After losing two straight to finish off its trip to California for the Wooden Legacy tournament, Xavier got back on track in the familiar surroundings of the Cintas Center Saturday night with a 97-84 win over Alabama.
It’s no secret that college basketball teams are much better at home than they are on the road. Over the last two years, Xavier has particularly struggled away from the Cintas Center, racking up a combined record of 11-21 in road and neutral site games.
Most of the concerns following the losses to Long Beach State and UTEP centered around the Musketeers’ defense, especially from the perimeter where they were seemingly killed the entire Holiday weekend and have struggled all year.
Upon further review of the video and the stats, there is some merit to those concerns. Xavier did allow its opponents to make some costly threes in those two losses, and some of them were a result of poor defense. It didn’t seem to be a huge flaw in the defensive system as much as it was poor individual execution in certain situations. In the Long Beach State game particularly, the 49ers also just made some good shots against quality defense – that’s part of the game.
The real issue in those losses wasn’t Xavier’s defense, though. UTEP scored 1.079 points per possession against the Musketeers, and Long Beach State averaged .096 per possession. Those performances currently rank fourth and fifth out of Xavier’s eight games so far this year – in other words, it’s average. Not the worst. The Musketeers gave up points at a higher rate to Long Beach State the first time they played them (1.102 ppp) and won 97-74, than they did in the loss.
The real difference in Xavier’s two losses compared to the six wins was its effort on offense. The Musketeers averaged 0.944 points per possession, and its effective field goal percent was just 42 percent in the loss to Long Beach State, which ranks as their worst offensive performance this season. The UTEP game – 1.041 ppp and 52.5 eFG% - is their second worst. For the year, they’re averaging 1.205 points per possession, with an effective field goal percentage of 58.7 percent – best in the Big East and ninth in the nation.
Every team has strengths, and this Xavier team’s strength is clearly on the offensive end. Improvements on the defensive end need to be made if the Musketeers want to reach their potential – particularly on the perimeter where opponents are shooting 41 percent from 3-point range (324th in the country) – but the reality is that this Xavier team is going to have to outscore its opponents to win games.
So the real questions are, what happened in the losses that caused them to struggle offensively? And what’d they do to fix it for the Alabama game?
Here’s what changed:
Making Shots – Self-explanatory. This seems to be the toughest pill for fans to swallow. Basketball players – particularly at the college level – are not robots. They won’t shoot as well as they’re capable of every time out. Xavier missed open looks in both of its losses at the Wooden Legacy. Good shooters missed wide-open threes, the entire team struggled to finish around the basket and it was just a struggle in general for the Musketeers to put the ball in the hole the way they’ve typically done this season. What’s the cause for that? Fatigue from playing three games in four days? Unfamiliar shooting backdrop? It’s tough to pin a finger on a cause, and therefore it’s tough to come up with an answer. Basically, guys have to be mentally tougher, suck it up and make shots… but that’s not always going to happen with a young team.
Coaching Adjustments – One of the other tough parts about coaching a young team is having to install your system in increments. You can’t throw everything on a large group of new players at once or it will be complete overload. That’s not to say Xavier only had one offense in, or that Chris Mack doesn’t have plenty of set plays to run, but they haven’t installed everything yet. It’s always a process that depends on your team’s growth throughout the season.
Xavier has had a lot of success so far this year with its ball-screen motion offense. The Musketeers have been able to put defenses in a scramble situation with the initial ball-screen, and then have created great looks for both their bigs and their shooters with quick ball movement. So what both UTEP and Long Beach State did was “downed” a lot of Xavier’s ball-screens, a defensive tactic by the on-ball defender that basically forces the ball-handler to reject the screen by jumping to the middle of the court and angling his body towards the sideline. It gives the ball-handler a clear path to go forward, but the hope is that it will funnel the ball more towards the baseline and the screen defender can block the direct-path to the rim. Xavier did get some straight-line drives to the rim for layups (or some opportunities that they missed) as a result, but it also eliminated the great ball movement they were getting from their ball-screen motion.
Knowing Alabama would employ the same tactic after watching that on film, Mack and his staff installed another flow-game offense for his team to use in the week of practice leading up to Saturday night’s game. It just gave the Musketeers another option that created some great ball movement when the Crimson Tide began downing ball-screens. Also, the Musketeers were more prepared for the tactic in general and looked ready to play off of it, as opposed to having Dee Davis or Brandon Randolph get funneled into the lane with no clear idea of how they or their teammates should react.
Last year the scouting report on Xavier said to zone them, or at least pack it in the lane and make them shoot from the outside. The Musketeers were never really able to beat that scouting report by knocking down shots, and teams had a lot of success defensively against them with it.
This year, downing ball-screens seemed to be a good way to slow down their offense. After the Alabama game though, it looks like Mack and his players may have already figured out a way to beat that game plan. It will be interesting to see what the Muskies’ opponents come up with next, but one certainty is that having skilled offensive players makes it a whole lot easier to adjust.