As Xavier has struggled to score this year, as the second half droughts and free throw shooting woes pile up, the narrative has become that it is the Musketeer's defense that can keep them in games and, just maybe, in the hunt for the NCAA tournament. That defense, a descendant of the famous packline of Thad Matta, has long been a staple of Xavier teams. As recently as 2009, the Musketeers finished 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. That last time a Xavier team dipped below 100th was 2005, and the last time Xavier was below national average was, well, before Ken Pomeroy kept stats. Yes, defense is what Xavier is built on.
Except, this year, it isn't. It's been no secret over the last three years that Chris Mack's teams were offensive juggernauts (14th, 41st, 62nd in offensive efficiency) but those teams also defended tenaciously as well (39th, 59th, 56th in defensive efficiency). This year's Xavier team is still above average in offensive efficiency thanks to the brutally slow tempo, but the defense has collapsed from last year's 56th all the way down to 114th nationally. The 97.1 AdjD numbers this team is posting is the worst at Xavier in eight years, and not by a small margin. Why then, do we always hear about this teams defense?
Part of the reason is that teams are still only averaging 62 points per game against the Musketeers. Seven times Xavier's opponent has failed to even score 60 points in the game. While those numbers look good on the surface, they are bereft of context. For starters, Xavier is somehow only 4-3 in games in which their opponent doesn't score 60. That disturbing stat aside, the main reason the gross scoring numbers don't matter is again that glacial tempo the Musketeers love so dearly. Teams aren't scoring as much, because possessions are limited, not because the Musketeers are playing stifling defense. Adjusted for tempo, the numbers are suddenly far less encouraging.
Xavier's tempo adjusted 97.1 defensive efficiency rating is comprised of several things. First, the good. Xavier grabs defensive rebounds at a 29.2% rate, good for 72nd in the nation. The Musketeers also defend the arc well (88th in the nation) and don't foul an exorbitant amount. Those things, though, don't make up a sterling defense. Defenses that opponents fear steal the ball, block shots, cause turnovers, and generally harass shooters all over the floor. VCU leaps immediately to mind as an example of that. Xavier doesn't do any of those things well.
A major part of playing good defense is, obviously, keep the other team from shooting the ball. The Musketeers are currently well below average in turning other teams over (19.1%, 237th) and in steals (8.2%, 289th). When teams turn that many possessions into shots, it would be helpful to block some of them, but Xavier's bigs aren't terribly proficient there, either (6.8%, 281st). Xavier's effective field goal defense is 47.1%. Not bad (127th) but down nearly 100 places from last year. It's only the defensive rebounding work that Xavier does that keeps things from being well and truly grim defensively. In short, Xavier lets opponents shoot too much, doesn't block enough, and isn't dominant in forcing misses.
Xavier's opponents generally get about 63 possessions per game. In the average game Xavier turns 12 of those into turnovers, five of those on steals, and blocks four shots. Those numbers leave precious little room for error when things go even marginally off kilter. Richmond stands out as a glaring example of what can happen when the defense isn't on. In a 61 possession game, Xavier turned the Spiders over on only 14.8% of their possessions and came up with blocks on only 5%. Had Xavier managed to hit even their somewhat unimpressive season averages, the Spiders would have come up with four fewer scoring opportunities on the evening.
So what does all this mean? Xavier's defense isn't dreadful, but it isn't the suffocating force that it has been or that it really needs to be to make up for the Musketeers offensive woes. The same issue that gives the offense such razor thin margins also matters on the defensive end. Simply put, Xavier plays so slowly that they enter each game balanced on the knife edge on both ends of the court. That means the difference between wins and losses comes down to a defense that is no longer the force it once was.