In Xavier's last three games they have surrendered 82, 83, and then gotten torched for 32 by Maurice Watson Jr. You may recognize those as the numbers of a team not playing impeccable defense. The man to man ferocity for which Xavier was once known has given way to an equally good zone that papers over the defensive cracks. After watching the first half against Creighton and the second half against Marquette the question has to be asked: can Xavier's man to man even be fixed?
The problem with playing a 1-3-1 zone is that you can be shot out of it. The Golden Eagles went 9-17 from deep in an improbable performance and forced Xavier to reengage a man to man. A zone is simply too susceptible to a team getting hot to be a defense that can always be relied on for 40 minutes. (One supposes that an opponent going, say, 1-21 from deep would merit a game long zone). At some point, it comes down to going man up and getting a stop. Recently, Xavier has not been able to do that.
That problem basically begins and ends on the perimeter. Edmond Sumner is like liquid mercury on offense, all slippery, quick, and impossible to contain. On defense he simply lacks the lateral footspeed to stay in front of anyone. Myles Davis plays man to man well, but has his limitations. Matched up against a shooter he's fine, against a slasher he's decidedly less so. JP Macura seems to view man to man defense as the sort of chore one must occasionally perform before getting back to the art of piloting a zone, annoying people, and draining big shots. His ability to stay in front of anyone boils down to the two word phrase "on skates."
An astute observer will recognize that doesn't leave many options in the Xavier backcourt. The two good man to man defenders are Larry Austin Jr. and Remy Abell. Remy is a 6-4 wall of muscle quite capable of hounding anyone out of a rhythm. He is as close as Xavier comes to a prototypical lockdown man, and he excels in that role. It's a shame that defensive metrics haven't reached basketball yet, because they would acquit Remy well. LAJ is well suited to staying in front of his man and cutting down driving lanes. He's not as tall or as strong as Remy, so he can be bullied by a bigger guard, but he was successful at staying in front of even the laser quick Watson Jr.
That essentially leaves Xavier with three great offensive weapons in the backcourt and two very good defenders. Unfortunately, there is no overlap. Last season Remy Abell shot 41% from deep and 54.9% inside the arc. Those numbers have plunged off a cliff to 33% from behind the arc and 41% inside it. Remy also has a turnover rate of 19%, up 6% from last year. Only a 75% mark from the line saves his offensive efficiency at all. LAJ has been discussed at length here. While in conference play he has proved himself as a suitable backup option, he brings no punch at all to the offense and certainly no ability to create his own shot or stretch a defense from deep.
So, where does that leave Coach Mack? He can, as we saw on Tuesday, sacrifice Larry and Remy and go solely zone. That got Xavier back in the game but a Cole Huff three from the very vulnerable corner of the 1-3-1 was the dagger in the game. The other option is going straight man and banking on three or four other players to carry the offense while the man defenders serve as passengers. That could work with this team, but in games where Xavier needs to score 90 to win, it's hard to see where there is room for anyone on the court who can't score. As March approaches, the Musketeers are going to have to win games with a man to man defense. Recently, that's looked like a problem.