It has been a season of almosts for Xavier. You don’t need a full ruler to account for the number of inches it would take to turn Dailyn Swain’s heave against Oakland and Des Claude’s pull-up against UConn into game-winning buckets. If you don’t want to rely on tricks of physics, more pedestrian measures like not leaving 23 points at the line in 9 points worth of losses against Washington and Houston also change the complexion of the season. The Muskies have been so close to the vital results that have eluded them this year.
Next up is a chance to make hay once again, but it’s going to be a tough ask against the reigning national champions. UConn once again blitzed the non-conference, with their only loss coming at Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas needed a late 14-2 run to take a 69-65 win. Other than that, the Huskies were impeccable until the first game of the Big East season, where Seton Hall took control in the first half and ran away with a 15-point win. UConn has bounced back since then, but their perfunctory win over DePaul was bracketed by hard fought wins against St. John’s and Butler that made them look a little vulnerable.
These are teams playing for vastly different things at this point. UConn is trying to continue to build a resume that will have them in play for a top seed on Selection Sunday. Xavier just wants a chance to be in the conversation in March at this point. The brilliant thing about the Big East is that you’re never more than a couple of good weeks away from being right back in the running. The bad news is that none of that is going to come easy. Xavier has thrown big punches this season; they need to start landing them.
Owning the paint. UConn is a top ten offensive rebounding team, even with 7’2” center Donovan Clingan sidelined with a foot injury. They just feast on second chances. They also shoot 62.5% from two-point range, which is comfortably within the top ten. They’re only average from three, but they shoot more than 42% of their shots from beyond the arc. Their ball security is great but not spectacular, and they don’t get to the line as much as you might assume. All in all, they’re a dangerous and active offense that ranks 4th in the nation in adjusted efficiency.
It should also be noted that UConn plays slow. They grind incredibly long possessions on offense and try to slow down their opponents on defense. They’re 324th overall in adjusted tempo, which is obviously very slow.
Their defense is good, 38th in the nation overall. They’re just inside the top 50 in both EFG% and DReb%, the latter of which is not as dominant as you might expect judged only by their OReb% number. What does leap off the page is that they’re 10th in the country in holding opponents to 43% from inside the arc, and they block almost 14% of all two-point attempts. They can be a little foul prone and they don’t force a ton of turnovers, but they do an excellent job of chasing the ball off the arc and then making life miserable in and around the paint.
|Newton's three-point mark is more in line with his career marks than his 36.6% last year was, but he's finishing around the rim really well. His real assets to the team are ball distribution and security, and he has been excellent in both regards this season. He's also an excellent defensive rebounder for a guard. He draws a lot of fouls and is a troublesome defender. He won't be the first big guard McKnight has gone up against, but his length might give Xavier issues in the half court.
|Spencer is a bonkers shooter. In 15 games, he has hit at least 3 threes on 7 occasions. He's also shooting 60% from inside the arc on a blend of pullups and finishes at the rim. He doesn't distribute and is only an okay rebounder, and he can be a bit foul prone, but he'll get hot if given the chance and blow a game open. He's a classic low-usage, high-efficiency statistical profile, but he's doing it in almost 20% usage.
|Castle was a five-star guy coming out of high school and he has looked the part so far. He's a good rebounder, especially on the offensive end, gets to and scores at the rim really well, and distributes well without sacrificing ball security. He's not much of a jump shooter, but he can stuff the stat sheet otherwise. He's a tough assignment on both ends.
|A career 39% shooter from deep on massive volume, Karaban is already approaching his 100th made three at the college level. He's also shooting over 73% at the rim. For a guy who profiles as a stretch four, he's a sneaky strong defender in the paint and has the capacity to protect the rim. Primarily a catch-and-shoot guy, he's not going to rack up a ton of assists, but his 130.8 ORtg on the year speaks to how effectively he plays his role and how well his teammates are doing at feeding him.
|Zach Freemantle's son Donovan Clingan started the season as UConn's center, but a foot injury has him sidelined right now, so Johnson is up. He's very efficient on account of making three quarters of his two-point attempts, keeping his usage low, and getting on the offensive glass. He's not a special defensive rebounder and his solid rim protection is blunted a bit by his 6 fouls per 40 minutes, but he's a luxury to have stepping in as the next man up.
