What are the keys to the game for Xavier? Sure, you can say things like getting Philmore into double digits (Xavier is 7-1 this year when that happens), recording 18 or more assists (5-1), shooting over 52% from the floor (5-0)... I could go on. I will: holding the opponent to 34% or worse from the floor (4-0), holding the opponent to under 26 boards (6-0). You get the idea. All of those things, though (a) require multiple possessions to accomplish and (b) seem like a lot of work. What if I told you there was a way Xavier could lock in an almost certain victory from the word go?
Good news: there is. In mining through the data of the season, I have been continually struck by a recurring theme: of Xavier's now 7 losses, 6 have come in games where Xavier lost the opening tip. The Musketeers are 11-6 in games in which they lose the jump ball and 6-1 in games in which they win it. A little quick number-crunching tells me that winning the tip increases Xavier's chances of winning the game that follows it by more than 20%. Can you think of any other single play that has that much impact on every single game? Neither can I.
This, then, scientifically proves that the opening jump ball is the most important play of a basketball game. I have repeatedly tweeted as much to Coach Mack, but at first he wasn't ready to hear it. I have reason to believe that has changed.
After an early run of successes against frankly overmatched opponents, Matt Stainbrook had fallen upon hard times in the center circle. Tap after tap went the other way, and Xavier's fortunes followed the possession arrow. This most-recent three-game losing streak was a bridge too far, though, and Coach Mack was finally willing to listen to my wisdom. Enter Erik "Yeah, with a 'k'" Stenger.
Where Matt Stainbrook is Xavier's dancing bear, Erik Stenger is a majestic jungle cat, a bundle of fast-twitch muscle preparing to explode. Stenger's inclusion in recent starting lineups has been an ostensible nod to defense and energy, a reminder to every Musketeer of the effort expected on every play. Those of us in the know see the truth, though, and the message couldn't be more clear: when the ball goes up and it's Stenger's hand that follows it, Coach Mack is telling the opponent that he knows what the most important play of the game is, and he won't let anything stop him from making sure it goes his way.