The top of the Big East was absolutely dominant in non-conference play, notching impressive wins to the point where they became more expected than shocking.
Xavier, Villanova, Providence and Butler have gone a combined 45-4 thus far, but two of those teams will suffer defeats on New Year’s Eve. No. 6 Xavier will take on No. 16 Villanova, while No. 12 Providence travels to No. 9 Butler.Here are three key questions that will decide each captivating matchup.
Xavier vs. Villanova:
Can Villanova heat up its icy 3-point shooting against a tough Xavier defense?
Villanova loves to take 3-pointers – 49.5 percent of the Wildcats’ field goal attempts come from behind the arc, which ranks fifth in the country. But that doesn’t mean they’ve been efficient in bombing away from deep. Villanova has canned only 31 percent of its 3-point attempts this season, which ranks 276th in the country.
Things aren’t going to get any easier against Xavier. Opponents drain just 30.1 percent of their 3’s against the Musketeers, and point guard Edmond Sumner’s length is the perfect ingredient to stifle Villanova’s drive-and-kick attack.
That outlook sounds murky for the Wildcats at best, but Villanova has historically good shooters that are in the midst of a rough patch. Josh Hart, Phil Booth and Kris Jenkins are all shooting more than nine percent worse from distance than they did a year ago, and that trio launches a combined 15.5 triples per game.
Xavier may seem like an unlikely candidate to allow a shooting splurge, but you’d have to imagine regression to the mean will happen for Villanova sooner rather than later.
Does Villanova have anyone to match up against Trevon Bluiett?
Xavier is 12-0 for several reasons, but it’s a legitimate national title contender because of the lineup versatility Bluiett gives the Musketeers. Mostly confined to the small forward spot last season, Bluiett is blossoming as a power forward in 2015-16, shooting 44.9 percent from 3-point range and generally serving as a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Bluiett more than holds his own on the defense end – he has no problem banging with burly power forwards in the post, but those behemoths don’t have a shot at containing the dynamic sophomore off the bounce on the other side of the floor.
Kris Jenkins is uncertain to play against Xavier due to a knee injury, but even if healthy, he doesn’t have the quickness to stick with Bluiett. Only a handful of power forwards in college basketball do.
Prepare to see plenty of Mikal Bridges for Villanova, but he’s not the offensive threat Jenkins is. Bluiett is the kind of player that changes opposing coaches’ gameplans, and usually not for the better.
Can Daniel Ochefu stay out of foul trouble?
Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono get most of the attention for Villanova, but no player is more important to the Cats’ success than their starting center. Ochefu may not be Jay Wright’s best player, but nobody else on the roster possesses his combination of rim protection, rebounding and screening ability.
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Xavier, meanwhile, has an excellent starting center in Jalen Reynolds – and arguably an even better backup in James Farr. Reynolds and Farr combine to average 20.6 points and 14.9 rebounds per game, and they virtually split the Musketeers’ center minutes in half. They’re always fresh, and foul trouble becomes far less of a concern when a statistical clone of yourself is sitting on the bench.
Ochefu’s 80.9 defensive rating leads Villanova by a mile, and that unit struggles mightily when he hits the pine. The senior must impact the game while staying out of foul trouble if the Wildcats are going to have a shot to win.
Butler vs. Providence:
Can Butler use team defense to disrupt Kris Dunn similar to how it disrupted Purdue’s star big men?
Nobody on Butler is stopping Dunn by himself. Roosevelt Jones seems likely to draw that assignment, and perhaps his strength and length can frustrate Dunn. But the Friar point guard is just so quick. It’s going to take a team effort to stop one of the best players in the country.
And that’s where the Bulldogs thrive. Tyler Wideman gave up several pounds and inches to A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, yet Butler beat Purdue with tenacious help defense while constantly moving on a string.
Dunn is a good scorer, but he’s an even better creator. Perhaps Chris Holtmann simply elects to stick Jones on Dunn and not help, neutering Providence’s shooters from doing any damage. Or, maybe Holtmann isn’t particularly scared of the Friar supporting cast outside of Ben Bentil, and the Dawgs will have 10 eyes on Dunn at all times. Whatever the plan is, Butler will execute it well. It’s what they do.
Will Kellen Dunham bust out of his shooting slump for Butler?
Dunham is 7-for-46 from the field in his last four games for the Bulldogs. Conventional wisdom would suggest that he needs to shoot better for Butler to win, but his 0-for-12 output against Purdue didn’t seem to be much of a hindrance.
Dunham still has gravity as a shooter, and he makes life for Jones, Tyler Lewis and Andrew Chrabascz incredibly easier simply by showing up to the gym. Driving lanes are open for Butler these days, and in Jones, Lewis and Kelan Martin, the Bulldogs have the personnel to take advantage of them.
The Bulldogs are already incredibly hard to guard – they’re sixth in the country in offensive efficiency.
Just imagine if their star regains his shine.
Does a Friar not named Dunn or Bentil step up?
Dunn and Bentil are as lethal of a duo as there is in college basketball, and while Providence’s supporting cast has been a pleasant surprise, it’s still not consistently proven against tough competition.
Rodney Bullock has been very good for Providence, but he makes most of his hay in transition. Butler has played more up-tempo this season than in years past, but it’s not prone to giving up transition buckets. The way to beat the Bulldogs is either to have someone bigger than their undersized front line, or to have a shooter who can pick apart Butler’s help-and-recover scheme.
Ryan Fazekas is Providence’s best outside shooter, but he’ll miss Thursday’s game with mono. Beyond Kyron Cartwright, no Friar regular shoots better than 33 percent from 3-point range. Jalen Lindsey has perked up of late, so perhaps he’ll have a big game for Ed Cooley.
Bottom line: Providence needs a really good performance from someone like Cartwright, Lindsey or Bullock of it wants to take down Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse.