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Xavier @ UConn: Preview, matchups, keys to the game

Xavier finishes a brutal road trip by taking on the #1 team and defending national champs at noon on Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I’m watching Georgetown-Providence as I write this. Providence fans insistence through the tears that they aren’t hurt, just angry is giving some serious high school break up vibes. It’s hilarious. Trying to explain to a neutral party why a coach that won three tournament games in 17 years is causing such a stir would be extremely difficult.

What is a lot less hilarious is the current road trip the Musketeers are on. Xavier went to Creighton on Tuesday and, stop me if you’ve heard this before, came really close to winning a Q1 game but came up just short. The Big East may take away, but it also gives. X only has to wait until Sunday to get another crack at a Q1 win on the road. That’s good, but they don’t give Q1 wins for easy games. It’s arguable that games come no difficult than taking on the red hot national champs on the road. UConn doesn’t need this game, they just want it. Xavier very close to needs it.

Team fingerprint

The Huskies are only 28th in the nation on defense. If they have an actual weakness there it’s that they foul a lot. Remember the outrage on Tuesday when the team that usually fouls more fouled more? Well UConn is the team that fouls more in this one. No team in the conference sends their opponent to the line more. The Huskies also have gotten hurt a bit from behind the arc (and X is first in the conference in three point shooting), but that has tightened up as Big East play goes along.

Offensively UConn is just really, really good. They are ninth in the nation in effective field goal percentage. When they do miss they are 12th in the nation at grabbing those misses. They could be better from inside the arc, but that’s kind of nitpicking. They aren’t great from the line in conference play, and they’re prone to a turnover or two, but they haven’t gone under a point per possession since December 20th of last year.

Players

Starters

Tristen Newton Point Guard Dayvion McKnight
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 195 Measurements 6'0", 188
15.4/6.5/5.9 Game line 11.1/3.9/4.8
40.5/30.7/79.3 Shooting line 44.6/38.1/81.8
Newton currently rates as the 9th best player in the nation according to Kenpom and it is not hard to see why. His distribution numbers are elite, he rebounds extremely well for a guard, and he is among the best in the conference at getting himself to the line and converting. The final aspect is crucial because his shooting numbers are not what they were a season ago, due largely to the massive uptick in volume, but he still manages to score pretty efficiently. He is more than just a straw that stirs the drink type, but his greatest strengths remain in the vein of helping his teammates shine.
Cam Spencer Shooting Guard Quincy Olivari
Senior Class Senior
6'4", 205 Measurements 6'3", 200
15.4/4.3/3.2 Game line 17.9/5.1/1.9
49.2/45.3/88 Shooting line 43.9/42.9/81.7
Spencer hit the portal this offseason after one year at Rutgers where he proved he could find and knock down his shots at the high major level. Before you pigeonhole him as Brady Heslip with a better haircut, note that Spencer is among the best in the conference at creating turnovers on defense and can punish teams who sell out too hard on him by collapsing defenses and setting up his teammates. Last time out against X he went for 19/6/4 with 4 steals and no turnovers. Hopefully he does worse than that this time.
Stephon Castle Small Forward Desmond Claude
Freshman Class Sophomore
6'6", 215 Measurements 6'6", 203
9.4/4.8/3.5 Game line 16.2/4.7/3.8
45.2/20.8/71.7 Shooting line 42.1/23.9/76.6
Castle came into the season as the favorite for conference Freshman of the Year and has mostly fit the bill. He has had some solid scoring nights, but has really found his niche as a secondary distributor, ranking just outside the top 10 in the league in assists per game. His quickness and length make him a strong defender as well, ranking in the top 20 in the conference in block and steal percentage.
Alex Karaban Power Forward Gytis Nemeiksa
Sophomore Class Senior
6'8", 220 Measurements 6'7", 220
15/5.8/1.7 Game line 6.9/5.2/1.2
53.3/40.2/88.2 Shooting line 49.5/43.8/68.8
Karaban has made a similar leap to Newton as the other returning starter from last year's National Champions. The startling thing about his numbers, which have leapt with the 6% increase in volume, is that they come on better FG and FT% than last season and the same 40% from three. He's not a very good rebounder for his size, but you'll forgive that from the guy who is tops in the conference in EFG and True Shooting %.
Samson Johnson Center Abou Ousmane
Senior Class Senior
6'10" 225 Measurements 6'10", 240
5.9/3.4/0.5 Game line 8.4/6.8/1.1
73.2/0/52.9 Shooting line 52.3/25/47.6
Johnson has started the last 7 games and been solid if not spectacular. His range is very limited, but he's incredibly effective when called upon, which isn't often. He does decently well on the offensive glass, but most of his defensive value is added by blocking shots as opposed to grabbing rebounds.

Reserves

If Johnson doesn’t start, that means Donovan Clingan is back to being ready to do so in Dan Hurley’s opinion. Clingan is coming back off a foot injury and has gone for 12 points on 6-12 from the floor in 40 minutes over the past two games. At his best, he is an elite rim protector who is able to impose his will on the glass at both ends and score efficiently around the rim. 2022 NIT Runner-Up Hassan Diarra gets about 20 minutes a game off the bench spelling the guard spots and is a ruthlessly efficient scorer and a decent distributor. Freshman Solomon Ball started 10 games earlier in the year, but has seen his role diminish, probably because he has 1 assist and a 32.4 EFG% in Big East play. Fellow Freshman Jaylin Stewart has soaked up some of those minutes because of his willingness to get on the glass at both ends.

Three questions

- Can Xavier find a way to score with UConn? Xavier has the second best offense in the Big East since conference play started. UConn has the best, though, and it’s not particularly close. There are four points of offensive efficiency in that gap. X can’t afford a scoreless stretch like they had against Creighton, or the game will end like it did against Creighton.

- Will Xavier’s bench come to this game? Trey Green and either Dailyn Swain or Nemo can be counted on for some decent numbers, but the rest of the bench crew (usually just Sasa Ciani and Lazar Djokovic) has been not good recently. Xavier isn’t going to win this game with five starters and then two dudes off the bench offering something. Someone needs to step up.

- What difference does Clingan make? Zach Freemantle factually called Clingan “b**** made” last season, but the big man has been worth roughly 13/6/2 on a 128 ORtg in the games he’s played this year. He wasn’t there when Xavier almost made an incredible comeback in the first game.

Three keys

- Control the pace: UConn likes to go very slowly on offense. Xavier likes to go fast. Clingan isn’t the quickest, and a fast pace would take him, to some extent, out of the game. Xavier is at their best when they are in full attack mode and full flow. To do that they need to push the pace.

- Win on the perimeter: Xavier is statistically the superior three point shooting team in this matchup. The first time the teams met, however, the Huskies unleashed a barrage and made 11 threes and shot 45.8% behind the arc. Getting a hand in the faces of Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban is paramount. So is making sure Quincy Olivari has finally shaken the attention of Steven Ashworth.

- Find a wrinkle: Against Georgetown it was a late double, against Butler it was isolating Desmond Claude, against Providence it was a press to take away Devin Carter. Sean Miller has had something up his sleeve most of the time Xavier has needed it this season. At no time will that be more important than Sunday.