Eight games through the Big East season, Xavier is exactly .500, sitting at 4-4. Not at coincidentally, that's the exact split of home and road games that the Musketeers have played. Thanks to a storming comeback on Saturday, Xavier is now undefeated at home and winless on the the road. With the Crosstown Shootout and ten conference games left, Xavier is 13-7 overall and just slightly above the bubble in most projections. With 11 games left to decide the fate of the season, what exactly do we know about Xavier right now?
1. The defense is slowly coming around
The second half against DePaul is the most recent example of this, with the Musketeers clamping down and holding the Blue Demons to .743 points per possession. Against Providence the Musketeers surrendered .96 points per possession for the game, and against Marquette it was .94. Those aren't the numbers of a defensively elite team, but they are better than what happened against Villanova.
Marquette and Providence combined to make only 10 three pointers against Xavier's porous exterior defense. That comes sandwiched between games in which 'Nova went 15-34 and DePaul went 13-32. The framework for a good defense is clearly in place when Xavier can control the arc. That remains easier said then done, but the Musketeers are getting there.
2. Xavier's three point shooting is becoming a concern
In the eight games of conference of play, Xavier is shooting 29.1% from behind the arc. That number is dropping from the nearly 38% they were shooting from deep early in the year. The leading culprits are Dee Davis (5-27, 18.5%), Trevon Bluiett (6-31, 19.4%), and JP Macura (6-23, 26.1%). Xavier is still taking a third of their shots from deep, so they need to get back in the habit of making them. Macura especially seems to be hitting the shooting wall that got Myles Davis last year. Bluiett was 1-3 from deep against DePaul and seemed to have a spring to his step that hadn't been there recently. No matter what the cause may be, Xavier is going to have to make some outside shots for the offense to get back to clicking on all cylinders.
3. Coach Mack is making adjustments
It seems the coach is becoming a lightning rod for criticism aimed at this team, and at times rightfully so. In the last couple of games though, the coaching staff has begun to make adjustments that have either won or nearly won games for Xavier. Whatever happened at the half of the DePaul game clearly made a difference in the team's aggression, and the matchup zone has been effective against both the Blue Demons and Providence. Perhaps just as importantly, the coaches have become somewhat better at matching the personnel to the situation. James Farr and his lackadaisical attitude toward defense has begun to less and less time in crunch time in of games, and Myles Davis minutes have seen a commensurate rise. The four over one offense and the drop of the aggressive hedge have also paid dividends. It's also very clear that these players will play for Coach Mack, regardless of the situation.
Now, to figure out the first half.
4. The guard who came in from the cold?
In the last several games, Myles Davis has seen time at the point. Myles played the position in high school and prep, but he's clearly more comfortable off the ball. Davis has had to do this because his eponymous backcourt mate needs the occasional break. Against DePaul, some of that respite was provided by Brandon Randolph. In the last five games, Randolph has three of the dreaded DNP-Coach's decision. He provided eight minutes against DePaul, though, and was at least serviceable. Xavier doesn't need the sophomore to light the world on fire or really do much of anything other than initiate the offense and take care of the ball. If he can get back to doing that, he has a place on this team.
5. This team has a ton of heart
I'm not generally given to raving over things like grit, determination, or wanting it more. These are generally tropes to be trotted out when an announcer doesn't actually know the game and can't think of anything to say. There aren't many players in college basketball who don't "want it." Talent is what wins games. All that said, these Musketeers have played two straight games in which they could have quit and instead made impressive comebacks. Dead and buried against Providence, they cranked up the defense and made a comeback after their win probability dropped to 2%. The deficit against DePaul was so mathematically significant, but the Musketeers took punch after punch and still came back to bury the Blue Demons. Even in the rout at Villanova the team tried time and again to get back in the game. These guys aren't an easy out under any circumstances.