 seed within touching distance.
Then, as if an alarm had gone off, the Muskies woke up. The defense clicked in, getting 10 consecutive stops. The offense used that time to finally eat into a deficit that had ballooned to 13. By the time the dust had settled 10 minutes later, Souley Boum was icing the game at the line and Xavier had survived and advance.
Unlike almost every other team remaining, Pitt is already 2-0 in the tournament. They snuck past Mississippi State in the play-in game, having had their tournament life hinge on a wide-open three-point attempt conceded to the worst three-point shooting team in the nation on the final possession. They then bullied through Iowa State in the first round proper, jumping out to a 22-2 lead that dwindled to as few as 5 before the half. They then allowed just 7 points in the next 16:04 to ease away and bury the game. They come into this game riding high.
Xavier and Pitt drew the early time slot, tipping off at 12:10pm on CBS. You don’t need to buy a Xavier t-shirt from Breaking T to commemorate the occasion, but you should know that the option is available to you.
This is a team that has ridden the 27th-ranked offense in the nation for most of the season. They shoot well at all three levels and are excellent from the line. They’re just outside the top 50 on the year in both EFG% and TO rate. They fall to just above average in offensive rebounding and free throw percentage. They love to shoot the three, with more than 40% of their shots coming from behind the arc. They’re easily in the top 50 in percentage of points scored on three-point shots.
Their defense isn’t a calling card, ranking 108th in the country in AdjD at the time of this writing. They don’t do well in the freebie war, ranking 258th in defensive TO rate and 204th in defensive rebounding percentage. They’re just inside the top 100 in defensive EFG%, equally adept defensively inside and beyond the arc. They’ll let you shoot from deep in terms of three-point rate, functionally conceding those attempts. For what it’s worth, they’ve given up 100 points in 124 March Madness possessions, which is an objectively elite outcome.
Pitt loves to play slow and grind out games. They aren’t deep, getting only about a quarter of their minutes from the bench, but they’re within the top 100 of experience and have suddenly found a stride. After coming into the tournament at 77th in the KenPom, they’ve jumped to 59th in the span of just two games. This is a team that’s getting hot at the right time.
|Nelly Cummings||Point Guard||Souley Boum|
|6'0", 185||Measurements||6'3", 175|
|Cummings is an excellent player who does everything you want a point guard to do. He controls the ball and distributes it well and can score at all three levels. He's not as persistent or effective a slasher as Burden was for Kennesaw State, but he has an excellent mid-range game and shoots it well enough from deep to draw defenders. He is an elite free throw shooter.|
|Greg Elliott||Shooting Guard||Adam Kunkel|
|6'3", 180||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|Last time Elliott face Xavier, he was dropping 23 on 8-13 shooting as a Marquette Golden Eagle in the 2022 Big East season. He's now using his last year of eligibility to rack out jumpers with Pitt. He is shooting the eyes out of the ball, with more than 70% of his shots coming from behind the arc. Like at Marquette, he doesn't hunt shots, but he'll absolutely punish you if you lose sight of him.|
|Jamarius Burton||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'4", 200||Measurements||6'6", 205|
|Hot dang can this guy score. He has only made 18 threes this year, but he hunts two-point shots like nobody's business. Almost half of his shots come from the mid-range, where he's shooting a stupifying 47.4%. He's also an excellent distributor with very good ball security numbers. He's a tough matchup for anyone. Also, cash from the line.|
|Blake Hinson||Power Forward||Jerome Hunter|
|6'7", 235||Measurements||6'8", 215|
|Notorious diaper baby Jim Boeheim targeted Hinson in an NIL-related rant as though he was some lucrative recruiting coup for Pitt. Prior to suiting up for the Panthers, Hinson had last played in a competetive setting in 2020 for Ole Miss; he was playing open gyms at LA Fitness to try to stay sharp when Jeff Capel came calling. He's a prolific three-point shooter with 60% of his shots coming from deep. He has earned the second chance that he's now validating by putting up monster numbers; Jim Boeheim sucks and the game is better without him.|
|Federiko Federiko||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'11", 220||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|Federiko has been day-to-day with a knee injury; if he doesn't start, Guiillermo Diaz Graham will. Even if he doesn't start, he'll get some minutes as a rim-protecting big who is an occasional but efficient part of the offense. He's an excellent offensive rebounder who can be had a bit on the defensive glass. He's only 3-10 on jumpers this year; he lives at the rim.|
The top player off the bench is Miami (OH) transfer Nike Sibande. He’s a 6’4” wing playing the best ball of his career, averaging 8.5/4/1.2 on 43.5/35/76.8 shooting. He’s a solid presence on the defensive glass and a good defender; he can get hot from three, as evidence by his 17 on 6-11/3-6/2-3 against Duke in the ACC tournament.
