A wise man once told me "the game is won between your shoulders." I feared another cliche about winning games by being smarter until he went on to talk about grabbing rebounds. There is no question that a strapping monster in the middle makes a huge difference in games. Having someone you know can move large pieces of heaven and earth to grab a key board is a comfort both to coaches and teammates.
Xavier's big men aren't exactly built in the form of dominant rebounders of old. Travis Taylor leads the team in rebounding and is tall at 6-8, but weighs only 216 pounds. Isaiah Philmore adds 20 pounds to that, but is less athletic and the 6-8 he is listed at seems a bit of a stretch. Jeff Robinson is the tallest player on the team at 6-10 but weighs only 225 and lacks the tenacity to really battle for rebounds. That lack of size has proven to be detrimental to the Musketeers this year.
The first way that the lack of size hurts rebounding is actually reflected elsewhere. Xavier manages a block % of only 4.6. That puts them 322nd in the nation and leaves them in the position of not grabbing easy runouts off of deflected shots and also having to battle for a rebound off of nearly every shot attempt. Xavier also doesn't force many turnovers, ranking 279th in the nation in turnover percentage. Again, this leaves more possessions that end in the battle for a rebound. Lastly, Xavier's steal rate is 319th in the nation. All this adds up to undersized big men having to do far more work than their counterparts average.
At first blush, Xavier doesn't do all that badly in those battles on the defensive end. Opponents manage a 30.8% offensive rebounding rate against the Musketeers, good for 135th in the nation. You might even be tempted to wonder about the usefulness of a stat in which San Francisco leads the nation. That number doesn't tell the whole story though. Xavier plays games at an exceedingly slow tempo (256th nationally), making every possession slightly more valuable for them than for a team like North Carolina, who race up and down the court to the tune of ten possessions more a game than XU.
The last 5:22 of regulation against Vanderbilt illustrate the importance of grabbing the ball. After Travis Taylor scored to give Xavier a five point lead, the Musketeers were outrebounded 8-2 and saw their win probability drop from 93% to the obvious 50/50 of overtime. In that span Xavier missed five shots and only managed to corral the rebound on one of them. Xavier's offensive rebounding rate of 29.3% is 241st in the nation and below the national average of 32.2% Three days after the Vanderbilt disaster, Xavier beat Kent State. The rebound deficiency reared its head again though, as the Musketeers tried to put the game away in the second half. The Golden Flashes grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and kept Xavier from completely icing a game that the defensively dominated.
So how does this get fixed moving forward? Travis Taylor and Isaiah Philmore both grab defensive rebounds at an elite rate (Erik Stenger does as well, in limited time). What makes the rebound numbers a concern is that the rest of the team borderlines with a lack of tenacity bordering on lethargy. Jeff Robinson, the tallest player on the team, barely makes the top 40 in the Atlantic 10 in defensive rebounding rate. Xavier's guards are so far down that the barely make the scale, not a single one makes the top 80. So, for starters, Taylor and Philmore could get some help on the glass. Guards that barely rebound at all and a starting forward that can't be bothered add up to rebounding issues.
Secondly, Xavier could end some possessions some other ways. Joel has mentioned all year that the defense hasn't been excellent. The block, turnover, and steals numbers play that out. If Xavier were able to keep the ball off the glass a little more, the bigs would have to fight a little less and late game rebounding collapses like Vanderbilt and Kent wouldn't be as likely to happen. Xavier isn't going anywhere though, if they only turn opponents over 18.2% of the time.
So Xavier is getting beaten up the glass.