Last year on January 29, Xavier was licking their wounds following a road loss to Providence, only their second loss of the conference campaign, which would be the first of a three game losing streak. Halfway through the conference slate last year, Xavier had the same 5-4 record they hold this year, albeit they obtained it by means of a three game losing streak, rather than the pair of wins they grabbed this year. All this is to say, Xavier has performed similarly in conference play up to this point, in terms of results at least, in each of the last two seasons. However, there has been a markedly different emphasis on offense and it all starts at the off guard position.
When Semaj Christon decided to forgo his final two years of school during the summer and jump directly to the NBA, there was much hand wringing among Xavier fans about replacing the production of a player who had averaged 17 PPG. Sure, the recruiting class was good, but there would be growing pains and it was hard to imagine Myles Davis and Brandon Randolph filling the void based on their struggles late last season. The most ready made replacement was Remy Abell, the Indiana transfer who came in touted for his defense and ability to stretch defenses. Here, we will examine how well Remy has done filling the void left by Christon in Xavier's lineup. For comparison's sake, we can pretty safely compare this year's Remy to last year's Semaj in terms of experience, seeing as Semaj logged about 300 more minutes as a freshman than Remy did his two seasons at Indiana. The extra practice and scrimmage time may give Remy a slight edge, but sophomore Semaj actually had logged more game time than junior Remy.
Offensively, Semaj was a bit of a volume scorer in his time at X, meaning he shot a lot to score a lot. What he did not do was shoot a lot of threes, firing up an 19-49 last year, which puts him at about 39%. Conversely, Abell has already shot 23-57 (40%) from beyond the arc in 21 games this season. What Christon did do extremely well, was finish in traffic and get himself to the free throw line. Only 12% of Semaj's shots were threes because of his commitment to getting the ball to the rim and either finishing or drawing a foul. Christon was very good when he got to the rim, finishing 58% of the time, but was just short of woeful when forced to pull up, with his percentage of makes dropping down to 35%. Remy does little better in the midrange, shooting 38%, but only 14% of his shots come from there, preferring the rim, where he finishes 2/3 of the time, or three point jumpers.
As I mentioned before, Semaj also excelled at drawing fouls, getting hacked 6 times per 40 minutes. When the fact that this was his normal rate during conference play, when he played over 90% of the minutes available, you can see that basically, opponents were going to send him to the line whether they wanted to or not. He was never a great free throw shooter, coming in at 67% on the season, but once again his sheer volume- he had 18 games where he shot 7 or more free throws- made him a scoring asset. People don't seem to hate Remy as much, only fouling him 3 times a game, and as a result he only has 2 such games, although he does make 75% of his shots from the line. Distribution wise, Semaj tended to garner more assists due to defenses focus on him, coming out ahead 4.2 to 1.6. This came at a cost however, much like having a player looking to distribute does, as his turnover rate was also much higher than Remy's. In fact, Christon had more turnovers (13) in his final 3 games than Abell does (8) this month. While defenses often keyed off what Semaj was going to do, and he could use that to set his teammates up, he also could run into trouble with his tendencies as well.
When the fact that Christon, between passing, shooting, and getting assaulted, used nearly twice as many possessions as Abell is taken into account, his ORtg being 16 points lower doesn't seem like such a gap. A lot of what X did last year was based on teams trying to stop Christon, meaning Xavier's offense almost always ran through him. While Abell is not nearly as capable at creating for himself and others as Semaj was, the ball also doesn't stop with him, like it often did with Christon last year.
Defensively, Abell has done a tremendous job for Xavier this year. Pre-Season Big East Player of the Year D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera has had fits with Abell, shooting 10-23 in the teams two meetings, and not factoring in the first half of either. That is to say nothing of the 8 points on 3-11 shooting Seton Hall's Sterling Gibbs posted. While defense is often a hard skill to measure with metrics, Abell has been able to rise above the pack with his ability to take an opponent's top guard out of the game. While Semaj got nearly twice as many steals, his 190 (really?) pound frame was significantly less substantial for opposing players to go against for 40 minutes than Remy's extra inch and five pounds of weight. While neither player was necessarily foul prone, Semaj did get into foul trouble on occasion, but that can also be traced to his aggression when driving the ball on offense. I can't throw a lot of numbers at you for defense, other than those of the star guards Abell has guarded and the fact that neither player had an especially high steal or block rate and to point out that Christon didn't always even draw the hardest assignments on defense, sometimes deferring to Dee Davis on that end.
In the end, we could look further at rebounding rates (strikingly similar) or see what effect their play has had on the overall flow of the team (very hard to prove). But how this will end is with a simple question to you, the Xavier fan. Which guy would you rather have suiting up? The mercurial on the ball aggression of Christon, or the steady, defensive-minded graft of Abell?