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Thoughts on Coach Mack

The ability of the Musketeers third year coach has recently come in to question.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The ability of the Musketeers third year coach has recently come in to question. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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With time waning in a recent 2-0 loss to Everton FC, supporters of the London based Chelsea Football Club began serenading first year manager Andre Villas-Boas with a rousing chorus of, "You don't know what you're doing." My mind immediately jumped to the Xavier-Temple game slated to begin that evening. No one can question that Coach Chris Mack is an excellent recruiter and capable of a great press conference, but, when it comes to coaching a team, does he actually know what he is doing?

You know what happened that evening. Xavier came out flat against a prepared Temple team and got comprehensively destroyed. (As a Chelsea fan too, it wasn't a banner day for me). Fran Dunphy's players ran circles around a Xavier team that frequently seemed like it had no idea what was coming or what to expect. Following a late collapse against Memphis that greatly damaged Xavier's at large chances, the question now has to be asked, does Coach Mack know what he is doing?

Coaches are responsible for a host of things before, during, and after games. Team prep, gameplanning, video review, scouting, substitutions, timeouts, ego managing, and a million other things can be partially handled by assistants, but ultimately fall on the head coach. Chief among those before a game is scouting. Nothing so helps going in to a game as knowing what the other team will try to do.

We try to replicate that process for you each day before a game with our previews. Joel and I both have experience breaking down tape for the high school and college programs we played or coached for. It's a tedious process, and it isn't always fun, but it is necessary. In Joel's Temple preview he stressed how much Temple relied ball control and the three pointer. Flash forward to that Saturday night. In the first half, Temple buried Xavier from deep by attacking the hedge (more on that later). The Owls were 7-11 from deep in the first 20 minutes. Xavier, and by extension Coach Mack, also showed no particular impetus in turning the Owls over, managing only five takeaways in that disaster of a half.

For those of you insisting that players have to execute even the best of gameplans, consider this. Ramone Moore takes over a quarter of Temple's shots and is, by some distance their best scoring option. Xavier opened with Brad Redford, Tu Holloway, and Dezmine Wells as options to guard him. Moore responded by giving a clinic on how to decimate an overmatched opponent. While Mark Lyons, Xavier's best defender, sat and watched, the season went down the drain in a barrage of three pointers.

That's only the most recent, and possibly most glaring, of the recent failures to prepare. While the St. Louis game was far more competitive, the Billikens also had success early by attacking a Xavier team that seemed confused by Rob Loe. Again, simple film study showed that Loe was strictly a pick and pop big with no real inside game. Rather than pressure him when he had the ball, the Musketeers sat back and watched in awe as the Aussie sank three first half three pointers. Against Dayton, one of the most prolific three point shooting teams in the nation, Xavier allowed a 6-14 first half performance from behind the arc to doom them. There is simply no excuse for being caught out by teams doing what they do well. Xavier was not outschemed into those numbers, they were simply inflexible and underprepared.

It's one thing to be caught off guard, it's another stay off guard. Since the Shootout Xavier has faced halftime deficits of 16 at La Salle, 13 at Dayton, 12 against SLU, and 20 at Temple. In each of those games Xavier has allowed more than 40 first half points. While the Musketeers occasionally conjure up a scramble back into the game, it isn't until after halftime that anything changes. That brings us to the next part of the current issue with the coaching staff, the failure to adjust.

Deficits are a part of the game, don't get the impression that I think Xavier should never be trailing or should never lose. What is vexing though, is the manner in which things are happening. Against Memphis, Xavier flashed a very effective 3-2 zone early in the game that forced Memphis into 4-14 from behind the arc. Unfortunately, Coach Mack didn't come out of the zone until Xavier had relinquished the lead by allowing a late 17-1 run. During that run, the Tigers destroyed the zone with low screens on Kenny Frease and a procession of cutters. Mack never made the adjustment back to man, and Xavier lost.

In losses to UD and SLU it was the hedging big man that destroyed Xavier. As Kenny Frease drifts in space 25 feet away from the basket, shooters take advantage of he vacated space. Saint Louis, not a three point shooting team, attacked the hedge to the tune of 7-14 from deep in the first half and Dayton tore it apart for a 6-14 mark in a single half. Clearly, other coaches are seeing what should be obvious. A big chasing a guard in space leads to massive defensive breakdowns elsewhere.

It isn't just defensively that the coaching staff has failed to make adjustments as games go on. Early against Memphis, Kenny Frease was playing one of his better games. Xavier was pounding the ball inside and Frease was getting his buckets. Starting at 10:01 to play, the big man never shot again. As his guards dribbled the game away and took shot after shot, Coach Mack didn't even run a set to get Kenny another look. It was another example of not being able to adjust to the changing circumstances of a game.

Finally, the most troubling issue of the season. As Xavier geared up for the Crosstown Shootout they were a tenacious team that never quit, pressured hard, and competed from whistle to whistle. Since then, the Musketeers have all too often looked apathetic and lazy. It's hard to say exactly what Coach Mack has to do to get his charges motivated, but that is his job. "Efforts" like the first half at Temple or the bigs against Saint Louis cannot be tolerated. After the last game, Coach Mack took his players to task very publicly for their lack of first half effort, saying it was "embarrassing," and "why it takes 20 minutes for us to figure it out is beyond me." While that is a damning indictment of the players, it also reflects very poorly on the man who is supposed to get them ready to play. Effort on the court is as much the responsibility of the coach as it is the players.

Further, if the players aren't showing up to play big games, it has to be postulated that they have tuned the third year coach out. Coach Mack defended his guys after the brawl, but he also spoke very harshly about them in public. If players like Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway or Kenny Frease took that the wrong way, it's not hard to believe they would react negatively to Coach Mack's input. Whether that is the reason for the complete lack of pathos shown at times or not is impossible to tell, but for some reason the Musketeers frequently don't bother to try.

As this season has turned from talk of a Final Four run to talk of the bubble, the coaching staff has been cast into sharp relief. Without even touching on substitution patterns, it's very easy to see where errors have been made. Preparation, adjustments, and a lack of effort all stem directly from problems with the guys sitting at the head of the bench. I don't, personally, think Coach Mack is incapable of coaching, and coaching very well, at this level, but it is clear this season has gotten away from him. If his recent closed practice and media comments finally get to his team, there may be hope yet.