Selection Sunday is less than a short month away (thanks February) and the Big East’s NCAA Tournament picture is clearing up. Seton Hall, Creighton, Villanova, and Butler are almost assuredly in the field of 68. Barring a complete collapse, Marquette will be dancing as well.
At this moment, Xavier is probably worthy of an at-large bid, perhaps at the expense of Georgetown who’s right there with them. Providence might be a case of too little too late, but a strong finish (and a sparkling record in the nation’s toughest conference) would give them a chance for the committee to select them. DePaul isn’t making it.
St. John’s can’t be strictly ruled out, but the Johnnies likely aren’t going dancing in Mike Anderson’s first season. St. John’s currently sits at 3-9 in Big East play, so while a .500 record in conference play is still technically possible, the Red Storm’s remaining schedule consists of the Big East’s six likely NCAA Tournament teams. This game might be their best chance to pick up a fourth conference win.
Xavier’s path to a near-guaranteed at-large bid is straight-forward: finish 4-2 with a relatively favorable slate over the remainder of the season to finish 9-9 in conference play. Xavier only plays two of the conference’s likely tournament teams when they host Villanova and Butler. DePaul at home should be a win, while they’ll also get to play in quarter-full NBA arenas tonight and at Georgetown. At Providence will be tough, especially if the Friars run continues and a tournament berth is in-sight. Tonight’s game is almost a necessity for the Musketeers.
Keys to the game
- Can Xavier hang onto the ball? College basketball goes in cycles. For many years in the pre-shot clock era, sub-50 scores were common. The shot clock raised scores, but coaches drilled fundamentals and encouraged slower play. A glorious revolution occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when coaches like Rick Pitino and Nolan Richardson won championships playing frenetic, up-tempo styles. Unfortunately, basketball has swung back in the other direction as coaches such as Shaka Smart (and, to an extent, Roy Williams) have abandoned what brought them initial success. Mike Anderson, a disciple of Richardson, is one of the few purveyors of 40 Minutes of Hell left. St. John’s will press the entire game and it’s led to some positive results. They lead the nation in steals per game (10.1) and their record isn’t bad for a team with a sub-300th rank nationally in shooting efficiency. Compare that to Xavier, a team that struggles shooting (though not as much as the Johnnies), has athletic players who can handle the ball all over the floor, but probably has about 10 fast-break points all year and it’s fair to wonder what could be. Either way, Xavier has a turnover problem and St. John’s forces a ton of them. This could be a problem for the Musketeers.
- Can St. John’s keep Xavier from collecting missed shots? It’s not shocking that a team with one player over 6’7” struggles cleaning their own glass, the Johnnies are small and focus on playing up-tempo. Unfortunately, Xavier has Tyrique Jones who is working on seven consecutive double-doubles. St. John’s fails to collect about 30% of its opponents’ missed shots (297th nationally), that pitiful figure might drop even further tonight.
- Who steps up for Heron? St. John’s first game after senior guard Mustapha Heron’s season-ending ankle injury went well, the Johnnies were able to beat Providence 80-69. While mainstays L.J. Figueroa and Rasheem Dunn scored double-digits, so to did key role players Julian Champagnie and Marcellus Earlington. Greg Williams, Jr. filled Heron’s spot in the starting line-up, scoring nine. Figueroa (36.4%) remains the only decent shooter from deep, but it’s clear that Heron’s production will be replaced by committee.
Time/Place: 6:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden
Series History: Xavier leads 12-3 and 12-2 since Xavier joined the Big East in 2013
Line: Xavier -2
As mentioned in the introduction, Xavier really needs this game while St. John’s doesn’t. That’s sometimes enough information to make a pick, St. John’s might view this as a last stand while its role players might want to prove that they were better than Heron anyway. Xavier won’t win this game because they are more motivated.
Rather, Xavier will win because the offense is coming around and St. John’s offense isn’t. Xavier has been a bit better at preventing turnovers since it went with a point guard-less line-up which will prevent St. John’s from getting pivotal easy buckets. St. John’s up-tempo style has the unintended effect of getting Xavier to run with them, leading to a type of the game the Musketeers should be trying to get into every game. Meanwhile, Tyrique Jones has another monster game and flirts with both 20 points and 20 rebounds.
Xavier 74, St. John’s 64