Edmond Sumner SO (6-6, 186) vs Jalen Brunson SO (6-2, 190)
Brunson isn't the biggest player and he's just a decent athlete, but his poise and IQ are special. Plus, he has tremendous body control. He's averaging 14.6 points (53.9% FG, 45.5% 3PT), 3.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds in 30.6 minutes per game. In addition to being a really good jump-shooter, the biggest threat he poses to Xavier is his ability to carve opposing defenses in ball-screen situations. A huge part of the Wildcats' offense is just running a high ball-screen set by the big (Reynolds or Paschall) at the top of the key with two shooters playing low on the wing and Jenkins set up underneath the rim. As Brunson comes off the screen, the big rolls to the rim and Jenkins replaces to the top of the key and then Brunson reads the defense and makes a play from there. Jay Wright puts a ton of trust in the sophomore to power his team's offense. Sumner has to be anxious to get back to the Pavilion after having his experience cut short just two minutes into the game there last year after a hard foul sent him to the hospital and caused him to miss the next three games with concussion symptoms. On top of that, he's also played the best ball of his career in Xavier's last two wins over Georgetown and St. John's, averaging 24.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.0 steals in 35.5 minutes during those games. For the season, he's averaging 15.6 points (51% FG, 29% 3PT), 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 33.7 minutes per game. His athleticism was a problem for the Wildcats in the game at Cintas last year. He didn't finish shots but he was constantly in the lane and getting fouled or setting up teammates. He had 19 points (4-12 FG) while going 11-of-13 from the free throw line and dishing out nine assists to go with six boards.
Slight Edge Villanova
JP Macura JR (6-5, 203) vs Josh Hart SR (6-5, 215)
Hart is the leading candidate for the National Player of the Year award. He's most well-rounded player in the conference, averaging 19.8 points (55% FG, 39.2% 3PT), 6.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in 33.6 minutes per game. There are three main areas where he does the most damage offensively - spot up jumpers, pick-and-roll situations, and transition opportunities. When using ball-screens, he's great at using his strength to finish through defenders in the lane. He also has a crafty mid-range game. Defensively, he's tremendous and will likely guard Macura considering last year he matched up with Davis. Macura is averaging 14.7 points (41.4% FG, 33.3% 3PT), 4.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 33 minutes per game. After turning the ball over multiple times in seven of the first 11 games of the year, he's now gone four straight games without a turnover. Continuing that trend against Villanova's pressure defense will be a huge key for Xavier's success. It's worth noting that Macura and James Farr were the only two players who really played well at all last year in the 95-64 loss at Villanova and Macura also scored 14 points while hitting 4-of-8 from three at the Pavilion as a freshman. And then obviously everyone remembers his 19-point effort in the win over Nova at the Cintas Center last year.
Moderate Edge Villanova
Malcolm Bernard SR (6-6, 202) vs Mikal Bridges SO (6-7, 210)
Bridges is a supremely athletic wing with great length. He provides a lot of value on both ends while hardly needing the ball at all on offense. He's averaging 9.7 points (58.9% FG, 41.3% 3PT), 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.5 steals in 29.4 minutes per game. The majority of his possessions are used on spot-up jumpers. He's 19-for-46 from 3-point range on the year. However, his handle is strong enough to come off a side ball screen within the Wildcats' four-out motion offense and attack downhill, using his athleticism to get to the rim a time or two per game. Defensively, he's very disruptive, particularly at the top of their 1-2-2 press. Bernard is coming off two of his best games back-to-back in the wins over Georgetown and St. John's. He was 4-for-5 from three in those two games and averaged 9.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in 24.5 minutes of action. He's clearly playing with more confidence and comfort in his role. For the season, he's averaging 5.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.2 steals in 27.9 minutes per game. As noted above, I could see him starting out on Hart defensively.
