After the last two Xavier wins, the Musketeers’ defense has been a big topic of conversation on the message board. So I thoroughly went over the video from those two games, and came to the following conclusion: Xavier’s defense isn’t elite, but anyone following the team closely coming into the year already knew that. Beyond that, what I saw in the wins against St. John’s and Marquette didn't seem like reason for sudden panic about this team’s chances to make a postseason run.
There are several aspects that need to be discussed to fully understand what’s going on with Xavier’s defense. Between this video and the following 900 or so words, I’ve tried to hit on the main ones.
First, the Musketeers weren’t at their best on the defensive end the last two games, and there is plenty for them to clean up going forward. There is no way by any objective standards you could watch those two games and think they brought their “A” game. There were a few more mistakes than usual within the system, guys just flat-out got beat one-on-one more often, and players seemed to lose focus or let up on certain plays a time or two more than typically happens. They had to make adjustments to get out of some bad initial matchups in the St. John’s game, and their scheme against Marquette to switch every ball screen at positions one through four put them in some bad matchups as well.
Also, it should be noted that both St. John’s and Marquette played really well against Xavier. I understand that’s not a popular sentiment among fans, but in this Big East conference what night you catch your opponent on in terms of their performance is often more important than what opponent you’re playing in terms of record. Every team in this conference top to bottom has four-star recruits and enough size, athleticism, and talent to compete.
Both Marquette and St. John’s did a good job of finding mismatches, especially in ball screen switches, and then exploited them. Marquette did it by getting Xavier’s guards on its talented frontcourt players, while St. John’s worked to get Xavier’s slower-footed guards and wings on its more athletic backcourt players. Also, both teams knocked down jump shots.
From a bigger picture perspective, Xavier has some personnel issues we knew about well before the last two games. Myles Davis, Trevon Bluiett, and James Farr are not the fleetest of foot or most athletic. JP Macura is a rapidly improving defender, but it’s still not his strength. Edmond Sumner is a freshman that lacks strength and has some lapses. Jalen Reynolds and Remy Abell are physically gifted, but aren’t always the best at playing within the system. Kaiser Gates is being relied upon as a top defender, but he’s just a freshman and lacks strength. Also, a newer trait this team has revealed about itself as the season has gone on is that it’s a bit riskier on the defensive end than last year’s team. Because of the Pack-Line system, the Musketeers will never be a team that creates a lot of steals or forces a ton of turnovers, but they do have a few more guys on this year’s squad – Sumner, Macura, and Austin, in particular – that trust their athleticism and playmaking ability a little too much at times on the defensive end. As a result, they also make a few more plays.
If you asked Chris Mack, he’d probably tell you he’s a defensive-minded coach. He tries to build Xavier’s culture around getting the job done on the defensive end and being the tougher team in every matchup. At the same time, I’d argue that he could easily be considered an offensive-minded coach when you consider the reputation his teams are developing for running great set plays, and the way he’s constructed his current roster. This is an offensive-minded group with a lot of skill. I’ve written about this team’s confidence already this season, and in an odd way I think their mindset at times lends itself to the notion that they don’t really mind getting in a shootout. That’s not a sentiment Mack shares at all, but it almost seems to be a part of this team’s DNA.
Finally, the 1-3-1 zone is a big part of the conversation when talking about Xavier’s defense. It’s gone from an interesting novelty that can throw Kris Dunn and Providence off, to a legit weapon that has completely shifted the momentum in multiple games for the Musketeers this year. I tend to think the biggest reason for the zone’s success is that it feels very unfamiliar to opponents – you don’t see a lot of 1-3-1’s to begin with, and Xavier’s version is a little extra funky. So, there is reason for some concern that X won’t be able to rely on it as much the second time it faces conference opponents (or third in the Big East tournament). However, that concern evaporates when the Musketeers reach the NCAA tournament. At that point, I think the 1-3-1 becomes a huge weapon once again, particularly with the short turnarounds between games.
This team plays hard, it rebounds well, and it’s longer and more athletic than most of Mack’s teams have been. This group doesn’t have trouble jumpstarting itself at home or on the road. Defense could very well prove to eventually be the Musketeers’ fatal flaw, but in every big game so far (sans Villanova), they’ve found a way to overcome their deficiencies on that end. This team is built to contend this season, and if it follows the traditional path of Chris Mack’s teams it will be playing its best ball on both ends come tournament time.