This doesn’t seem like an important Game on the surface, but a loss here for either Xavier or St. John’s would likely mean the end of their NCAA Tournament hopes, pending on what happens in the Big East Tourney. St. John’s is in a better spot due to wins over Marquette and Villanova, but having lost three of its last Four Games to non-Tournament teams, it’s on the verge of getting kicked off the bubble. The Musketeers are more of a long shot and they just lost their five-Game winning streak in a loss at Butler.
These teams met just over a week ago and Xavier got the surprising 84-73 road win. More surprising is that it was never in doubt as the Musketeers led the entire way after the Johnnies scored the first bucket of the Game. The biggest reason for the upset was that Xavier was just too big, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and taking 28 more free throws. Maybe that won’t happen again but St. John’s probably won’t make 11 threes again.
Either way, the Red Storm have to change something defensively because Naji Marshall did whatever he wanted in the first meeting, scoring 31 points with the help of five threes. Even if the threes don’t fall again, both Tyrique Jones and Zach Hankins had their way in the paint, combining for 22 points, going 8-for-11 from the floor. That could be an issue again because one thing St. John’s doesn’t have is size as neither Josh Roberts nor Sedee Keita are guaranteed minutes. LJ Figueroa used athleticism to his advantage on the other end and scored 23 points in the first matchup, but he was also exposed on the boards, and the same goes for Marvin Jones, who often has to guard guys bigger than him.
Of course, Mustapha Heron didn’t play in that first Game due to injury, but he returned over the weekend and should be ready to go for this one. His absence left a hole in St. John’s lineup and put more pressure on Shamorie Ponds to perform. Heron is St. John’s best shooter at 43.1% from deep, as well as its second-leading scorer at 15.1 ppg. His addition to the lineup changes a lot of things, mainly that Kedee or Roberts don’t have to start. Heron is another guy that provides some size along with Justin Simon, that can limit guys like Marshall and Paul SCruggs on the perimeter. Stopping Jones and Hankins is a different issue, but Heron gives the Red Storm the piece they’ve been missing in recent losses.
The hope for Xavier is that Ponds has another bad Game after shooting 5-for-16 in the first meeting with only one free throw. Quentin Goodin was the main reason for that, but locking down Ponds again will be difficult. And while this is on the road for the Johnnies, they already won at Marquette and Creighton earlier in the season. That’s when everything was cooking with a better all-around defense. That hasn’t shown up in recent Games partly due Heron being out, but if they can keep Marshall in check and don’t let others like SCruggs or Ryan Welage get open looks from deep, the chance for a road win will be there. However, betting against the Musketeers at home on senior night will be tough, especially with how they’ve played the last few weeks. St. John’s will put up a better fight, but how much will it matter on the road?
Our Pick – Xavier -3