Xavier basketball is not fast basketball. Since Thad Matta and Sean Miller took over the program, that has been true. Fans of a certain age remember with some fondness the teams of Pete Gillen and especially Skip Prosser running with abandon. Skip's teams featured guys like TJ Johnson running up and down the floor, James Posey and his insane wingspan at the head of the press, and an average of 83.5 points per game in a good year. They put 118 on Louisana-Monroe and 106 on Oregon. When in doubt, they ran. Recently though, Xavier has been slow.
And slow has been good to Xavier. By playing with an adjust tempo that ranks somewhere down in the 200s, the Musketeers have paired efficient offense with occasionally suffocating defense in order to limit risk and beat the teams they should while keeping the pace slow enough to avoid (for the most part) being routed by the few teams they run into that are signfiicantly better than them. Since 2002 Xavier's adjusted tempo has been in the top 100 in the nation a grand total of one time.
This year though, Xavier is playing faster basketball. Their average possession length is 16.6 seconds, their fastest since a 2012 squad that kept tempo low by grinding defensive possessions. The shot clock may play some role in that, but Xavier is also more efficient on offense this year. Xavier's possessions per game have also jumped up by over seven per game this season. Again, it's tempting to blame the shot clock but the Musketeers have also climbed 60 places in adjusted tempo, a clear sign that the increased pace is not down to just the five fewer seconds. The easy explanation doesn't quite fit, so why is Xavier faster this year?
Quite simply, Xavier actually causes them this year. One of the detriments of the packline defense is that it places no emphasis on turning opponents over and instead tries only to force misses. In recent years, Xavier's turnover numbers have reflected that. The Musketeers are turning opponents over at a 21.3% clip this season. The last time they did that was back in an age before tempo free numbers were a thing. Since at least 2002, no Xavier team has gotten after the ball on defense like this one does. When you factor in a 10.9% block rate you get a lot more defensive possessions ending abruptly in chances for odd man breaks. That the Musketeers now indulge in those opportunities is down to...
Xavier is loaded with really tall, really fast guys. JP Macura doesn't stand out for his height on the team, but he's 6-5. He also hammers a mile in 5:20. Actually, everyone on the team runs a mile faster than all but the fastest of the weekend warriors out there. You may wonder what that has to do with 94 foot sprints, but when you realize that James Farr can lay down 5,280 feet in 5:40 it stands to reason the man is ready to work to get down a court. Edmond Sumner's public humiliation of Octavious Ellis was an example of this. Xavier forced the turnover and threw the outlet, Myles Davis already had Jalen Reynolds ahead of him and in post position when he tossed the ball back to Sumner. At that point Xavier's entire team was already in the offense while UC, supposedly a team of athletes, was still trying to figure out what happened. The raw athleticism that the Musketeers can throw on the court is freakish. That's without discussing Kaiser Gates, Makinde London, or Remy Abell.
We all loved Tu Holloway. He cried along with the fans after the Marquette loss and he exulted after beating Dayton with a 360 degree spin into a three pointer. What he also did was never rest. Tu played 94.5% of available minutes his junior year and 85.7% his senior year. His backcourt mate Mark Lyons played 86.3% and 74.6% in those same seasons. This year Trevon Bluiett leads the team at 75.8%. Seven other players have logged at least 30% of the available minutes. That is a great amount of options and a great departure from the heavy reliance on one or two guys of Coach Mack previously. (Even Dee Davis last year was over 80%). That depth allows Xavier to never have to slow down to rest, but just to keep pushing the ball forward.
With the introduction of the 30 second shot clock the game as a whole has sped up, but that's not why Xavier seems faster this year. Because of a combination of forcing turnovers and a great depth of almost freakish athleticism, the Musketeers are able to push the pace in a way recent teams have not. The conference grind may slow them a bit, but this is a Xavier team ready, and built, to run.