Battle of the Ranked Big East Squads – Friars Take on #21 Xavier

The #17 Providence Friars embark on the first of two daunting games this week as they travel to Cincinnati to play the #21 Xavier Musketeers. Providence is looking to extend its win streak to 4 games, while Xavier is looking to bounce back after a loss to the scorching hot Marquette Golden Eagles.

We provide below a comprehensive overview of the Xavier squad and analyze key themes heading into the game. This week is paramount in dismissing critics of the Providence Friars who think the hot start is more “lucky” than reflective of a good team.

Xavier Program Overview

Xavier, #21 in the AP Poll, is 14-4 and 4-3 in Big East play. They are led in scoring by Iowa transfer Jack Nunge at 12.3 points/game. Nunge was stuck behind Garza last year, and is really blossoming at Xavier. Colby Jones is building off a promising freshman year and is averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds. Scruggs, Kunkel, and Johnson round out the production from the backcourt. Lastly, Freemantle is still rounding into form after injury, with he and Nunge teaming up to be a formidable frontcourt duo.

Key Themes and Characteristics for Friars Against Xavier

  1. Will A.J. Reeves return? Reeves has been out for the past 4.5 games, injuring his non-shooting hand (we believe he broke his fingers) against DePaul. The Friars have performed admirably without him, going 3-1 without him in the line-up, but it would be nice to have another pure shooter and athlete on the floor against a stingy Xavier team. We’ve heard from some other Big East foes (not Xavier, where Steele really hasn’t mentioned the loss of Freemantle) the unluckiness of missing key players due to injury or COVID. Well, Reeves is currently the third leading scorer for the Friars and starting 2-guard. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and play with what you have. Providence is playing well, but there is no doubt he raises the offensive ceiling for this team when he is on the court. If Reeves does play, I’d anticipate him playing no more than 20 minutes.
  2. Limit Perimeter looks for Kunkel and Johnson – These two are killers from deep. Kunkel and Johnson average 38.6 and 41.7% from deep, respectively. Providence needs to play disciplined D. In the scouting report, the coaches need to acknowledge that they should be coming over the top of screens instead of under them when guarding these two. It is imperative that you don’t give them any space. Hopefully, they learned from the errors of the Georgetown game where their best shooters were routinely given open 3 ball looks. If Providence is going to lose, I’d rather them lose by having these two prove to the Friars they can beat them by driving and finishing inside the 3 point arc.
  3. Get Nunge Defending in Space – Nunge is BIG. No doubt about it. I have faith that Watson and Croswell can find some success against him in the post; however, I’d rather see Providence put Nunge in compromising defensive positions on the perimeter. I would be using Watson and Croswell in pick and roll offensive sets quite frequently and seeing how Xavier reacts. If the Musketeers switch on the PnR sets, our guards will have Nunge guarding them in space, which is what you would ideally want. Watson has shown the ability to hit a pick and pop shot on the perimeter as well. I bring up the multitude of offensive options because, while I have the utmost faith in Watson and Croswell to produce in the low post, it is allowing Nunge the opportunity to protect the rim and block shots. At 1.4 blocks/game, he is quite good at that.
  4. Withstand the inevitable Xavier run at Cintas – Playing Xavier is a daunting task as is, let alone playing them at their place. We know the crowd will be ready for a nationally ranked match-up, so it is imperative that the Friars come out and play well early. The crowd is going to be a factor, and Providence cannot let themselves be influenced by turning the ball over and rushing possessions.
  5. Entire Providence team must stay engaged defensively – Much like Providence, Xavier does not have one or two guys who are clearly the leading scorers supported by others. The Musketeers are extremely balanced and have 5-6 players on their roster who can lead them in scoring on a given night. Providence must commit to locking in defensively and having minimal defensive lapses because all players on the court for Xavier can beat you.

Predictions

BOC: Providence loses to Xavier 71 – 64. This may be one of those games where Providence really struggles offensively, but stays in the game due to their defense. The game is closer than the final score indicates, as late game free throws cause the Musketeers to pull away.

Crier: Will preface my prediction by saying PC is just as talented as this Xavier team and you could make the argument the Friars are the better team. Xavier is a similarly balanced team but may have more options to turn to than PC. Xavier has had 8 different players lead the team in scoring this year. For PC get the ball to Watson and make Nunge work in the post on defense. As is the case for all road games PC will want to take care of the basketball and hone in on the shooters (Johnson & Kunkle). Just think Cintas is a tough place to play, Xavier desperately needs a win to keep pace in the Big East standings and that could be the difference in this one. I got PC falling 66-70.

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