Not a ton. In the three games since Clingan went down, UConn’s bench has functionally consisted of just three dudes.
Freshman guard Solomon Ball actually started 10 games and is averaging 5.9/2/0.6 on 34.5/28.8/71.4 shooting. He hasn’t been shooting great and he doesn’t board much, but he also doesn’t turn the ball over and stays out of foul trouble. His trip through the starting lineup coincided with Stephon Castle’s injury and return to full fitness; he’s a bench player who will step in at the guard positions.
Hassan Diarra will do the same, but better, to the point at which it’s not clear why Ball started with Castle out. He averages 5.7/3/2.5 on 49.2/33.3/87 shooting. He’s a good defender and has better ball distribution numbers than Ball as well. He can be foul prone, but he generally plays a good combo guard role off the bench. That three-point number is solid, but it comes on just 24 attempts this season.
Finally, Jaylin Stewart is a 6’7” freshman forward who gets deep bench minutes. He’s averaging 2.7/1.1/0.6 in about 8 minutes per game, rebounding okay, and missing a lot of free throws. Mostly, if UConn needs to give a big man a breather, they’ll move the other starting big to the 5 and run a smaller lineup.
-Can/should Xavier go small? The Muskies excel in transition and struggle in the half court. The obvious way to leverage that is to put in some guys who can run and try to harvest some free buckets while the other team is still trying to set the half court defense. The problem here is that smaller guys are generally not as good at finishing possessions on the defensive glass, which is already a bug bear for Xavier, and likely doubly so against one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. Is that worth the tradeoff for the chance to get out and go? If you’re really curious about that and want to see a bunch of math on it, click the link below.
-How much does the glass matter? I know I’ve made a big deal about how well UConn does on the offensive glass, but is that something that Xavier needs to sell out to stop? The Huskies had an eye-popping 51.4% OReb% against Seton Hall, and they lost that game by 15. I’m not sure letting UConn get half of their misses is a viable strategy, but it’s also apparently not something that cripples a team.
-Where does Xavier go for buckets? St. John’s and Nova have had game plans to push Quincy Olivari to the fringes of the game, and Xavier has struggled to find a second scorer in those losses. Des Claude has gone 9-28 in those two games, Abou Ousmane as gone 8-19, and nobody from the reserves has done much of note in both games. That leaves Dayvion McKnight, who has averaged 10 points on 9-18 shooting in those games. Does Xavier want its point guard hunting shots if Olivari is being marked out? He might have to.
-Build a wall. UConn feasts from inside the arc, but it’s the way that they do it that should give Xavier pause. Newton, Castle, and Diarra are all relentless drivers who can collapse a defense off the bounce. From there, they can put the bigs into rotation and open up the perimeter or score the ball at the rim themselves. It’s too simplistic to say that the guards and wings have to keep their men in front; it’s also incumbent on big men to make disciplined rotations to wall up on drivers rather than running and jumping for blocks and challenges. That kind of overplay will put X into rotation, open up the glass for second chances, and probably cost the game.
-Keep the crowd involved. The students are back in Cintas, and the place figures to be rocking from the off. If the Muskies get out to the kind of start that they’re capable of - something like entering the first media timeout down 12-2 - the air will just as quickly go out of the building. X has come out flat on too many occasions this year; doing it against the #6 team in the KenPom is a recipe for disaster.
-Execute late. Xavier had the ball down 1 three times in the last minute against UConn. The Des Claude jumper is what everyone remembers, but Quincy Olivari had a layup blocked by Jordan Longino, Dayvion McKnight had a pretty good look on a jumper of his own that went begging, and Des got the corner and left a layup short. Three looks that could easily been converted or - given the time/score situation - exchanged for different and possibly better looks that resulted in 0 points in a game Xavier lost by 1. Xavier is built to keep games within touching distance down the stretch; they need to find a way to make that proximity to victory pay off.