It’ll be the first Big East game of the season, and also the final contest of 2019 — and the decade — when the Xavier Musketeers come to town.
‘Nova (9-2) is coming off of a week of rest, following an upset victory over the formerly top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Since losing to Baylor back in late November, the ‘Cats have won five straight.
As for Xavier, the Musketeers (11-2) enter Monday after picking up back-to-back wins against Western Carolina and TCU. They were in the Top 25 earlier this season, but a loss to Wake Forest knocked them out of the rankings. A win against Villanova would surely catapult them back in the mix.
Here are some things to watch for in Monday’s game, which is set to tip-off at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Living to the Billing
After an up-and-down start to the 2018-19 season, Xavier started to gain momentum in the second half of conference play, winning six of its final seven regular season games heading into the Big East Tournament. The Musketeers gave eventual Big East Tournament champ Villanova a run for its money, taking the game into overtime, before losing and eventually finishing out the year in the NIT. Regardless, it was a promising end, after a bumpy beginning to the Travis Steele era. Considering that Xavier was returning a majority of its key players, and the late improvement it had shown, the Musketeers were favorably perceived as a top-three team in the Big East heading into the 2019-20 season.
So far, the Musketeers have lived up to the expectations, spending some time in the polls, but still hovering as one of the more formidable teams in the conference. Even in their two losses — Florida and Wake Forest — Xavier has looked good. You could argue that had the Musketeers gotten a few more breaks in those games, they could possibly still be undefeated, as they only lost those two games by five or fewer points.
X Gon’ Give it to Ya
The rugged, physical play that the Musketeers had shown down the stretch last season has carried into this year. This is a team that has found success in featuring a variety of players that can score inside and place emphasis on defensive execution. According to KenPom, Xavier is ranked in the top 25 for defensive efficiency.
Xavier’s opponents have struggled to hit at an efficient clip, with the Musketeers limiting their foes to just a meager 29.2 percent showing from long-range (41st best three-point defense in the country) and 43.6 percent inside the arc (43rd in the country). Opponents have been held to an effective field goal percentage of 43.7 percent, which is one of the lowest rates in Division I.
Aside from applying the clamps, the Musketeers have been a great rebounding team and one that can generate turnovers at a relatively high clip, forcing them on 21.5 percent of opponents’ possessions (84th highest turnover rate).
While defense has been the major key to its success, on the offensive end, Xavier has a variety of a dependable scorers. Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, and Tyrique Jones have reprised their roles as Xavier’s top three offensive contributors. Marshall and Scruggs are solid slashing threats, while Jones has developed into a double-double machine down low.
Although Xavier has gotten things to click on the court, much like last season’s team, the Musketeers lack true perimeter-scoring threats. Sure, they have players who can occasionally make a three, but it isn’t a primary part of their arsenal. As a unit, they are shooting 30.2 percent from long range, putting them in the bottom quartile of Division I teams in that category. With a stalwart defense, tough interior scorers, it feels like the absence of dependable three-point shooting is the only thing holding back Xavier from elevating itself to an even higher tier of play.
More of the same?
There’s no doubt that the Cintas Center is one of the harder places to play in, but whenever the Musketeers have to venture into the state of Pennsylvania to play the Wildcats, it hasn’t been a fun road trip for Xavier.
Since conference realignment, in games played at the Pavilion or Wells Fargo Center, the Wildcats have beaten the Musketeers by an average margin of 21 points.
Against a team like Xavier, the Wildcats will need to have the same approach they had against Kansas. They will need to build off their best showing defensively thus far, executing well and playing tough on that end of the court — even if the shots aren’t falling. In the Kansas game, Villanova didn’t shoot at a particularly good rate, but it didn’t deter from executing and focusing on defense. At the very least, it needs to match Xavier’s intensity defensively.
While it was promising to see a young Villanova team — one that didn’t perform all too well defensively until last Saturday — gut out a win against the top-ranked team in the country, while shooting at subpar percentages, it’s important to note that a lot of the looks Villanova was able to create were pretty good. Sure, there were a few ill-advised possessions, but for the most part, the Wildcats were patient, moved the ball around, and had great looks at the basket, but a stubborn rim or sheer bad luck prevented a number of those wide open shots from typically dropping.
Xavier will slow down the ‘Cats, but minimizing turnovers and continuing to fire on the looks that Villanova can get against a defense like theirs will be key, as well as taking care of business on opposite end of the floor.
Can ‘Nova win at home against the Musketeers for a seventh-straight year?