Marquette Golden Eagles (5-3, 1-1 Big East) at Xavier Musketeers (7-0, 0-0 Big East)
Date: Sunday, December 20, 2020
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Marquette Stats Leaders
Points: Koby McEwen, 14.6 points/game
Rebounds: Theo John & Justin Lewis, 7.0 rebounds/game
Assists: D.J. Carton, 3.3 assists/game
Xavier Stats Leaders
Points: Zach Freemantle, 18.7 points/game
Rebounds: Jason Carter, 8.4 rebounds/game
Assists: Paul Scruggs, 7.1 assists/game
Game Projection: Xavier has a 56% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 71-69.
Tempo Free Fun: Xavier’s had an interesting 2020-21 season already.
They started the year off by hosting a four team event, which gave them three games in three days, and the last two were against pretty good mid-major competition in Bradley and Toledo. Both squads pushed the Musketeers to the limit, but XU escaped with a one point win over the Braves and a three point win over the Rockets. After finally getting a day off, they came back three days later..... and got pushed to overtime against Eastern Kentucky.
Xavier still won, though. That gave them a 4-0 record, and drumming Tennessee Tech kept them unbeaten heading into the Crosstown Shootout, where they zipped up Cincinnati thanks to a 12-2 second half run. Next game up was their first major test of the season as they welcomed Oklahoma to the Queen City as part of the Big East/Big 12 Battle, and a 14-2 run late in the first half tilted the game in their favor by nine at half.... and that turned into 22 by the final horn, 99-77.
7-0 and earning votes in the Associated Press top 25 as a result. A very nice start to the campaign, both in terms of earning some good wins as well as keeping that zero in the loss column.
And they haven’t played since.
The Oklahoma game was on December 9th. On December 11th, the Musketeers announced a COVID-19 pause in activities. That automatically hit the postpone button on their first two Big East games, at Providence and at home against Seton Hall. Eventually they would postpone their third Big East game, a roadie against DePaul on December 18th, as well.
So they haven’t played a game in 10 days if you’re reading this on Saturday when it publishes or in 11 days if you’re reading it before tipoff on Sunday. They also haven’t been on the court all that much in the meantime because activity was paused. Here’s two tweets from Xavier on Friday:
Those went up at roughly noon and 4:30pm Central on Friday. That definitely seems to indicate that Friday was Xavier’s first practice since announcing their pause in activity back on the 11th. Given that they were on such a hot streak in their first seven games, it’s reasonable to wonder how in tune with each other the Musketeers will be when thrown into the fire against Big East competition on Sunday afternoon. There’s a certain amount of symbiosis that develops with a basketball team over the course of a season, and Xavier has had theirs drastically disrupted if this was their first practice in about a week.
It’s also reasonable to wonder what Xavier’s roster is actually going to look like on Sunday. Xavier had a positive COVID test that halted their season. We don’t know which Tier 1 member of the program popped the test, and so we don’t know if there’s someone on the XU roster that’s still recovering much like Dexter Akanno missed the first two games of the season for Marquette. We know for a fact that Sunday will be the first game of the season where Xavier will have Ben Stanley available. The NCAA approved eligibility for all D1 transfers for this season back on the 16th, which means that while Stanley’s waiver was denied, he’s now allowed to play for the X-Men by way of the D1 Council overruling all wavier denials. The 6’6”, 225 pound Stanley averaged 22.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for Hampton last season. It’s impossible to say how he fits into head coach Travis Steele’s gameplan after he had seven games of setting up a rotation already this year, but it’s never a bad thing to have an extra scorer just hanging around the bench just in case.
