It's finally here! Tonight YOUR #1 VILLANOVA WILDCATS enter the Cintas Center with the ability to clinch at least a share of the Big East regular season championship for the third straight season. It won't be easy, as #5 Xavier is not only a very good team but will have special motivation to avenge the 31-point beatdown the Wildcats handed them at the turn of the calendar year.
To get a different angle on the game, we caught up with Joel D from Xavier blog Banners On The Parkway to get a sense for the magnitude of the game, the emergence of Trevon Bluiett and how the Musketeers plan to defend 'Nova.
An amazing season for Chris Mack (he has my vote for National Coach of the Year) comes to a head on Wednesday evening. Is this the biggest game in Cintas Center history?
Without question. Cintas has hosted top-ten teams in the past, but never number one. When Xavier plays a big game at this point in the season, there's usually background bubble concerns and an underlying effort to get to a seed line that doesn't demand two upsets to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament. Wednesday's game - with a potential number one seed and maybe some top votes in the next set of polls on the line - is not the kind of game that Xavier is used to playing. This is a chance to announce the culmination of a thirty-year effort to establish Xavier basketball as not just a perennial factor in the tournament but a legitimate national power. Yeah, this is a big game for us.
Edmond Sumner didn't make an impact (directly) on the first matchup - how will the Muskies utilize him on Wednesday?
Ed has really solid handle with either hand and can finish on either side of the rim. Because of that - in combination with his incredible speed and athleticism - teams have to respect his ability to get into the middle of the defense. Xavier at its best features a lot of ball and player movement, but Ed in particular has a special ability to get defenses into rotation and open up scoring chances for himself or his teammates. To answer the question directly, Xavier will use him to make Villanova work on defense. If they don't, he'll score or give someone else the chance to do so. Also, if you turn your back to Ed in transition (even off of a made bucket), he'll gobble up the entire court in about six strides and lay the ball in.
One thing about Xavier's offense is that it doesn't really feature a true point guard in terms of someone who has his hands on the ball for a lot of the possession. Sumner or Myles Davis will bring the ball up (or Larry Austin, Jr. off the bench, or occasionally Remy Abell or JP Macura), but the ball tends to move a lot more than it does stick in any one player's hands. Xavier will run ball screen action for Sumner or Davis on occasion, but most of the good stuff is happening off the ball for X.
Josh Hart vs. Trevon Bluiett is the matchup to watch - talk to us about the sophomore's game and what he needs to do to lead his team to a victory.
Half of Tre's shot attempts come from beyond the arc. Of his two-point attempts, only half of them come at the rim. Bluiett is primarily a jump shooter at heart, but what makes him so effective is a really quick release and some excellent footwork. He doesn't need much space and he can get and get rid of his jumper off the catch or from one or two dribbles before defenses can effectively challenge it. His athleticism is just average, but he has excellent feel for the game and for setting up his defender to get his shot off. He's the kind of guy who can have two points at the half, yack jumpers on three straight possessions, and then finish the game with a quiet 17 and 7. Because he can get buckets from almost nothing and is fearless in pulling 17-footers, the ball often finds him when the offense is stagnating a little.
Other than Villanova and Xavier, can any other Big East teams make some noise in March? It's been a weird year for the mid-range teams.
Hasn't it though? I have no faith in Providence's ability to make a run; they look like they're running out of gas at this point. Seton Hall is a really odd team; you could see Isaiah Whitehead averaging 26 a game in the kind of multi-weekend that makes tournament legends, but you can also see him challenging his own coach to a fist fight during a first round loss.
A team I really like is Creighton. I think Greg McDermott is a good coach who doesn't get enough credit for holding things together when the #LetItFly era ended. They have a great point guard and a legitimate seven-footer, plus a couple of shooters and a couple of guys who make weird matchups on short turnarounds. They've left a couple of close wins out there and that Loyola-Chicago game isn't helping them, but they played Oklahoma tougher than, you know, other Big East teams might have and they've got some good wins. If they can get to 20 or 21 wins by Selection Sunday, I think they're in and can make some noise.
Villanova has destroyed Xavier's 1-3-1 zone, but Mack has used it to devastating effect on just about everybody else. Will he roll with it again on Wednesday or do you expect a different defensive strategy?
This is the question. Coach Mack has been rolling with more man-to-man than a lot of the fans would like to see recently, and I think it has been with this matchup in mind. Xavier has one above-average man defender in Remy Abell and a couple more guys with some of the physical tools to do the job in JP Macura and Edmond Sumner. Larry Austin, Jr. is a strong defender, but his offensive limitations generally mean he won't be on the floor during winning time. Beyond those guys though, Xavier is stocked with players whose lateral mobility and general defensive efficacy is average at best. Throw in the fact that Ochefu demands attention inside and you have a tough matchup for Xavier.
With that said, I don't think Villanova has seen the 1-3-1 at its best. Xavier basically installed it on the fly last year, and Nova was already wrapping up the conference by the time the defense was really ready on the floor. This year's version has been much more polished, but X played about 37 minutes in shock when these two teams met on New Year's Eve. I'm hoping the Wildcats won't find it such an easy way to go when they see it this time around.
I believe I read that Xavier has made 6 of the last 12 Sweet Sixteen's - what makes them so good in March?
You read that correctly; we've also been to 5 of the last 8 and 3 in the 6 years Coach Mack has been at the helm. Different things have come together - and a little matchup luck hasn't hurt - but I think the biggest reason has been great coaching. Looking at Coach Mack in particular, he has a knack for being able to draw up plays to get the shots we need and then have the execute them. His baseline out of bounds plays in particular are works of art. His biggest strength has been the ability to adjust to his personnel. With Tu Holloway and then Semaj Christon piloting fairly thin rosters, Mack put the ball in their hands and ran a ton of ball screen offense. In the A-10, Mack ran almost exclusively a pack line man and had big men (including the hilariously ill-suited Kenny Frease) hedge ball screens and then recover.
We don't do a lot of any of that anymore, though you will still occasionally see the ball screen hedge and recover on defense. Mostly Mack has done a good job of tweaking his system every time he has needed to in order to get the most out of his personnel. As long as the team has the talent to execute it, he'll have them buying in by the time March rolls around.
Most importantly who wins? And here's hoping we see this one again in March at MSG.
This one scares me. There's a reason you're #1 in the nation right now, and even when you aren't, you're not a great matchup for us. Xavier isn't going to go winless against Nova forever (I hope), and I think this is as good a chance as any to get that first win. I'm going to say X executes at the line down the stretch and pulls out a 77-72 win. If everything works out for that MSG reunion in March, how do you guys feel about meeting back up and doing it again in Houston this April?