Providing depth inside are the freshman Diaz Graham twins. Guillermo is 7’0”, 205 and averages 3.3/3.1/0.7; Jorge is 6’11”, 190 and puts up 2.8/2.2/0.4. They’re both as skinny as you’re imagining. Guillermo is a better rebounder and rim protector but more foul prone, while Jorge is 11-32 from deep and is more willing to step away from the rim in general.
Sophomore forward Nate Santos might see a little time, but he hasn’t gotten onto the floor outside of garbage time for a couple of months. Mostly, it’s the three guys listed above providing the depth.
-Can Xavier make some shots? The Muskies didn’t bathe themselves in offensive glory in the first round, getting just a point per possession and shooting 2-12 from deep. In the meantime, Pitt is on the best defensive form of their entire season, having held Mississippi State to 24-63 and Iowa State to 14-60. Adding to that, the rims in Greensboro have been so wonky that crews were working on them before the games to try to make sure they were level (they weren’t). It started in the warmups before the ISU/Pitt game and continued throughout the round. Just a weird subplot to monitor.
Potential drama in Greensboro. Pitt is allowed to get shots up pregame but Iowa St. isn’t as their rim appears to not be level and crews are working on it still pic.twitter.com/LGXoXfzGmo— Zach Jewell (@ZachCJewell) March 17, 2023
-Can Xavier keep anyone out of the paint? When afforded the opportunity to offer feedback on Souley Boum’s defense against Terrell Burden, Adam Kunkel told him (according to my best lip reading), “You’re being fairly soft. You need to stop that funky ball.”
Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel went at it during the Xavier timeout pic.twitter.com/fqbaVVX7Qm— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) March 17, 2023
Sean Miller eventually used Colby Jones to keep the funky ball out of the paint, but that led to some foul trouble on Jones. Pitt has dangerous guards that can score in bunches and legit shooters they can place around the arc; if they get reliable penetration, it’s going to be a long day for X.
-Who controls the pace? Xavier loves to get out and go - though slightly less so since Freemantle went down - and used transition to finally get a foothold in the Kennesaw State game. Pitt grinds out possessions and is basically average in the nation in overall tempo. Pitt has won a couple of 62-possession games so far this tournament; if Xavier lets them drag the tempo into that range again, they’ve got every chance of repeating the trick.
-Jerome Hunter v. Blake Hinson. Hinson is a prolific scoring big who has the body to bang in the paint and the touch to drag defenders well away from the rim. It’s tough to find a defender with the versatility to handle that, but the Muskies may have just the man to do it in Jerome Hunter. Against Kennesaw State, Xavier needed Big Rome to be a star on the offensive end; they might need him to be a defensive difference maker this time around.
-Win big on the glass. Pitt is a dangerous offensive team, but one way to outscore them (which is the ultimate point of the game) is to get more cracks at it than they get. The Panthers are a mediocre offensive rebounding team and under 200th in the nation in defensive rebounding. Neither of these teams is prolific in forcing turnovers, so the freebie war will be made in rebounding numbers. Xavier needs to lean into its advantage there.
-Two-point shooting. In the four games that have been played so far in Greensboro, the teams have combined to shoot 7-31 (Xavier v. Kennesaw State), 8-40 (Pitt v. Iowa State), 10-40 (UK v. Providence), and 10-36 (Kansas State v. Montana State) from behind the arc. That’s a gruesome 23.8% from behind the arc in 147 attempts. On the season, 27% of Xavier’s shots and 31% of their points come from deep compared to 44% of Pitt’s shots and 36% of their points. If the rims stay cold, that distribution goes in Xavier’s favor. If nobody can score from deep, X needs to have the discipline to work for points inside the arc and the nerve to let their opponents shoot themselves out of it.