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Big East Tournament preview: Xavier v. DePaul

For the first time since Chris Mack was roaming the sidelines, Xavier hits the conference tournament playing for seeding. First up is DePaul.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament First Round - Seton Hall vs DePaul
Obviously not a goaltend live, but it still took replay for the refs to get it right.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Well friends, it's all single-elimination from here on out. From now until Selection Sunday, it will be all familiar foes for Xavier, as the purity of the double round robin gives way to the chaos of win or go home basketball.

Xavier earned the two seed in the league by virtue of being fairly dominant when given a full roster. They ripped off 11 in a row at one point and were sitting atop the league at 9-2 when Zach Freemantle suffered a premature end to his season. Xavier staggered a bit down the stretch trying to recalibrate on the fly, but their performance probably wasn't as bad as a 6-3 record to close the season would indicate.

DePaul also had some injury issues along the way, but they weren't enough to cost the Blue Demons a shot at the league title. No, that came down to purely being bad at basketball. They were a respectable 3-5 in the league at one point before losing Jalen Terry and then Yor Anei through injury; they then dropped a dozen straight to finish a single game ahead of Georgetown. Both players are back now, and DePaul needed every last bit that they and their teammates had to offer to squeak by Seton Hall in the opening round.

These teams were wildly divergent in their regular season results, but they somehow managed to split head to head. The rubber match pays for all, as Xavier tries to fight its way onto the three line and DePaul desperately clings to its hopes of a miracle auto bid run.

Team fingerprint

The offense is not great, 9th of the 11 teams in the league. They're right in the middle of the league in TO rate (17.1%) and three-point shooting (35.4%). The rest is all bad. They're 9th in EFG%, FT%, and OReb%, 10th in 2P%, and 11th in free throw rate. You've gotta dig pretty hard to find a silver lining in this dark cloud of an offense.

One silver lining is that it's better than the defense, which is 10th. They're also pretty mid-pack in TO%, sitting 6th. That's their strength outside of shot blocking, where they're third with a fairly impressive 12.3% mark. Assuming you get a shot off and it goes all the way to the rim, chances are you'll like the outcome. They're 8th in 2P% and 3P%, 9th in EFG%, 10th in free throw rate, and 11th in OReb%. You have to do something pretty special to not score on these guys, which makes Xavier's loss to them all the more mystifying.



Starting matchups
Umoja Gibson Point Guard Souley Boum
Senior Class Senior
"6'1"", 173" Measurements "6'3"", 175"
15.8/2.8/4.6 Game line 16.8/4.2/4.5
41.7/41.2/86.4 Shooting line 46.4/42.2/86.5
The straw that stirs the drink for DePaul, Gibson leads the team in scoring and assists and is their best perimeter shooter. He's a ball hawking defender who rarely comes off the floor or turns the ball over. He's also incredibly clutch and nails from the line. Tough matchup.
Jalen Terry Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Junior Class Senior
"6'0"", 158" Measurements "6'4"", 185"
5.2/3/1.5 Game line 10.3/2.7/3.1
35.2/31.6/82.1 Shooting line 45/39.5/87.9
Terry is just a little fella, but that doesn't stop him from being a weirdly efficient defensive rebounder. He has been in and out of the lineup this year, but when he has been healthy, he has gotten his shots up. He has the ability to get hot and shoot DePaul through a game, as Seton Hall witnessed when he went 4-4 from deep including a hugely important bomb with less than a minute left last night. He stays active in the passing lanes without fouling excessively.
Javan Johnson Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Junior
"6'6"", 198" Measurements "6'6"", 205"
14.3/4.5/2.5 Game line 15.3/5.3/4.6
42.1/40.9/76.7 Shooting line 52.6/40.2/68.8
Johnson shoots a ton with an almost exactly even split between twos and threes. He's an excellent three-point shooter and will kill you if he's given the space. He's 5-9 on the year against X and went 5-9 against Seton Hall in the opener. He's not a great rebounder by rate and doesn't distribute much. He's a respectable defender.
Eral Penn Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Senior
"6'6"", 201" Measurements "6'8"", 215"
8.7/7/0.7 Game line 7.3/4.2/1.2
46.2/22/65.7 Shooting line 58.1/14.3/68.2
Penn is excellent at drawing fouls and getting to the line and miserable at shooting threes, but he still takes about 20% of his shots from deep for some reason. When he's not actively sabotaging his team like 2021-22 Jerome Hunter, he's a very good rebounder and solid defender. He both draws and commits a lot of fouls.
Nick Ongenda Center Jack Nunge
Senior Class Senior
"6'11"", 220" Measurements "7'0"" 245"
11.5/7.3/0.8 Game line 14/7.7/2
42.2/0/55.6 Shooting line 52.5/41.2/68.6
After missing the first 25 games with a wrist injury sustained during a game of Wii Tennis [citation needed], Ongenda has returned with some spotty numbers. His averages speak for themselves, but his field goal percentage has fallen every year he has been in school, from .622 as a freshman to the modest number you see above. That's not great for a guy who should be living at the rim. He blocks a lot of shots but commits a lot of fouls and is dreadful from the line himself. He's also having real turnover issues this year.


