Highlighting the Changes that Revived Xavier’s Lost SeasonPosted by Justin Kundrat on March 10th, 2017
Staring into the abyss of a lost season appears to have sent a message bleak enough to stir Xavier. The problems were numerous: the loss of star point guard Edmond Sumner, inconsistent contributions from interior players, a confused defensive identity, and an increasingly frustrated fan base. Riding a six-game losing streak into this week’s Big East Tournament put Chris Mack’s group dangerously close to the NCAA Tournament cut line, all but demanding an immediate and drastic turnaround if the season was to be saved. While a reversion to its earlier form remains somewhat unlikely, three strong performances (the latest coming in a momentous defeat of #2 seed Butler on Thursday night) have offered glimpses of a team not yet ready to end its season. Perhaps the most confidence-inspiring aspect of the three-game role reversal is that it isn’t attributable to streaky hot shooting performances. Instead, Xavier’s strong play has resulted from three areas: a renewed focus on attacking the paint, more frequent defensive switching, and the improved play of graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard.
The injury to Sumner has already been discussed at length, and the result, aside from the obvious loss of a key playmaker, has been a reduction in high efficiency shots around the rim. As the below table shows, the 6’6″ guard led the team in shot creation opportunities in the paint, taking a whopping 54 percent of his shots at the rim.
In Sumner’s absence, Xavier’s tendencies have, quite understandably, drifted toward the preferred scoring methods of Bluiett and Macura: jump shots. The overlooked problem with this arrangement is that it significantly simplifies things on the defensive end for opponents, especially given Xavier’s lack of low post scoring options. Accordingly, since Sumner’s injury, Xavier’s shooting rate around the basket and free throw rate have notably declined.
The problem was inherently obvious but not easily fixable. Still, while Xavier lacks consistent scorers around the rim, Mack cited his team’s renewed focus on attacking the rim as a key factor in the team’s win over Butler. With greater aggression came positive results: The Musketeers got to the line frequently, posting a 56 percent free throw rate (24 FTA/43 FGA). The other issue plaguing Xavier has been the steady deterioration of the team’s defense, particularly during its six-game slide (highlighted in yellow).
The before/after Sumner splits tell the same story: median points per possession spiked from 1.01 to 1.13 PPP in his absence. But over the last three games, the Musketeers have allowed just 0.95 points per possession, giving the offense a greater margin for error. With four guards, Mack has recently placed a renewed emphasis on defensive switching in pick-and-roll situations to reduce his team’s reliance on help defense and double teams. This has generated better crowding and ball pressure around the perimeter, so as to deter the open looks that plagued the Sumner-less defense in the past few weeks.
Lastly, Bernard’s scoring contributions over the last five games have significantly eased the scoring burden that had been shouldered by Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura. The 6’6″ forward has averaged a steady 11.6 PPG during this stretch, despite only scoring more than 11 points once in the 28 games leading up to it. As the team’s most accurate three-point shooter, Xavier would be well-served to encourage the continued presence of the more trigger-happy version of Bernard.
Needless to say, the apparent turnaround effort remains limited to a small sample size of games, but the results are encouraging. The Musketeers have played their way safely back into the NCAA Tournament field with a renewed sense of confidence. Perhaps more importantly, they finally look like a team that deserves to be there.