St. John’s begin their 20-game gauntlet in the Big East, as they face the Xavier Musketeers in Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday night. The Red Storm are hoping to build off a strong 22-point victory over Fordham and win their third straight Big East opening game, after they beat DePaul in each of their last two opening night contests.
Wednesday night’s game will also mark the first time that Rick Pitino and Sean Miller will coach against each other.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm vs. Xavier Musketeers (6-5)
When: Wednesday, December 20, 2023, 7:00 p.m.
Where: Carnesecca Arena, Queens, NY
Opening Odds: St. John’s (-3), O/U at 156
Scouting the Musketeers
St. John’s and Xavier find themselves in the same boat. Both teams were in the preseason the season with uncertainty after roster turnovers, left no convincing answers for said uncertainty with unimpressive non-conference performances, and they both enter the Big East season with a wide spectrum of possibilities in play and the benefit of doubt that they can land on their feet provided from two of the most detail-oriented coaches of the 21st century.
The Musketeers enter with a 6-5 record and a KenPom rank of 41st, with home losses to Oakland and Delaware sticking out like sore thumbs on their résumé. A cause for their struggles has been a lack of experienced frontcourt depth. Zach Freemantle (foot surgery) and Jerome Hunter (heart condition) are both out to begin the season, and Indiana transfer Logan Duncomb stepped away from basketball in the preseason. In their stead, North Texas transfer Abou Ousmane (7.9 ppg) has provided reliable defense around the paint, blocking 1.5 shots a game.
Despite the lack of returning experience, Xavier’s defense has been very strong. Opposing teams are arctic from the paint, mid-range, and the middle of the arc, but the Musketeers have a soft underbelly in the corners, allowing 41.7% from three there. KenPom currently has Xavier rated 30th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Rice transfer Quincy Olivari embodies the kind of “hair-on-fire” mentality you expect out of Xavier guards. He leads the team with 17.6 points per game and is shooting 44.6 percent from three on 6.7 attempts per game. Olivari has been on a heater over the past three games, averaging 27.7 points per contest on 52/51/92 shooting splits. In the middle of his hot streak was a breakout performance against cross-town rival Cincinnati, when he scored a team-high 27 points on six threes in a win over the Bearcats.
Another player who was terrific in that big win over Cincinnati is Western Kentucky transfer Dayvion McKnight (9.2 ppg), who scored a season-high 20 points and nailed some clutch shots in the process. McKnight brings great floor general play to the Musketeers, leading the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.47)
Former top-100 recruit and second-leading scorer Desmond Claude (15.5 ppg) has been a phenomenal slasher, scoring 75 percent at the rim. Claude is still trying to find his rhythm from three (23.1 percent), but his ability to attack the basket allows him to dish it to a roaming big like Abou Ousmane or Sasa Ciani or kick it out to a deep-range threat like Quincy Olivari.
Keys to the game
Don’t let Olivari get hot - This game may come down to the backcourt matchups, which favors Xavier due to their recent streak of strong play. Quincy Olivari can start scoring in a hurry and Rick Pitino hasn’t announced who will be the starting shooting guard for tonight’s game. Whether it’s Sean Conway, Nahiem Alleyne, or Jordan Dingle, whoever faces Olivari needs to stay attached to him as Xavier loves to create shooting space for their guards with tons of screens.
Stay out of foul trouble - St. John’s has conceded 22 fouls in each of their last two games. We’ve seen opposing teams rattle off extendeds run after foul trouble forces St. John’s to shorten the rotation and wear out their starters. Don’t give up cheap ones and send Xavier to the line.
Stop dribble penetration - Desmond Claude leads a cast of Xavier players who can effectively attack the paint and get to the basket. We even saw bigs like Abou Ousmane and Gytis Nemeiksa put the ball on the floor and get inside against a Cincinnati team with a top-50 KenPom defense. Claude’s quickness off the bounce is difficult to stop, so St. John’s may have to rely on quick help defense and switches to prevent Xavier from slicing them up in the paint.
Both of these teams have so many questions entering the Big East season. Xavier are objectively the better team right now, but the Red Storm are playing inside the bandbox of Carnesecca Arena, which creates a unique home court advantage that they lack inside Madison Square Garden. St. John’s wins an intense and close contest, 86-82.