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Xavier and UConn preview: Future Big East opponents collide in Charleston

It might not be 2021 yet. But this Charleston Classic matchup offers a glimpse of the future.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri State at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Like the rest of the decent programs in the conference, the UConn Huskies have been desperately trying to escape the abyss that is the American Athletic Conference since it formed from the carcass of the Big East in 2013. This summer, UConn announced that it would return to the promised land by rejoining the Big East in July 2020, no longer dragged down by the likes of East Carolina and Tulsa in the only sport that matters.

While Xavier likely welcomed the addition of the Huskies to the conference, tonight is the first chance Xavier will have at setting the tone for the future of the series. The Musketeers and the Huskies have only met once before in the 1991 NCAA Tournament.

Both programs were in a remarkably different position back then as both were coming off of their best seasons in 1989-90. Xavier made had made its first Sweet Sixteen that year, while UConn had made its first Elite Eight. The 1991 March match-up came as a surprise, as 14-seeded Xavier needed to upset 3-seed Nebraska and 11-seeded UConn beat a 6-seeded LSU team led by consensus player of the year Shaquille O’Neal. The Huskies won that first match-up before falling to the eventual national champion Duke Blue Devils and Christian Laettner.

Almost thirty years later, both programs carry much more weight on the national landscape. UConn is a four-time national champion and program that Jim Calhoun built has been perhaps the most successful program since 1999. Xavier became a mid-major power before becoming arguably the second-most successful program in the reformed Big East. Despite the success, neither program is where they want to be.

UConn has struggled to replace Calhoun in the while wilting away playing teams like Tulane and South Florida. Second-year coach Dan Hurley has UCONN on the right track, but the disastrous reign of Calhoun’s chosen successor Kevin Ollie (after he Shabazzed his way to an unexpected title in 2014, of course) meant the program needed to leave the AAC to remain relevant. The move came at a significant cost as, in an era where football is king, UConn football has no home for the foreseeable future. It was a wise decision, as basketball will benefit being in a conference with much worthier and meaningful foes than the AAC offered (besides, football might be able to win a few games if it played non-scholarship FCS Butler and Georgetown).

Meanwhile, Xavier looks to remain near the top of the conference while it seeks validation in the form of NCAA Tournament success. Currently the program with the most NCAA Tournament wins without a Final Four, Xavier has achieved all of the regular season success it could hope for. UConn, with its four championships and another Final Four to boot, will be a stark reminder of what Xavier strives to become.

Tonight is just the first match-up in what could develop in a full-blown rivalry, should the Huskies join Xavier near the top of the Big East.

Meet the Huskies

Record: 3-1, 71st (of 353) in Kenpom

Offense: 79.3 ppg, 45.0%/34.1%/70.9%, 73rd in Kenpom

Defense: 72.5 papg, 75th in Kenpom

Head Coach: Dan Hurley, 2nd season (18-18 at UConn, 169-123 overall with stints at Wagner and Rhode Island)

After getting shocked by a rebuilding St. Joe’s in the second game of the season, the Huskies rebounded nicely by beating preseason No. 6 Florida at home last Sunday. As the winner will likely get a rematch with Florida, UConn wants to prove that the first result wasn’t a fluke.

Senior guard Christian Vital has undeniably been the star for the Huskies thus far. While he’s done plenty of scoring with 18.5 ppg, he’s quite a bit of everything leading UCONN with 9.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, and 3.5 spg. While he’s not the first NYC-bred point guard to flourish at UCONN, he has been everywhere thus far and is an early favorite for AAC Player of the Year.

Vital isn’t alone. 6’11’ center Josh Carlton will battle with Xavier forward Tyrique Jones all night, the former is averaging 13 ppg, 8.8 rpg, and 1.8 bpg.

Junior forward Tyler Polley has been the Huskies best shooter thus far, scoring 11 ppg while shooting 50% from deep.

While not the tallest player on the court, r-Fr. forward Akok Akok might be the longest and most disruptive as he’s rejected 11 shots (2.8 pg) through just four games to go with 6.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg.

Rounding out the starting line-up is r-Jr. guard Alterique Gilbert. After a breakthrough campaign in 2018-19 where he averaged 13 ppg on nearly 40% 3PT shooting, the 6’ guard is scoring 9.8 ppg but is shooting just 22.2% from the field and just 25% from deep. As the Musketeers showed against Towson, basketball players can be dangerous once they regress to the mean.

Game Info

Time: 9:30 p.m.

TV: ESPNU

Place: TD Arena, Charleston, SC

Line; Xavier -5, 137.5 o/u

Prediction

Xavier covered for the first time all season against Towson while the under hit once again. Towson rated as a solid offensive team, the best Xavier had faced this season, and the Musketeers completely shut them down. While the Musketeers might have just taken advantage of a poor defensive unit, Xavier got open looks through its first four games when it hit just 20% of its three-point attempts. The 40% rate against Towson might not be sustainable but the Musketeers might be turning a corner away from Cintas Center. They keep it going on offense, completely shut down the Huskies offensively, and cruise to a comfortable win en route to the Charleston Classic championship game on Sunday.

Xavier 67, UConn 56