The Panthers are looking to bounce back from a loss to in-state rival Iowa State, while the Musketeers are looking to keep a six-game winning streak alive and extend it going into Big East play.
How to watch, listen, and stream
Game Time: Friday, December 22, 2017, at 9 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network (Ben Holden, Steve Wolf)
Radio: 700 WLW AM (Xavier) , 1540 AM KXEL (Northern Iowa)
Live Stream: CBS Sports Digital (Where Available)
According to Oddsshark.com, the Musketeers are favored by 6.5 points.
KenPom lists Xavier as a 68 percent favorite to win on Friday night, predicting a final score of 70-65.
The Musketeers have won the two previous meetings with the Panthers. They met twice last season, once in the Tire Pros Invitational championship and then again at Cintas a few days later. Xavier won both games by double figures.
Three Things to Watch For
The Musketeers have caught a rough stroke of misfortune to close out their non-conference schedule. Entering their previous game against Marshall, a game that ended probably closer than any Xavier fan would have liked, they were already down J.P Macura and Kaiser Gates--two guys who appeared to have sustained head injuries in their previous outing against East Tennessee State. Macura complained of blurry vision, while Gates mentioned dizziness. Both were benched as a precautionary move, but if it is truly a head injury, you have to think that they miss at least one more game. Things took a turn for the worse when freshman Naji Marshall, who was making his first career start, went down hard at the end of the first half and clutched his lower back. He never returned to the game and his status is unknown going into Friday night.
These three were available for the comeback win against ETSU and in their absences on Tuesday night, the Musketeers had to pull off another close-call, escape act to dodge the Marshall Thundering Herd. Xavier has been a bit shaky as of late, and with potentially three key guys out against Northern Iowa--it'll be interesting to see how the Musketeers respond.
Offense vs. Defense
Xavier is no doubt, a solid all-around team, but statistically the Musketeers lean towards the offensive side of the court. According to KenPom, they're the eighth-highest ranked team in terms of offensive efficiency. Defensively, they also impress, coming in with a top-60 defense in the country. With a big scorer like Trevon Bluiett--that delivers in clutch moments and is capable of just going off for a high-scoring night--as well as seven other players that average at least 7.5 points per game that can also have a quiet double digit scoring night, this team is balanced. Although three of those players might not be available, the big time player Bluiett is can make up for all that. He did match a season-low 10 points against Marshall, but it's hard to see him be silenced again.
However, the slow pace of play that Northern Iowa has and its stout defense make the Panthers a pretty good candidate to make that happen. As a team, the Panthers are ranked 28th in defensive efficiency. They might not generate a lot of turnovers, but they do play some tough, straight up defense. They limit opponents to shooting just 31.2 percent from deep (53rd) and 43.9 percent from inside the arc (34th). The Xavier frontcourt had a nice game against Marshall, but this isn't the subpar defense of the Thundering Herd. So, the effort that got them a four-point victory might not be enough against a Northern Iowa squad that prides itself on defense and protecting the basket. As a matter of fact, the Panthers have a top-five scoring defense, allowing an average of 59 points per game.
It's a Trap(?!)
The Musketeers might have dispatched Northern Iowa in their two previous meetings, but this will be the first time they head into Panther territory. Northern Iowa is pretty good against ranked teams at home, boasting a 12-6 record all time. Against Top 10-ranked teams, its 2-1 at home. Most recently, it toppled then-No. 1 ranked North Carolina in 2015.
This is a team that likes to share the ball, but senior forward Bennett Koch is the leading man. Koch averages a team-high 14.1 points per game, while shooting 58.2 percent on the floor. He's a tough interior presence on both ends of the court. Helping him out inside is Klint Carlson, a 6-foot-7 forward that can bang inside and occasionally knock down a three from deep. He and sophomore guard Juwan McCloud are both averaging over double figures scoring-wise. However, the most interesting player might just be Tywhon Pickford. He isn't exactly a player that will light up the scoreboard, but he sure crashes the boards like no other. He's a 6-foot-4 freshman guard that is the top freshman rebounder. He averages just under a double-double with 9.0 points and 9.6 rebounds. Pickford is aggressive and not afraid to be physical and do the "little things" as a freshman.
This is a squad that plays very well at home, it will be a hostile environment and with a few injured Musketeers, the Panthers might sneak in another top 10 upset to their name.