Game Preview: St. John's vs. Xavier (2014 Big East opener)

Jakarr returns to his Ohio roots for the New Year's Eve matchup. - Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

Before the ball drops and puts 2013 to an end, the new Big East and Fox Sports 1 will be starting a new era. One could say that they both are going out with a bang, or also coming in with a bang.

The new all-basketball conference known as the Big East will open up conference play with a marathon of intriguing conference matchups, with all ten members of the league playing for the national audience.

Starting at noon, the St. John's Red Storm (9-3) and the Xavier Musketeers (10-3) will start the marathon in Cincinnati. It will also be the conference debut for the entertaining broadcast duo of Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery, who will also be calling the Villanova vs. Butler game later in the evening.

Scouting St. John's

St. John's has been preaching consistency and improvement since this team was brought together in the summer. Head coach Steve Lavin returned a core group of players, including welcoming back scorer D`Angelo Harrison (19.5 points per game this season) while adding key players like freshman Rysheed Jordan and JUCO transfer Orlando Sanchez to fill in gaps.

Lavin's has stated on multiple occasions that he believes his bunch will be ready come conference play and playing its best basketball by January and February which could lead to a run in March. The team did have some struggles early on with their defense but in the last couple of games, the improvement of the Johnnies as a whole has been evident.

Orlando Sanchez has started the last four games over shotblocker Chris Obekpa, and both play a role in St. John's defense, which is allowing 42.0% shooting inside the arc, top-25 in the country.

Scouting Xavier

As for entering Big East play and heading to Ohio to face the Xavier Musketeers, Lavin sees a similar improvement in the team - which lost three straight in the neutral site Battle for Atlantis in the Bahamas - as well.

"Xavier has outstanding guard play. They are improving. You can see in recent weeks they are getting better...They are going to be a handful," Lavin stated on Monday.

Another two similarities between the two teams are their depth and style of play. Xavier, like St. John's, are a very deep and versatile team that could match up against anybody. They could play small or big and outside or inside. Many have said that St. John's has the deepest team in the conference, and maybe the country - but with a number of talented young guards and big men, Xavier has to be a close second.

A main piece of Xavier's offense is getting out in transition and Lavin knows that as well.

"Transition defense was a focus. Xavier gets down the floor in a hurry. So for us, getting back to limit Xavier runs is going to be a priority," Lavin said.

With Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year Semaj Christon, Dee Davis and Brandon Randolph also push the ball in transition and can also convert from behind the arc if need be. The Musketeers have struggled with turnovers and poor free throw shooting (under 64% from the line), but have shot better on free throws in the last five games.

Xavier is excited about finally getting to Big East play after joining the league from the Atlantic-10 last season.

"It's a huge deal for us," Xavier center and current Big East Player of the Week Matt Stainbrook said. "It's something that we look forward to. Effort won't be missing."

"Our guys are looking forward to the challenge [of the Big East]," added Xavier head coach Chris Mack.

Prediction

This has a potential to be a track meet where the only stoppages are media timeouts. At the same time these teams are very stout defensively where it could lead to a lower scoring game. Sophomore Jakarr Sampson will also be playing in a little bit of a homecoming as this will be his second college game in the state of Ohio; look for him to try and have an impact in this game.

Xavier 81 St. John's 74

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