Da'Sean Nelson exists and I think we should talk about it. He's a 6'8", 205-pound forward who is either physical or dirty, depending on which team you're supporting. He averages 10.2/4.9/1.8 per game, commits 5 fouls per 40 minutes, and is an active and versatile defender. He mostly scores inside the arc but makes just enough threes to force opponents to be wary.

The almost biblically named Philmon Gebrewhit is a 6'7" wing who shoots 37% from deep on his way to 5.9/2.1/0.9 per game. He doesn't board or defend much and his minutes are being taken by 6'4" guard Caleb Murphy. He's a South Florida transfer with a ghastly 34.7% EFG%. He must be doing something that doesn't show up in the numbers, because what does show up doesn't merit the 20 minutes he has been averaging since getting healthy in January.

Finally, Yor Anei is a 6'10" senior center who stays on the offensive glass, blocks a ton of shots, and commits a foul every 5 minutes of playing time. He is returning from injury and has seen limited run in the last three games.

Three questions

-How do Xavier's big men match up? X had the benefit of Zach Freemantle in the first game (in which DePaul had Yor Anei) and he and Nunge combined for 34 of Xavier's 72. With Anei out in the Cintas leg, Xavier couldn't be stopped at any level and trotted to victory. Now with the big man back for DePaul, can Xavier stay ascendant in the paint, where Nunge, Hunter, and Edwards shot 17-23? If not, the burden may fall more heavily on the team's guards.

-Can the Muskies contain Umoja Gibson? The DePaul guard has 39 points in 2 games against X this year and is 10-17 from deep. That's the kind of hot hand that can absolutely shoot a team through a tournament run, and he has been the dominant offensive bright spot for DePaul this year. If someone doesn't get a hand in his face early, he might be taking shots that matter late.

-Will Xavier be able to save anything? You can't win three without winning one, so obviously the result is the most important thing in this game. The winner of this game will play either Creighton or Nova in a game that will tip off about 24 hours after the final horn here. Stealing a few minutes to keep legs fresh would be a huge coup.

Three keys

-Elevate the tempo to score. I know the last question was about Xavier saving some legs, but one way to do that is to get out and go. DePaul is a horrible transition defense, ranking a cool 337th in the nation in defensive EFG%. They're not locking down in the half court, but it's worth it for X to burn some matches to get out and get some baskets.

-Attack the shot blockers. Yor Anei commits an astonishing 8.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Nick Ongenda and Da'Sean Nelson are both just a tick under 5, and even Eral Penn is at 3.7. This team can definitely turn you away at the rim, and they're not going to let a little thing like conceding a bunch of free throws slow them down. If X can get DePaul's bigs into foul trouble, the game will be on the brink of getting away from the Blue Demons.