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Preview: UConn men’s basketball at Xavier | 12 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX

The Huskies have lost three straight but face a potentially rusty Xavier team

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Xavier Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After one of the more frustrating losses in the Dan Hurley era, the UConn men’s basketball team will look to right the ship on the road tomorrow vs. the Xavier Musketeers. Avid Cincinnati Bengal fan Dan Hurley has never won in the Queen City, and now is as good time as ever.

When: 12 p.m. Eastern

Where: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

TV: Fox

Radio: UConn Sports Network

Line: Xavier -3, O/U 134.5

KenPom Predicted Score: Xavier 68, UConn 66

This is the first conference tilt between UConn and Xavier, but the two duked it out in a double-overtime classic in Charleston last season, better known as the James Bouknight coming out party. It’s uncertain if we’ll get an encore performance from the sophomore star though, as his availability —and elbow injury — remain shrouded in mystery.

The 8-5 (5-5 Big East) Huskies have lost three straight and four of their last five. They desperately need a win to keep their fading NCAA tournament hopes alive, despite ranking 42nd in KenPom. Xavier enters this game after a COVID-19 pause that has prevented them for seeing live action since Jan. 30 and playing just one game since Jan. 10. Still, the Musketeers rank 46th in KenPom and are 11-2 overall (4-2 in conference) and 9-1 at the Cintas Center. This is a huge chance for the Huskies to steal one on the road vs. the Rusty Muskies.

When Xavier has the rock

Like Providence, Xavier has a formidable inside-out threat. Zach Freemantle is seventh in the conference in scoring at 15 points per game and second in rebounding 8.7 rebounds per game. Despite missing his last eight shots from downtown, the 6-foot-9 sophomore shoots 33% from three on the year. Pick-and-pop defense will need to be mindful of the spacing on switches.

Paul Scruggs is the Musketeers’ backcourt leader. The preseason second-team All-Big East selection sits eighth in the conference in scoring (14.6 ppg), first in assists (6), and sports an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4. The 6-foot-4 senior is Xavier’s unquestioned alpha, and has the size to bully smaller guards. Tyrese Martin will likely draw the matchup, but Andre Jackson and Brendan Adams could get the call as well.

Beyond Xavier’s two stars though, head coach Travis Steele trots out impressive depth. Nine guys play double-digit minutes, and that doesn’t count newly eligible Hampton transfer Ben Stanley. Nate Johnson joins Freemantle and Scruggs in double-digit scoring as a 6-foot-4 senior guard that shoots the three at a blistering 52%, a conference best. In December, he lit up Oklahoma for seven threes, so don’t expect much help from his defender. Athletic freshman Dwon Odom has started seven games this year and averages four assists per game. His table-setting lets Scruggs play off the ball and create his own offense.

Senior Jason Carter can be a load inside, while freshman Colby Jones and sophomore Kyky Tandy are capable two-way players.

Overall, the Muskies share and take care of the ball, ranking first and second in the Big East in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, respectively. They average 78 points per game, shoot 47.8% overall as a team, and 36.4% from three, all upper echelon in the Big East albeit with a 13-game sample size. Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley will need to match Freemantle’s physicality inside, and UConn’s backcourt will have to close out shooters with much better attentiveness than they did against Providence.

A lot of the same defensive principles UConn needed versus Providence apply to Xavier, except the latter’s supporting cast is much more formidable. Keeping the ball out of Scruggs and Freemantle's hands will be tough with Xavier’s offensive spacing. UConn tried trapping the Friars to mediocre results. It’s worth a shot again tomorrow, but Freemantle and Carter are plus passers, so help defense decisions will have to be smart.

When UConn has the rock

Light a candle. Xavier is No. 1 in the conference in field goal percentage defense, and boast size and length that could give UConn problems. However, their long COVID-19 pause means rotations, switches, and intensity may not be up to snuff right away for 40-full minutes.

Assuming Bouknight’s out, it’s the same old song and dance; RJ Cole and Martin in double figures, and someone else in the rotation desperately needing to step up. It’s encouraging to see Sanogo get post touches (nine attempts per game the last five games), and the hope is he can pull defenders into his orbit to open up driving lanes. Cole did a better job penetrating against Providence and will need to keep that aggression up. Martin is 7-15 from three his last five games, and must continue to be the closest thing UConn has to a bailout bucket.

What made the Providence game so frustrating was how UConn was stymied by Ed Cooley’s three-quarter press. Those kind of presses aren’t designed to turn you over, but rather to slow the tempo and eat into the shot clock. How many times did UConn initiate its dribble-handoffs (way too far from the key) with 15 or so seconds left on the clock? For a team without a proven shot-creator, that spells disaster. Getting stops and pushing the tempo tomorrow will ensure UConn’s production won’t have to come from its anemic half-court offense.

Keys to the game

Ignore the headlines

Two narratives are out there right now that the Huskies must disregard. One is that this is a sputtering, rudderless team without Bouknight. If just two of Polley’s wide open looks fall against Providence, the Huskies are in that game. You can point to similar situational ‘ifs’ in all three of UConn’s recent losses. There’s an air of discouragement around the team right now, and its being fanned by Twitter keyboard warriors online. Hurley will have to rally the team’s spirits and get them up for a potentially season-saving game.

The second narrative out there is that Xavier is rusty, potentially missing players. While true, they’re still a dangerous team. And after their two previous program pauses they netted wins over Marquette (10-day break) and Butler (20-day layoff). It sounds simple and hokey, but UConn is in no position to underestimate anyone at the moment.

Can the Huskies ignore the national pundits that say their bubble is burst and treat this Xavier team as if they’re fully healthy red-hot winners of three-straight? Can Hurley get his team to channel all the ‘so-close’ frustration into a complete game?

Battle of the boards

Xavier is second in the Big East in defensive rebounds per game (29.5). UConn is first in offensive rebounding per game (13.1) Something’s gotta give. After ceding the offensive rebounding to the Friars, Isaiah Whaley, Sanogo, and Martin will need to crash the glass with renewed vigor.

Along came Polley

The Husky offense can return to respectability again if Tyler Polley — now 5-25 from three in his last five games — stops shooting like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly. He’s a confidence shooter; if two fall, three more are about to. The senior will need to keep shooting, but also find ways to impact the game in other areas.

Beat Cincinnati

Xavier and UConn have one common enemy; the University of Cincinnati. Similar to how the Hot Sauce Huskies poured money into a great cause, the two Queen City teams have recently teamed up for a Crosstown Tip-Off.

As a Cincinnati resident, I can confirm that every place getting these tips is outstanding, especially Zips. Rhinehaus and Cobblestone, are you next?!

How perfect would it be if UConn fans “tipped” the scales of this great cause in favor of Xavier, their new foe, over Cincinnati, their old foe? Not sure of the specifics or logistics of it all, but to any Xavier fans reading this; tell us how we can #getinvolved!

Prediction

UConn’s shooting woes continue without Bouknight, and Xavier’s offense knocks off the rust in the second half. 67-63, Xavier.