When: Saturday, December 31 — 12 p.m.
Where: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -2.5, over/under 151.5 (odds via Borgata)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 79, Xavier 74
Dan Hurley may be a diehard Cincinnati Bengals fan, but you can bet he’s not paying much attention to the Who Deys’ playoff seeding right now. The No. 2 UConn men’s basketball team (14-0) heads to Cincinnati tomorrow to take on No. 22 Xavier (11-2), in a tasty New Year’s Eve matchup set to close out 2022 with a Mike Breen-esque ‘bang.’
This is UConn’s first test against a ranked opponent since they took down then No. 18-ranked Alabama in the Phil Knight Invitational. The undefeated Huskies are off to their best start to the season since 1998-1999 (and then what happened?), but the last two games show how precarious it is to be the hunted.
Xavier, meanwhile, sold its soul to bring back Sean Miller in the offseason and the results are paying off, for now. The Musketeers — NIT champions last year — are winners of seven-straight and have only lost to ranked teams; by three to Indiana, by seven to Duke and by four to Gonzaga.
The New Year’s Eve showdown will be a fascinating a battle of contrasts. Xavier’s elite offense versus UConn's fourth-ranked KenPom defense. One of the best starting fives in the country against one of the nation’s deepest teams. Pack-line defense versus in-your-face ball pressure. Skyline Chili versus Connecticut Pizza. Unstoppable force meets immovable object, if you will.
When Xavier has the ball
The Musketeers can fill it up in a variety of ways, with a KenPom offensive efficiency ranked No. 9 in the country and a nation-best assist rate. The starting five all average at least 10 points per game. The backcourt is paced by transfer Souley Boum, leading the way with 17.3 points per game. The lightning-quick 6-foot-3 guard from UTEP plays at a frenetic, yet controlled pace, but can also connect from beyond the arc (50 percent on 3-pointers, averaging two per game.)
Preseason all-Big East first-teamer Colby Jones is an incredibly composed combo guard that fills in the gaps with whatever’s needed. Evan Miya’s player ratings ranks him No. 12 in the country in total BPR, and last year he ranked in the 92nd percentile in assist rate for players taller than 6-foot-6. Adam Kunkel is a floor spacer that must always be accounted for.
Seven-footer Jack Nunge is a matchup nightmare for bigs, shooting 42 percent from 3-point range with a quarter of his looks coming from deep. He checks in on Evan Miya’s player ratings at fifth in the country in offensive BPR. Frontcourt partner Zach Freemantle is a 6-foot-9 bruiser with a deft touch at the rim and the only starter that’s not really a 3-point threat.
The quartet of Boum, Nunge, Jones, and Kunkel all shoot at least 39 percent from outside, so this will be quite the test for UConn’s seventh-ranked 3-point field goal percentage defense. The Huskies can really take advantage of foul trouble or cold shooting impact any of Xavier’s starting five; their bench minutes ranks No. 279 in the country. Keep an eye on New Haven product Desmond Claude though, who’s gaining more trust in conference play.
When UConn has the ball
Xavier subscribes to the Bill Murray philosophy of defense:
For as synergic at the pieces fit on offense, Xavier’s No. 79 KenPom defense is the worst-ranked defense in the AP Top 25. Miller employs a pack-line defense with Nunge anchoring the middle, but the slow-footed Freemantle is a liability, while Boum and Kunkel won’t win any effort awards.
Establishing Adama Sanogo or Donovan Clingan in the post may be difficult at first given Nunge’s length and Freemantle’s strength, but if UConn can move the ball quick enough to their bigs in good spots inside, Xavier’s frontcourt will be exposed.
Sanogo and Clingan have proven elite at screen-setting, and look for those drag-down sets that have worked so well this year to be on repeatedly tomorrow.
UConn's Jordan Hawkins is 3rd in the country in PPG via off-ball screens with an eFG% of 61% on those shots— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) December 21, 2022
A breakdown of one of the set plays Dan Hurley uses to screen for Hawkins
(sound on ) pic.twitter.com/T5DMRseetO
Even if Jones, one of Xavier’s more capable defenders, can stay with Jordan Hawkins on screens, Xavier must also account for Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Joey Calcaterra. Bet on one of those four, or maybe Naheim Alleyne, to have a big game with the spacing they’re awarded by Miller’s pack line. The Huskies should also be hitting the glass hard; Xavier ranks 60th in opponents’ offensive rebounding prevention (25.2 percent). This is the perfect game for Donovan Clingan to sink his fake front teeth into.
UConn is the highest ranked team to visit the Cintas Center since the 2016-17 season. I’ve called Cincinnati home for 10 years now. Xavier (and University of Cincinnati) fans have an irrational animosity toward UConn. Some would call it an inferiority complex. Maybe its UConn’s pedigree, maybe its the fact that the two teams have been evenly matched in recent years. But you can’t deny that the Cintas Center is a raucous place to play the game of basketball, and the collective Norwood hive mind would want nothing better than to hand UConn a loss to end 2022.
A New Year’s Eve game at noon in front of an incredibly hostile crowd will require the utmost composure from Dan Hurley and company. Andre Jackson got a technical there last year. Beyond maybe Creighton, the Huskies won’t face a more difficult road environment all season.
UConn is sixth in the country in Evan Miya’s kill-shots allowed per game, defined as the number of double digit scoring runs conceded per game. That’s a testament to the mental makeup Hurley has instilled in this team. They’ll have lapses on both ends every now and then, of course, but so far those mistakes haven’t compounded into a total disaster.
Picture this scene: UConn is down eight at the under-12 timeout in the second half. Skyline coneys are falling from the Cintas ceiling, Sanogo has four fouls, and Xavier’s student section is barking. Freemantle has Jackson boiling over.
Can UConn thread the needle between controlled intensity and overzealous sloppiness? Can the Huskies mine their depth once more and find another hero? You can make the argument that seven of UConn’s nine rotation players have single-handedly won a game for them this season. They’ll need someone to step up tomorrow to close out the year with a victory.