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Xavier v. Villanova: preview, matchups, keys to the game

At home against a hated conference rival, Xavier has a chance to land a much-needed win and breathe fresh life into their late-season charge.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Villanova
Probably called a charge.
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

From Creighton and Seton Hall tied for third at 7-4 down to Providence and Villanova tied for ninth and holding on at 5-6, the middle of the Big East pack is crowded. With the season halfway gone, the teams in the mix are about to have to slug it out with one another to determine who is going to grab a bye in the conference tournament and who is going to have to run the gauntlet that starts with DePaul and Georgetown.

Villanova won their first three league games and four of their first five, but they dropped five in a row after that to start people wondering how many years Kyle Neptune had before his seat got warm. They punched back against a wounded Providence team, beating the Friars by 18 on Sunday. They’ll be out to prove that they are back on the right track against a team not missing its best player through injury tonight.

Xavier is, in many ways, trending the opposite direction. Left for dead at 1-3 in conference after losing close ones to Nova and UConn, the Muskies have quietly gone 5-2 from that point and most recently thumped the fire out of DePaul behind a scalding shooting performance from Quincy Olivari. The theme of Xavier’s season has been trying to gel on the fly and digging themselves out of the hole they dug early on. The chance to claw back to within touching distance of the bubble is there for the taking this week, and it starts tonight.

Team fingerprint

Nova is seventh in the league in both offense and defense. They play incredibly slowly on both ends, landing at 330th in the nation in adjusted tempo. As always, it’s a grind against this group.

On the offensive end, their trademark ball security is still intact. They take a ton of their shots from behind the arc, about three of every seven, but are only landing about a third of them. They’re functionally absent on the offensive glass and don’t get to the line much. They are excellent once they get there, leading the nation at 81.4% FT% as a team.

Defensively, they really get on the glass well. They don’t force a ton of turnovers, so they have to limit second chances to keep from getting overrun. Big East opponents are shooting under 30% from deep on them, but they’re giving up a lot of attempts from out there, which feels like a dangerous game to play. They can be had from inside the arc, which is especially interesting in the context of Xavier’s offense.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Mark Armstrong Point Guard Dayvion McKnight
Sophomore Class Senior
6'2", 180 Measurements 6'0", 188
8.4/2.2/2 Game line 11.7/3.7/4.9
41.7/28.8/76.9 Shooting line 47.1/37.3/82.5
Armstrong has made a nice step forward as a sophomore for a team that wanted and arguably needed him to make a big leap. He's shooting under 30% on all shots away from the rim, but he finishes well and shoots almost 40% at the tin. His assist numbers aren't anything special, which is not something you want to be saying about your point.
Justin Moore Shooting Guard Quincy Olivari
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 210 Measurements 6'3", 200
10.5/3.3/2.3 Game line 19.1/5.1/1.9
38/25.3/89.2 Shooting line 44.3/45.4/84.6
I can't stand Moore in terms of how it seems like he averages about 25 a game on 120% shooting against Xavier, but the dude has been beleaguered by injuries his whole time at Nova and it's hard not to feel bad for him. He's not the three-point shooter he once was, but he's thicker than the windows on a submarine and strong as an ox. He never turns the ball over or fouls and is a dangerous scorer all over two-point range.
TJ Bamba Small Forward Desmond Claude
Senior Class Sophomore
6'5", 215 Measurements 6'6", 203
10.5/3.5/1.9 Game line 16.2/4.5/3.5
41.7/37.8/84 Shooting line 41.4/22.4/77.6
Bamba rightly assessed that he could enrich himself by hitting the transfer portal from Washington State and grabbing some NIL money at Nova. Whether that also got him closer to either the tournament or the league is yet to be seen. After hanging a goose egg in his first Big East game, he has averaged 13.2 PPG and is shooting 44% from deep. He can be a little foul prone, but he's a solid defender and one of the best shooters in the league.
Tyler Burton Power Forward Gytis Nemeiksa
Senior Class Senior
6'7", 215 Measurements 6'7", 220
8.5/7/1 Game line 6.5/5/1.1
37.9/31.6/73 Shooting line 46.7/38.9/66.7
Burton leads the Big East in DReb% and TO rate, which more or less summarizes his role on this team. He's not turning the ball over because he's not handling it very much; he's not a guy hearing his number called a ton on offense. He might be the most underrated defender in the league though, as his numbers aren't gaudy, but his ability to end possessions with boards is huge for this team.
Eric Dixon Center Abou Ousmane
Senior Class Senior
6'8", 255 Measurements 6'10", 240
15.9/6.4/1.5 Game line 7.7/6.6/1.1
47.8/36.4/85.6 Shooting line 51/25/46.9
Money from the line, a bull in the post, effective enough from deep, Dixon is a nightmare matchup. He lives on the offensive glass and draws a ton of fouls. He is absolutely the lynchpin of the Nova offense in terms of both usage and output. I hope he gets drafted this year.

