With the most critical portion of the season still ahead for the Xavier University men's basketball team, Tuesday's trip to Queens, New York, to meet St. John's at Carnesecca Arena is a game the Musketeers can't afford to overlook.
As it stands right now, thanks to a recent surge from the Red Storm, Tuesday's game (8:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1) is a Quad-1 opportunity with St. John's ranked 73rd in the NET rankings, and Xavier (11-3, 4-3 Big East Conference) only holds one Quad-1 win this season over Oklahoma.
"St. John's is the hottest team in our league," Xavier Head Coach Travis Steele said Sunday in his pregame press conference, roughly 24 hours after his team lost at home to UConn. "They're 6-1 in their last seven games."
St. John's is the first opponent in Big East play that Xavier will see for the second time. The Musketeers beat the Red Storm at Cintas Center on Jan. 6 without making a 3-pointer, giving Xavier 12 straight wins over St. John's.
But, Steele said, "They're a much different team than we saw back on Jan. 6."
St. John's is coming off a loss to Butler, but prior to that, the Red Storm won six in a row – a streak that included wins over UConn, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette and Providence.
Steele said he's noticed a change at the defensive end for St. John's.
"Their defensive efficiency numbers have gone way up, so they're guarding," Steele said. "Offensively, I think they've always been pretty good. They're shooting the ball better, as well."
There are a few areas Xavier needs to focus on at St. John's and going forward this season. Chief among them is the defensive end of the floor.
Steele said his team worked heavily on transition defense on Sunday after Saturday's loss to UConn.
"It's gonna be critical that we get back in transition and make (St. John's) run half-court offense, then also keep our defense tight," Steele said. "They have some really good one-on-one players that can really get to the rim."
The Musketeers also have to handle 40 minutes of pressure from the Red Storm. Taking care of the basketball, defending for 40 minutes, rebounding and a balanced offensive attack will be paramount.
In the first meeting with St. John's, Xavier dominated the rebounding war, 57-40. That has to remain a priority.
If Xavier, which leads the Big East and is fifth nationally in assists per game (18.6), can take care of the ball and share it the way the Musketeers are capable, it should lead to open looks against a St. John's team that ranks 110th in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency rating.
For Xavier to capture another much-needed Quad-1 win, they'll need to do so without senior forward Bryan Griffin, who will miss his second consecutive game due to COVID-19 protocols. The Musketeers will need a few guys to step up off the bench and fill that void.
Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Carnesecca Arena, Queens, New York
TV/Radio: Fox Sports 1 with play-by-play from John Fanta and analysis from Tarik Turner. Byron Larkin and Joe Sunderman will have the radio call on WLW-AM (700). Broadcast also available on Sirius XM channel 381 and internet 971.
Series info: Xavier leads the overall series, 14-3, and the Musketeers have won each of the past 12 meetings.
Xavier (11-3, 4-3 Big East)
Coach: Travis Steele, third season (49-32 overall)
Offense: 77.5 ppg
Defense: 69.3 ppg
Player (Position, Height, Key Stat)
Paul Scruggs (G, 6'4", 14.2 ppg)
Zach Freemantle (F, 6'9", 16.1 ppg)
Adam Kunkel (G, 6'4", 7.3 ppg)
Jason Carter (F, 6'8", 7.4 rpg)
Nate Johnson (G, 6'4", 11.7 ppg)
St. John's (13-8, 7-7 Big East)
Coach: Mike Anderson, 19th season, second at St. John's (399-223 overall)
Offense: 79.4 ppg
Defense: 76.4 ppg
Player (Position, Height, Key Stat)
Julian Champagnie (F, 6'8", 19.7 ppg)
Greg Williams Jr. (G, 6'3", 9.7 ppg)
Vince Cole (G/F, 6'6", 9.3 ppg)
Posh Alexander (G, 6'0", 11.6 ppg)
Isaih Moore (F, 6'10", 9.2 ppg)
Players to watch
During the Red Storm's recent six-game win streak, freshman point guard Alexander scored in double figures in all six, and his ability to play-make for others should be a major factor in this game.
Xavier needs balance offensively, and Kunkel can provide that. Most importantly, if guys like Kunkel and Johnson can knock down shots, it opens the floor and provides space for Scruggs and Freemantle.
Key to the game
Taking care of the basketball against a high-pressure team like St. John's is always important, but the Musketeers need to put together 40 minutes of solid defense.
KenPom.com: Xavier (52); St. John's (67)
NET: Xavier (40); St. John's (73)