After coming out victorious in a must-win game against No. 18 Marquette earlier this week, the Huskies (16-6, 7-4) head to Cincinnati to take on No. 25 Xavier Friday night. The win against the Golden Eagles got UConn back on track after two ugly losses at home to Creighton and on the road at Villanova, and now they have a third straight top 25 team waiting for them in the Musketeers (16-7, 6-6 Big East).
The Musketeers, like UConn last week, are currently in a two-game skid. They are fresh off of a tough two-point loss at Seton Hall in which the Pirates were in control the entire way before Xavier came roaring back in the last two minutes. Before this, they dropped a head scratcher to DePaul at home, a game in which the Blue Devils were also playing without the Big East’s leading scorer, Javon Freeman-Liberty.
Friday’s game marks a major test for both teams. UConn desperately needs to string together some wins to prove that they remain a legitimate Big East contender. Xavier may be the more desperate bunch, having already dropped six games in league play and sporting only one top 25 win all season which came all the way back in November.
When: Friday, Feb. 11 — 7 p.m. ET
Where: Cintas Center - Cincinnati, Ohio
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: Xavier -1, O/U 140.5
KenPom Predicted Score: Xavier 72, UConn 70
When UConn has the ball
Sanogo was back to his dominant ways in the Huskies’ win over Marquette, putting up 24 points and 15 rebounds, his fourth game this season with at least 13 points and 15 rebounds. He is going to have his work cut out for him against Xavier big man Jack Nunge. The Iowa transfer stands at 7-feet with a 247-pound frame has the body and length to make life hard for Sanogo on the block. Regardless, Sanogo has proved that he has the ability to bully bigger defenders (30 points against 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler) and Hurley will still try to get as many post touches as possible for his star big man.
RJ Cole was the only Husky that struggled from the floor in the Marquette game after pouring in 25 against the Villanova, so look for him to once again shoulder a sizable portion of the scoring load, especially in a hostile environment on the road. It won’t be easy for Cole to get open shots with preseason All-big east first teamer Paul Scruggs likely locked in on him, but Cole’s craftiness and adept utilization of ball screens should be enough to help bring him back to his per-game average.
Hurley also flashed a lineup last game that has been seldom seen on the floor this entire season, putting Polley and Hawkins on the court together for stretched against the Golden Eagles. It remains to be seen whether this is going to be something that Hurley regularly deploys to try to inject some more offensive firepower and long-range shooting ability into the lineup, but it was successful against Marquette and may be seen again in this one.
Xavier ranks in the middle of the conference in rebounds per game and rebounding percentage. If the Huskies are able to stay active on the offensive glass like they did against Marquette, they will have a great chance to start the weekend off with a huge win. Much of this game will also come down to UConn’s response to any scoring runs Xavier strings together in this one. The Huskies were able to settle these against Marquette, but in a hostile environment on the road, the challenge will be much much greater.
When Xavier has the ball
The Xavier offense runs through senior guard Scruggs, a preseason All-Big East first team selection. Scruggs isn’t having the season that many projected, with his numbers down almost across the board from a season ago. His performance has been one of the big reasons why Xavier hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Nonetheless, Scruggs is still one of the more talented players in the conference. He’s a ball dominant and athletic guard who loves to hunt his shot, but can also set up his teammates when called upon, especially in transition. Scruggs is also a great defensive guard, using his long arms to clog passing lanes and strip dribble drivers when they try to penetrate.
Xavier’s backcourt is rounded out by two strong playmakers in Colby Jones and Nate Johnson. Jones is basically Tyrese Martin-lite, a 6-foot-6 wing who is a strong rebounder, good mid-close range scorer but unreliable 3-point shooter. He doesn’t have the same killer instinct that Martin possesses, nor the overall scoring ability and athleticism, but he will likely cause some problems for Martin and his ability to dominate on the glass like he did against Marquette.
Johnson is the Musketeers’ only truly reliable 3-point marksman, hitting at 39% this season and over the course of his five-year collegiate career. Whoever is guarding Johnson needs to be dialed in the entire time and not lose track of him for an instant, because he can and will make UConn pay. The former Gardner-Webb standout already has six games this season with four or more made threes and hit seven against Virginia Tech.
Xavier is built similarly to UConn, albeit with less skill and athleticism. The team boasts a senior lead guard who can get his own shot in Scruggs but also is expected to create for his teammates, two long and talented wings and an active four-man who can defend and score in a variety of ways. Both teams also possess a fairly deep bench that allow the main guys to grab some rest when they need it without a major drop off.
The biggest difference in the lineups is the abilities of Jack Nunge and Sanogo. It will be very interesting to see how this matchup plays out. Steele will almost surely have Nunge pop out to the perimeter throughout the same to draw Sanogo out of his comfort zone and also try to get his big man some quality looks from downtown, which he has proven to knock down.