Reserves

The Wildcats are in the top 100 in the nation in bench minutes, with 35% of their minutes coming off the pine. Much has been made of Kyle Neptune’s use of the roster, but it’s inarguable that it has been constructed well.

Hakim Hart is a versatile 6’8” forward who has been obnoxiously efficient in compiling his 7.3/3.7/1.4 per game. Only 7 of his 122 FGA this year have been from the mid-range. He’s good at the rim and is shooting 69% from inside the arc in league play, but he’s not shooting well from three. Jordan Longino is posting an almost identical 7.2/2.4/1.9 game line. He’s a 6’5” wing/guard shooting 38.8/29/83.9 on the year. He has an ORtg of 86 in Big East games, but he’s an excellent perimeter defender.

Sophomore guard Brendan Housen is shooting the eyes out of the ball this year. He averages 5.7/1.3/0.5 per game and is 20-43 (46.5%) from behind the arc in the Big East. He’s a standing shooter who doesn’t do too much else, but the 4-7 he posted from deep in the first game between these two teams was pretty significant. Forward Lance Ware is a Kentucky transfer who plays about 11 minutes a game. He’s a good rebounder, but he can be a little turnover prone and has shot just 23 times all season.

Three questions

-Who wins when Xavier misses? The Muskies are second in the league in OReb%, which lines up neatly with Villanova’s second in the league in DReb%. Xavier relies on second chances to keep the offensive efficiency up, especially since they can’t really score from two-point range that well, so the team that steps up on the glass on Xavier’s offensive end is going to have a leg up in this one.

-How much difference does Justin Moore make? The Muskies were about three inches short of winning the away leg of this game, but Nova was without Moore and his 10.5 PPG. He’s back now, which isn’t nothing, but Hakim Hart and Brendan Housen were both excellent in his absence when these two last faced off. Moore has a knack for killing Xavier; someone has to slow him down tonight.

-How does Xavier defend the paint? By the paint, I basically mean Eric Dixon. Xavier was +3 with Abou Ousmane on the floor in the last game. I know there are serious drawbacks to using single-game +/-, but the takeaway that X was a little better with Abou on the floor than they were with him off of it is probably solid(ish). Unfortunately, he fouled out in 23 minutes. He had actually gone six straight games without fouling out after that game until he racked up a staggering 11 fouls in 35 minutes over his last two games. He has to stay clean to keep Eric Dixon from running riot; if he doesn’t, Sean Miller better have a heck of a B plan ready.

Three keys

-Get Quincy Olivari into clear air. Quincy is 8-23 in Xavier’s Big East losses, and that includes a 4-6 at UConn. He’s 28-55 (50.9%) in their wins; when he’s hitting, the Muskies are the better for it. I know I’m not splitting the atom here, but X couldn’t get him free at Nova and his 1-7 from behind the arc wasn’t the help the offense needed. I don’t necessarily need another 43 points from him (though I’d take it), but the Muskies have to get their main man going in this one.

-Find someone big off the bench. Sasa Ciani and Lazar Djokovic combine to be 13’7”, 460, and they’re converting it to about 5 and 6 off the bench in 27 minutes. Gytis Nemeiksa is a stretch four who does his best to bang and Abou Ousmane is averaging a foul per media timeout right now. Someone bigger than Dailyn Swain has to be able to give Xavier real minutes against the middle teams in the Big East.

-Get Des downhill. Des had a fairly quiest 15/5/2 against DePaul, but the thing that jumps off the page about his stat line is the 1-5 on threes. After he made his first, he kept hucking scuds off of the rim until his time on the floor ran its course. He’s shooting a very good 57.4% at the rim and a very reasonable 39% from the mid-range, which makes his 17-76 from behind the arc all the more confusing. Why is a guy who shoots 22% from out there taking four per game? A handful of misses against DePaul is a hilarious footnote; it can be a fatal failure of shot selection against Nova.