Sunday afternoon’s game is not likely to be decided by turnovers. Both teams have outright rejected the concept of creating turnovers on defense so far this season, with Marquette (15.7% of possessions) finding the idea a little more abhorrent than Xavier (16.8%) in their respective games. They’re both ranking in the bottom third of the country in that department, so seeing a lot of quick transition buckets off steals is just not going to happen here. Xavier’s lack of interest in creating turnovers is particularly fascinating given Travis Steele’s focus on defense, particularly when it comes to Xavier’s tracking of what they call kills. It’s a simple concept: Three straight defensive stops is a kill, and since they’ve starting tracking this, Xavier has won 93.4% (85-6) of the games where they record at least seven kills. To think of it another way: Yeah, you’re probably going to win a lot of games when you create 21 stops in only three stop streaks in a 70 possession game like Xavier is averaging this season. That’s not even counting the one or two stops in a row that they get while trying to get those seven kills, nor is it counting when the streaks get out to four or five stops long. They’re doing it without turnovers this season, but that’s not unusual. Xavier has been tracking this since the 2011-12 season, and they’ve been ranked lower than #240 in the country per KenPom.com in defensive turnover rate (like they are right now at #259) six times in the previous nine seasons. This is what they do, so at least that’s not different for them.
While turnovers will not likely be the deciding factor, shooting percentage most likely will be. I know, ha ha, it’s basketball, whoever makes more of their shots usually wins. That’s not what I meant, not entirely. Marquette and Xavier both have excellent effective field goal percentage defenses this season, with both teams holding opponents under 45% shooting even when you hand out bonus points for three-pointers. They’re also both particularly adept at cutting things off on the interior, where Xavier holds teams to just 39.6% shooting inside the arc and MU is at a still very good 42.3%. The difference comes going the other way where Xavier — 57.7% to 48.7% — is a much better two-point shooting team that Marquette is. Things are pretty even on the three-point shooting, and both teams attempt about the same ratio of shots behind the arc. To continue the “you don’t say, genuis” analysis, Marquette is going to have to shut down Zach Freemantle, Xavier’s leading scorer. The 6’9” sophomore from New Jersey is shooting a really great 44% from long range and an absolutely ridiculous 70% inside the arc. He tends to prefer the interior work with only 3.5 three-point attempts per game, so forcing Xavier in a different direction has to be item #1 on the scouting report. I know, ha ha, “take away XU’s obvious strength. What insight.”
There’s a secondary aspect to shooting percentage in this game. Marquette’s effective field goal percentage defense is a little bit of a mirage at this point of the season. The Golden Eagles held their first two opponents under 40%..... and those are the only two they have under 40% this season. Worse yet, the Golden Eagles are trending in the wrong direction in eFG% defense. After holding opponents #3 through #6 to somewhere between 40% and 50%, both of the last two games have involved the Marquette opponent getting their eFG% north of 50%. The Creighton game was particularly egregious, as the Jays connected on shots to the tune of 60.3%. Now, you can say “oh, well, that’s Creighton, they’re good at shooting,” and that’s fair. It’s still part of an overall trend downwards, and that trend needs to be stopped with a suddenness. Part of the reason why Seton Hall shot 51.9% against Marquette is because the Pirates got open look after open look after open look from behind the arc because a drive to the lane created an open shooter.
To that end, containing Paul Scruggs will be highly important in this game. Xavier ranks ninth in the country in assist rate, and that’s mostly because Scruggs ranks 33rd individually. He’s posted at least four assists in every game this season, and he’s more likely to dish out seven or more assists in a game (five times) than not. While Freemantle is the most dangerous scorer, Scruggs has still managed to be named KenPom.com Game MVP in the three games that it didn’t go to Freemantle. Disrupting Scruggs’ ability to find the open man is going to be crucial, but it’s not like the rest of Xavier’s roster is a bunch of chumps in terms of sharing the ball. Four guys are averaging at least two assists per game.
All Time Series: Marquette leads, 53-24. Xavier is Marquette’s third-most played opponent since 1949-50, behind only DePaul and Wisconsin.
Current Streak: Marquette has swept Xavier in each of the past two seasons for a four game winning streak against the Musketeers. The Golden Eagles have also won six of the last eight in the series. One side or the other has swept both games in each of the last five seasons.
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@AnonymousEagle - Hey, that’s us!
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@becb_sbn - our SB Nation friends that follow the whole Big East
@BannersParkway - our SB Nation friends that follow Xavier
@BenSteeleMJS - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel MU beat writer