Slight Edge Villanova
Trevon Bluiett JR (6-6, 198) vs Kris Jenkins SR (6-6, 235)
Jenkins is a wide-framed shooting forward. He's added a few wrinkles to his game and will do some limited isolation work, but he's mostly still a spot-up shooter. He's averaging 13.8 points (41.9% FG, 42.5% 3PT), 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 31.5 minutes per game. He also has the best pump fake in college hoops which the Musketeers are well aware of, so staying down on that is always bolded on the scouting report. Bluiett is averaging 17.7 points (42.2% FG, 34.6% 3PT), 5.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 33.9 minutes. After a dreadful 0-for-10 performance at Georgetown, he started slowly on Saturday against St. John's but eventually seemed to shake himself out of the mini-slump and finished with 15 points while hitting 3-of-6 from deep. For X to pull this upset, it would seem they'd need their leader to get it going on offense.
Slight Edge Xavier
RaShid Gaston SR (6-9, 239) vs Darryl Reynolds SR (6-9, 240)
Reynolds has taken a step forward in his senior year. He's averaging 5.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game while shooting 75.6 percent from the field. He's served nicely in his limited role where he's asked to catch-and-finish on dump-offs or pick-and-rolls. He's been rather ineffective in his rare post-up opportunities. He's also solid defensively and on the glass. Gaston only played seven minutes on Saturday due to foul trouble and a big lead, so he should be well rested. He's averaging 7.4 points (58% FG) and 6.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game. If Villanova has a weakness, it's definitely the frontcourt. Gaston is better than the bigs that he'll be facing in this one. It's important that he provides the Musketeers with a lift.
Slight Edge Xavier
Xavier Bench vs Villanova Bench
Sophomore Eric Paschall (6-7, 250), a transfer from Fordham, is a unique player. He's a little undersized, stocky, strong, fairly athletic, and skilled. He's averaging 7.4 points (44.9% FG, 26.8% 3PT) and 3.9 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game. Defensively, he adds strength and rebounding inside. On offense, he floats on the perimeter a little too much looking for jump shots at times, but he's capable of scoring in a handful of ways. He'll post-up, run the floor in transition, and get garbage buckets. He doesn't do anything that should threaten an opposing team, but he is capable of making an impact on the game. Redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo (6-5, 205) is a scrappy guard that will come in and run the point or play alongside Brunson at the two. When he's running the offense, it's much less dynamic because he's not nearly as effective in ball-screen situations as Brunson. He's averaging 6.9 points (41.2% FG, 34% 3PT) and 3.3 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per game. Fifty of his 85 field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. The Wildcats have been rolling with mostly a seven-man rotation as Phil Booth has been out for most of the season with tendinitis in his knee. For Xavier, the return of Myles Davis makes the Musketeers' bench a huge storyline. However, it's unrealistic to expect him to have any type of significant impact on this game. Aside from Davis, XU has plenty of reason to be excited about its bench right now. Quentin Goodin, Kaiser Gates, and Tyrique Jones all played their best games of the season on Saturday. Taking care of the ball will be a huge key for Goodin on the road while seeing the Villanova pressure for the first time.
Slight Edge Xavier
Villanova is ranked third overall in the country in the current KenPom rankings while sitting at No.1 overall in offensive efficiency and No. 31 in defensive efficiency. There's not much new or notable about their style of play this year. They still play a small and versatile lineup, shoot it well from the outside, throw a ton of bounce passes, pump fake, jump-stop, run a 4-out motion offense, and play a 1-2-2 trap and then fall into a switching man-to-man on defense. Xavier matches up well physically and I don't think there's a huge talent gap between the two teams. However, Jalen Brunson's ability to make plays in pick-and-rolls could cause problems and until X proves it can beat Villanova away from the Cintas Center, it's tough to predict it happening. The hardest part of beating Villanova, especially on the road, is overcoming the Wildcats' "culture" as Chris Mack would say. They won't turn the ball over, they'll be supremely efficient on the offensive end, they'll apply pressure defensively, they'll be locked in, and they'll take advantage of missed opportunities. Xavier has to play the same way to have a chance. Last year, Nova shot the lights out when Xavier visited, but the Musketeers also turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, several of which were live ball turnovers that led to easy transition opportunities for the Wildcats. They finished with 19 turnovers for the game which led to 26 points for Villanova. Obviously, that was without Sumner for most of the game, so it will be interesting to see how XU handles the pressure defense on the road this time around. Xavier's ability to take care of the ball and how Nova shoots from deep will decide whether X is able to keep this game close or not.
Predicted score: Villanova 82 Xavier 72