Where do reality and a daydream cross? For decades Xavier fans have been the people pulling for the plucky upstart, for the team in the Sweet Sixteen that no one can pronounce. Best case scenarios have generally included a miracle run to the Elite Eight before meeting a national power that the Musketeers couldn't quite match up with. Yesterday, one of those national powers walked into the Cintas Center for a matchup of two top five teams, and yesterday Xavier beat them convincingly. There's no question now that this team is among the elite. For Xavier fans, the Final Four has moved out of the realm of daydream and firmly into a possible reality.
1. This is a national championship caliber defense.
If you look at the final score you can be forgiven for thinking that Xavier simply went toe to toe with Nova and slugged their way to a win. While the Musketeers offense was amazing (more on that later) the defense was almost just as good when it mattered. With 3:41 left James Farr finished a beautiful feed from Edmond Sumner with a thunderous dunk. At that point, Nova's mathematical chance of winning the game was 0%. The score was 79-65, and Xavier had held one of the best offenses in the nation to one point per possession and a shooting line of .396/.307/.846. Yes, the Wildcats went off after that, but it literally didn't matter. When it did matter, Xavier's defense was elite.
2. Coach Mack made the little adjustments.
Everyone knew what the game was going to come down to: Villanova's three point shooting. Xavier's defense is essentially designed to allow three point attempts but contest them as best they can. Coach Mack tweaked the defenses just a bit to cut down on the wide open areas. In the 1-3-1, JP Macura chased the point guard farther onto the wing so the wing player didn't have to step up so early and expose the corner. On the backside, Xavier gambled that long armed defenders would cut down on quick rotations back around before JP could react. That's what led to Kaiser Gates playing 17 minutes and Remy Abell only getting 16. In the man to man, Coach Mack banked on Nova's bigs not rolling into the lane off screens and used his bigs to keep Arcidiacono and Brunson from getting clean looks.
Offensively, Xavier threw the ball inside and dared Villanova to go man to man against Jalems Farrnolds. Xavier's bigs dominated, accruing an offensive efficiency of 117 and missing only three shots on their way to 21/8/0. Kaiser Gates paid off big offensively too, grabbing two offensive boards and being far too quick for Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu. Xavier's hurricane of muscle and speed inside kept Nova's bigs in foul trouble helped the Musketeers to a 33.3% offensive rebounding rate. It was a masterclass of one game coaching from Coach Mack.
3. This is a national championship caliber offense.
Xavier came out of the gates blazing and never slowed down. Coming into the game Villanova had the fourth best defense in the nation. Xavier torched that defense for 1.22 points per possession and shot .500/.389/.697. Just as importantly, Xavier's turnover rate was only 13.5% and they grabbed fully a third of their misses. The team put six players in double figures and only got 10 from leading scorer Trevon Bluiett, who stayed within himself as the machine got rolling. If Xavier can do that to that defense, they can do it to anyone.
I can't even think of a heading for this. In the first half JP hit massive back to back threes, the second of which was essentially on its way to the rim before he touched it, and had a steal and three point play that he finished through the much larger Kris Jenkins. In that electric half he went for 13 points in 12 minutes and played as if his unkempt hair was on fire.
In the second half he hit peak JP, harrying, talking, going 3-5 from the floor, and grabbing his lone rebound of the game. It was another steal that turned out to be the most important play of the game as JP ripped the ball away from an unwary Jenkins and fed it back to an onrushing Kaiser Gates. With 8:47 to play, Jenkins fouled out and Villanova was in serious trouble. In this biggest game in Cintas Center history, it was JP that took the most shots on the team and pulled in KenPom's MVP award. It seems fitting.
Video credit to GoXavier.com and / or Cliff Jenkins / Xavier