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Xavier v. St. John's: preview, matchups, keys to the game

It's down to do-or-die time for the Muskies as the stretch that will define their season is directly in front of them.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at St. John
Sorry, Nemo.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier has been competitive in winning time in 7 of their 9 Big East games to this point. The second in which they weren't was just Sunday. They spotted UConn - for my money the best team in the nation right now - a 10-0 lead to start the game and watched Dayvion McKnight come up four similarly productive teammates short of ever making it look like a game. The scoreline was immaterial; the result was effectively sealed before the first media timeout.

The first was at St. John's. X had it in the kind of range where you'd hope they can just get it to the half and make a run coming out of the break. Instead, a 13-2 Red Storm run that straddled the interval took the margin from 4 to 15 and the Muskies looked shell-shocked the rest of the way.

That was the conference opener for both teams, and both teams have gone 4-4 in the league since. X is coming off that obliteration at the hands of UConn; St. John's ran Nova out of the gym their last time out and has had a week off to prepare. The climb from 10-11 to the bubble is steep; for Xavier, it needs to start here.

Team fingerprint

They have the #4 defense in the conference, and it starts at the arc, where they're holding Big East teams to just 26.7% shooting. They're significantly more permeable from two-point range, but it still adds up to the third place EFG% defense in the league. They're a middle of the road outfit in terms of forcing turnovers. They put opponents on the line a ton and have been miserable on the defensive glass in league play. Teams that can stay disciplined and score in the paint have been able to put up a lot of points against them.

Their offense is fifth in the league. They're not very good at shooting, shoot just 50% from inside the arc, 30% from beyond it, and 69% from the line in league play. To their credit, they don't shoot a ton of threes, choosing instead to pound the paint. They have average ball security, but they've been very good on the offensive glass and in getting to the line. They've pulled back their tempo a bit in conference play, but they still play pretty quickly.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Daniss Jenkins Point Guard Dayvion McKnight
Senior Class Senior
6'4", 180 Measurements 6'0", 188
13.1/3.9/5.8 Game line 11.4/3.8/4.8
40.5/30.1/78.4 Shooting line 45.5/39.1/83.3
Jenkins is really, really good with the ball. He's not going to turn the ball over and he will find an open teammate. His offensive efficiency is boosted by the fact he's good from the line, because he's not a great shooter elsewhere.
Jordan Dingle Shooting Guard Quincy Olivari
Senior Class Senior
6'3", 196 Measurements 6'3", 200
10.6/2/1.4 Game line 17.8/4.8/1.9
41.6/31.3/71 Shooting line 43.4/43.9/81.7
Dingle is a shooting guard who isn't a great shooter. He doesn't turn the ball over a lot, but he also doesn't create a lot of assists either. He is, like most of this team, a player who thrives in full court defense.
RJ Luis Jr. Small Forward Desmond Claude
Sophomore Class Sophomore
6'7", 196 Measurements 6'6", 203
10.7/5.1/1.1 Game line 16/4.6/3.6
36.4/27.8/78.9 Shooting line 41.4/23.2/75.3
Luis isn't big, but he's a very good rebounder for a swingman. He's also a complete ballhawk on defense. He's a good free throw shooter, but he's brutal elsewhere on the court.
Chris Ledlum Power Forward Gytis Nemeiksa
Senior Class Senior
6'6", 225 Measurements 6'7", 220
9.6/7.8/1.9 Game line 6.6/5/1.2
40.7/33.3/64.1 Shooting line 48.2/43.8/68.8
Ledlum is a monster on the glass. He's high effort and blocks shots as well. For a 6-6 power forward, he's incredible at everything... except shooting. He's very much a "make him prove it" guy. God bless him, he'll keep trying.
Joel Soriano Center Abou Ousmane
Senior Class Senior
6'11" 255 Measurements 6'10", 240
16.4/9.7/1.3 Game line 8.1/6.8/1
63.5/58.3/73.1 Shooting line 51.9/25/45.5
Soriano is the best big in the conference. He does it all, he plays almost 30 minutes a game, and he even finishes at the line. He DESTROYED Xavier's bigs in the first meeting.

Reserves

Glenn Taylor and Simeon Wilcher have both started games this season. Taylor is a big body swing man who shoots well but turns the ball over too much. Wilcher is CJ Wilcher’s brother and plays guard. His playing time has been all over the map. He’s played 23 minutes in a Big East game, but only played two against Xavier last time. That makes it hard to get a read on how good he actually is. Zuby Ejiofor plays as a forward and is a monster on the glass. He’s not much of a scorer, but he’ll hoover rebounds and both foul and be fouled a lot. Brady Dunlap is the final bench piece likely to play real minutes. He’s much more a linger outside the arc kind of big than he is a mix it up inside guy. He’s decent finishing near the rim, but has struggled from deep so far.

Nahiem Alleyne is the biggest St. John’s bench piece, or at least the one with the most name recognition, but it’s highly unlikely that he will play this evening after getting injured against Marquette. The Red Storm still managed to beat Villanova by 20 without him.

Three questions

-What was that against UConn? We kind of all saw what it was in the moment, but the more lingering question is whether it was a one-off aberration or the first game of the rest of the season. That kind of beating can be tough to bounce back from, so Xavier will need it's veterans to steady the ship in time for tip tonight. A raucous home crowd would also do wonders for everyone still trying to put that nightmare in the rearview.

-Can Xavier score from the post? Xavier's big men combined to shoot 4-19 from inside the arc at St. John's, which obviously isn't going to get the job done in any context. The Muskies' bigs were exposed a bit against the admittedly and very little tall tasks of going against Ryan Kalkbrenner and Donovan Clingan last week, but the lack of post offensive has been a hindrance all year. If someone can't at least pin St. John's bigs to the block, it could be another tough offensive day.

-How do the Muskies slow down Soriano? The St. John's center went for 18/14/5 on 7-13 shooting in the first go 'round in this fixture. Not only did Xavier's first looks do precious little to slow him down, he also feasted on the glass to the tune of half a dozen offensive boards. The lineup has changed significantly since the Big East opener and Dailyn Swain and Trey Green in particular have shown themselves to be pesky help defenders from the perimeter. I trust that Sean Miller has cooked up something new to shake things loose on the defensive end.

Three keys

-Win on the glass. These are not two of your better shooting teams in the league, but they both do well in second chances. St. John's is the #4 OReb% team in the nation, though Xavier actually has an edge over them in that department in Big East games. If Xavier can get the Red Storm's big men chasing blocks, second chances should abound on the glass. Whichever team makes the most of those may well come out on top.

-Attack through Des early. The sophomore wing has been up and down this year, but one thing he has done consistently is draw fouls. Even through a tough shooting night at St. John's, he was able to go 12-14 from the line. Not only are their free points to be had, but Rick Pitino is next to last in the nation in allowing players with two first half fouls to stay in the game. If Des can draw some calls, Xavier can steal some valuable minutes in which the visitors will be short handed. With the pall of that last beatdown still lingering, the Muskies can't afford to mess up the first phase of this game.

-Get back into the flow of the offense. Xavier has had to attack differently in the last two games, leading to a severe drop in assist rate for the team as a whole. This varied game plan was what kept them in it against Creighton and one of a million things that went wrong against UConn. Now back home and against a team whose center will fit through a standard doorway with just a little bit of a hunch, Xavier has to get the ball hot again. When the ball is popping and open shots are presenting themselves, this team can remind opponents of just how dangerous they can be.