Two weeks ago, neither of Villanova or Xavier’s seasons to that point had inspired much confidence in each program’s respective fanbase.
Villanova had gotten blown out at then-No. 16 Ohio State and took a loss to then-No. 24 Baylor in the Bahamas. While they entered their December 21st match-up with No. 1 Kansas 8-2, many of the Wildcats’ wins were closer-than-expected affairs against teams such as Delaware and Penn.
Meanwhile, Xavier entered its December 22nd matchup at TCU still smarting from a loss the week before at a bad Wake Forest team, a performance that had erased any measure of confidence gained from a solid win over Cincinnati in the Crosstown. Like Villanova, Xavier had a solid 10-2 record entering its tilt against the Horned Frogs, but the record felt empty with several close games against uninspiring competition such as Missouri, Missouri State, and Western Carolina.
Despite the relative lack of success, both teams enter conference play riding momentum and carrying a profile similar to what they were expected to have in the preseason. Villanova’s dramatic win over then-No. 1 Kansas launched it back up to the No. 10 ranking it had in the preseason while Xavier put together its best performance of the season in a dominating win at TCU and would be No. 28 if the polls extended that far. In short, neither has been too disappointing in a year where many of the top teams aren’t as dominant as they were thought to be.
Tale of the Tape
- Record: 11-2 (KenPom: 30th, NET: 53rd)
- Coach: Travis Steele, 2nd Season (30-18)
- KenPom AdjOffense: 106.4 (56th)
- KenPom AdjDefense: 89.4 (24th)
- KenPom AdjTempo: 70.4 (156th)
- Three Point %: 30.2% (279th)
- Record: 9-2 (KenPom: 21st, NET: 21st)
- Coach: Jay Wright, 19th season (457-177 at Villanova)
- KenPom AdjO: 113.8 (7th)
- KenPom AdjD: 95.1 (85th)
- KenPom AdjT: 68.2 (255th)
- Three Point %: 36.2%
- Villanova leads 28-6 overall
- Villanova leads 12-2 since Xavier joined Big East in 2013
On paper, this is a match-up of the two winningest Big East teams and only regular-season champions since the conference formed into its current iteration in 2013; however, the distance between the two programs is still vast. Former Xavier coach Chris Mack was only able to beat Villanova once in 11 attempts and Xavier’s 2017-18 Big East regular-season championship was accomplished despite losing twice to the Wildcats. Villanova has won as many national championships since 2013 as Xavier has wins over the league’s best, all while the Wildcats have won five regular-season conference titles and four of the conference tournaments.
Xavier-Villanova Games in Philadelphia haven’t been particularly close, as Villanova has won those match-ups by an average of 21 points since 2013. Travis Steele has seemed to fare better than Mack did (though it was against a somewhat down Villanova team last season), as Xavier only lost by 10 at Villanova last season before beating the Wildcats in Cintas Center. To the ire of most Xavier, Villanova took the season series by beating Xavier in overtime during the semi-finals of the Big East Tournament behind Phil Booth’s 28 points (and **cough-cough** plenty of help from the referees).
What to watch for
- The Bigs Down Low — Jeremiah Robinson-Earl v. Tyrique Jones: Like many of Jay Wright’s Villanova recent Villanova teams, this iteration of the Wildcats features tough and physical wings in lieu of brutes down low. JRE is the closest thing Villanova has to a center, averaging 11.8 ppg and 9.6 rebounds. He’ll meet his match in the form of Tyrique Jones who is averaging a double-double with 13.4 ppg and 10.0 rpg. While Jones is averaging only 2.2 fouls per game, he’s had a penchant for committing two fouls in the opening minutes of Xavier’s recent games. Unlike Jones, Robinson-Earl can shoot and is at 30.8% from deep this year. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Jones get caught flat-footed on the perimeter and pick up a few cheap fouls.
- Depth (or lack thereof): Jay Wright only trusted six players in the game against Kansas, while Travis Steele would have his starting five each play for thirty-plus minutes if Jones could stay out of first-half foul trouble. The perimeter-oriented Wildcats have struggled to draw fouls (averaging just 16.3 free throws attempts per game, good for 272nd in the nation) but have also limited the fouls they commit (giving up just 13.2 FTA per game, 15th in the country). If Xavier is to pull off the upset, cracking the Villanova defense and getting the Wildcats into foul trouble is almost necessary.
- Villanova’s Shooting: Coming off of 41 attempted threes against Kansas, Villanova ranks 35th in the country with 26.6 threes attempted per game. The Wildcats shooting efficiency ranks 22nd. One of Xavier’s biggest strengths is defending the three, its opponents have shot just 29.2% from downtown, even worse than the putrid 30.2% that Xavier itself shoots. Xavier’s opponent’s shooting efficiency is 28th worse nationally. Long story short, this is a strength-on-strength match-up and the winner of this specific battle likely wins the game.
Time/Place: 6:30 p.m. at The Pavilion in Villanova, PA
Ignoring all context, Xavier would be the pick. Villanova is coming off a win versus the No. 1 team in the country, all while facing a team that it has generally dominated. Xavier’s strengths seem to line-up with Villanova’s in a manner that should produce a close, low-scoring game.
That being said, we’ve seen this game played in Philadelphia the last six years and Xavier has yet to keep it within single digits. While Xavier’s perimeter defense should help to stifle Villanova’s shooting, the Wildcats will more likely conjure up some Pavilion magic to shoot an obscene percentage from three. Travis Steele’s style seems to match-up with Jay Wright better than Chris Mack’s system did, but it's still a leap to say that this Xavier team can knock off Villanova away from Cintas Center.
The under should be an easy bet. Villanova has turned into something of a Virginia-lite this year, slowing the pace to methodically pick apart a defense. While the Wildcats have had some high-scoring games due to their efficiency, none of the Musketeer’s games against good competition would have hit the 139.5 in regulation, save their meltdown at Wake Forest. Travis Steele will be more than willing to turn this into a rock fight so expect a lowish scoring game.
Villanova 65, Xavier 57