We have a pretty good Monday slate on the college basketball hardwood. Last week was mostly devoid of games, as a holiday tournament took place in Hawaii and we had two really low-level games on Friday. We’ve got a lot of intriguing matchups on Monday to consider, none bigger than the Big East opener between Xavier and Villanova.
This is a 6:30 p.m. ET tip, so you’ll have to finish up dinner quick on the east coast or get those bets in to watch the game at work on the west coast. Villanova is a growing favorite, up to as high as -6 in the marketplace. The line opened -5, so the Wildcats are the early sharp side and it won’t be surprising if the public piggybacks at a worse number. The total is sitting at 139.5, up a touch at the books that opened 139.
Long layoffs could make the first half a little bit sloppy for this one. Jay Wright’s bunch has not taken the floor for a game since knocking off Kansas 56-55 at home. The Wildcats were just 10-of-41(!!) from 3 in the game and almost never got to the free throw line, but they locked down the Jayhawks from distance, holding Kansas to 3-of-13 from deep. That game was played nine days ago.
Xavier hasn’t played since securing a big road win in Fort Worth on the 22nd over TCU. That was another strong defensive effort from Travis Ford’s Musketeers, who allowed .886 points per possession. Xavier’s only losses are Florida on a neutral and Wake Forest by two in the first true road game of the season. This is the third true road game of the year for XU and their first game in eight days.
That leaves us with some early question marks in this one. Which team looks crisper at the outset? It has been a long layoff both ways. By virtue of playing Kansas and Ohio State, Villanova’s strength of schedule is about 25 spots higher than Xavier’s, but the gap really isn’t that big at all. So we can’t even use that as a shortcut in our handicap like you can in so many games around the country at this point in the season.
This handicap might actually be really simple, though. If Villanova shoots well from distance, they will win and cover. As mentioned, the Wildcats chucked 41 triples against Kansas. Of course, they only made 10 and the game landed on 111 points across 62 possessions. Villanova has taken at least 30 threes in six of their 11 games. Their 44.9% 3P rate ranks 37th nationally.
Despite a couple of horrendous performances inside the arc against Ohio State and Ohio, Villanova is still 11th nationally in two-point percentage. This team ranks 16th in the nation in eFG% on offense and 22nd in the country in FT%. They make a lot of shots, contested or otherwise. They’ve needed them because they are 212th in the country in eFG% on defense and 244th in TO% on defense.
It isn’t surprising to see Villanova lagging behind defensively. The offense has been great and guys like Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, and Cole Swider are consistently carrying the load, while freshmen like Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are going through the rigors of a college basketball season for the first time. This Villanova team is fueled by underclassmen, as even Bey and Swider are just sophomores. Swider, in particular, has seen a huge uptick in minutes this year.
Xavier isn’t making threes. Xavier ranks 171st nationally in eFG% on offense. The Musketeers are barely even in the top 100 in 2P%. But, they are playing some exceptional defense. Xavier ranks 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Bart Torvik and 22nd in eFG% defense. Opponents are only canning 29.2% of their triple tries and 43.6% of their two-point efforts.
This is offense vs. defense. Which side will win out? That is the crux of the handicap here. In looking up and down Xavier’s results, the Musketeers have not allowed more than eight three-pointers in a game this season, but they haven’t faced any offenses that shoot threes as much as Villanova and haven’t come close to seeing an offense as potent as Villanova’s. Xavier’s best opponent, Florida, is having all sorts of difficulties offensively.
That is why the line is moving on Villanova and why I tend to agree. The worry would obviously be that defense travels and that defense should look crisper as guys get a feel for their shots back in the game environment after a long layoff. Still, Villanova is at home in the Pavilion and this is a test that Xavier has yet to face this season. Even Florida managed a 61.5% eFG% against Xavier and Wake Forest was at 53.6%. Those are the two best performances against Xavier and those are the two losses.
With Villanova’s success rate at the free throw line and ability to score in bunches, the Wildcats are the play. There are some rogue -5.5s out there, but -6 is the consensus number, so we’ll use that. Furthermore, a lean to the over 139.5. Xavier isn’t a bad offensive team by any means and should get theirs. Also, this game projects to be right in the fouling range, which should add some possessions late.
Pick: Villanova -6
Lean: Over 139.5