Florida Versus Xavier PK85 Preview

Following up a dramatic comeback against Florida State the Gators will head to Portland for the Phil Knight 85 event, unquestionably the biggest and best multi team event in college basketball this season. 


Florida will take on the Xavier Musketeers, the team that ended their season a year ago in the NIT. This game will have enough stakes so the Gators probably don’t need any extra motivation, but in addition to the Musketeers ending Florida’s season they also ended the run of St. Bonaventure meaning that even incoming transfer Kyle Lofton might have a bone to pick.


This is a huge game for the Gators as if they were to win they will guarantee themselves two more high-quality games, something they could very much use after losing to Florida Atlantic and with Florida State not being the quality of opponent they thought that they’d have on their resume. The winner of Florida-Xavier will face off against the winner of Duke-Oregon State, and right there you can see why whoever loses between the Gators and Musketeers will be devastated as what they thought would be an elite tournament would instead have them playing (likely) the Beavers who are currently 238th in KenPom after getting blasted by 13 points by Portland State. 


A Gators win on Thursday would almost certainly mean a game with Duke which would be the most watched game in college basketball on Friday, and a loss on Thursday would mean a game against Oregon State which would have very few eyes nationally and wouldn’t offer the Gators a chance at a quality win, only the chance at a very bad loss.


Xavier is currently coached by Sean Miller who is back in college basketball after being dismissed from Arizona due to a pay for play scandal. Miller began his head coaching career at Xavier in 2005 having quick success and launching to Arizona where he had the Wildcats operating as one of the top teams on the west coast. While there are some questions about how he got some of his top players at Arizona, when it comes to the game between the lines Miller is an outstanding basketball mind who is a wizard with X’s and O’s and already you can see with how Xavier plays they are a meticulous, highly technical ball club.


So far the Musketeers are 3-1 on the season without any quality wins. Their loss came to Indiana at home in a thrilling contest that could have gone either way. Even though they lost their only game to a high-major opponent, Indiana was 8th in KenPom and Xavier played them right down to the wire and looked excellent in doing so.


In the Big East preseason poll the Musketeers were picked to finish second which speaks to the talent of this team. Currently, they sit at 33rd in KenPom, just a bit higher than Florida who currently sits at 36th.


From a style of play standpoint this is going to be a matchup of the frontcourts as Florida features Colin Castleton in the middle and Xavier features Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle. Going back to his time at Arizona Sean Miller has always loved playing two big men and he has been committed to that style so far at Xavier keeping the 7’0” Nunge and 6’9” Freemantle together in the frontcourt. Together these two bigs put constant pressure on the defense with one player screening for the other to get a deep post touch while the other one flashes to the high post where he can then make a play for a teammate, go high-low to the other big, or drive downhill for a layup. Given that Florida and Xavier’s frontcourts are both going to go hard at each other there are likely going to be a lot of fouls called and whichever player is able to get their opponent in foul trouble first is going to have a huge advantage.


Here is an example of both how Xavier will try to free up Freemantle or Nunge as well as the offensive excellence of Sean Miller.



As you can see, they will run a flex screen play to get a deep post catch for one of the bigs. When defenses get used to this and start to guard it well, Miller will mix in a counter to that play that has generated dunks at the rim.


Florida will have to be ready to guard these flex screens and try to stay out of rotations where their smalls get switched onto bigs on the block. There are several SEC teams that will run similar actions, namely Auburn, so this will be an opportunity for the Gators to show they can guard a pivotal action for the rest of the season. 


Reunited in this game will be Todd Golden and guard Souley Boum who started his career at San Francisco before transferring to UTEP where he was a big-time scorer leading to him moving to Xavier this past offseason. Boum was one of the top guards in the transfer portal and he has been effective right away for Xavier averaging 14 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds while going 8-13 from the three-point line. Boum is an outstanding offensive player who can do a bit of everything whether it be getting to the rim in isolation or off a pick and roll or sprinting off a screen to catch and shoot from three. His excellence from behind the arc has been huge for the Xavier offense who wants to play inside-out and Boum is a player the Gators will have to be aware of behind the arc at all times.


Another outstanding shooter who is a threat to catch and shoot once Xavier throws the ball  inside is Adam Kunkel, currently 9-17 from behind the arc this season. He’s a savvy vet who isn’t the most talented or the most athletic but he knows his role and finds his spots in the offense to be effective. 


Perhaps the most interesting player on the Xavier roster is Colby Jones, a 6’6” wing who is far from a point guard but is someone who gets a ton of assists due to how smart he is in drive and kick situations. Jones is at his best driving downhill but once he gets going to the rim he doesn’t have blinders on–he excels at finding open shooters or dumping the ball to a big man for a layup. Because of that he is averaging 7 assists per game this season, an astonishing number for someone who isn’t a point guard and someone that doesn’t even have the ball in his hands all that much. Florida is going to have to challenge him to finish against length at the rim and not over help because if they leave an open option, he’s going to find it. 


The roster constructions of Florida and Xavier are quite different which should make for quite an interesting matchup. Florida has a lot of wings but doesn’t have a lot of ball handlers, and while they have a star in the middle in Colin Castleton they don’t pressure teams much with any frontcourt players besides him. Xavier, on the other hand, is quite thin on the wings but has a lot of ball handlers and a couple of big bodies down low that can all score and playmake. 


This is Florida’s biggest game of the year so far so they’ll need to find a way to avoid the poor start they had against Florida State as Xavier isn’t the type of team to let an opponent back in a ball game. Florida’s non-conference schedule was built around this tournament, and the difference between winning and losing on Thursday will pretty much establish if it can be a successful weekend or not. 


If you can get the remote away from your family members this Thanksgiving, it is certainly a game you won’t want to miss.

Eric Fawcett
Eric is a basketball coach and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has been found at NBA international properties, ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @ericfawcett_.