"No team," we are informed time and again, "wins a national championship without being in the top 25 of both defensive and offensive efficiency." It's one of those facts that sounds so true that it sends you right to Xavier's KenPom page to assess the team's chances. Adjusted offensive efficiency... 18th! Yes! Adjusted defensive efficiency... 39th!? What the heck, Ken!? Don't burn those betting... receipts? stubs? What do they give you to prove that you've placed a bet? Whatever it is, don't burn it just yet. Here's why you can have some faith in Xavier's defense going forward.
The stat is false
Not false in that it's not true, because it is, but false as in it's so misleading to be borderline disingenuous. Winning the national championship is going to require you to finish the season hot on both sides of the ball. A team that comes in sitting in the mid-40s in both defensive and offensive efficiency could reasonably feel like they were only three or four good games from being comfortably inside the top 25 in both. That only gets you to the Final Four. A couple more wins over Final Four-caliber teams will put a nice shine on your efficiency numbers. Quoting this stat is 100% true; it's also about as rhetorically valid as saying no team has ever won the national championship without being on a six-game winning streak.
Xavier deflates its own defensive numbers
The Muskies have played 10 games in which their DRtg was 100 or over per sports-reference.com. Three of those are losses, which is obviously what we're looking to avoid going forward. Five of them are games in which Xavier had the game well in hand and then just coasted to the finish, allowing plenty of buckets along the way. Most recently, they had Creighton dead and buried over the weekend before switching off. They walked away from Michigan in November, cruised for 20 minutes and still beat USC by 10 in Orlando, were up 15 with 5 minutes left against Seton Hall in January, and spent the time after the last media break laughing and high-fiving against Georgetown in February. Obviously these defensive lapses aren't awesome, but they should also give you at least a little bit of hope that X can be a top-25 level defense when they need to.
Not many teams run a 1-3-1 zone
Ignoring the disaster at Villanova, Xavier's defensive efficiency the first time through the conference was six points better than it was on the return trip. That's the difference between an averageish defense and an elite one. Part of the reason for that is that teams become more effective at dissecting Xavier's defensive curveball as they become more familiar with it. Chances are slim that the Muskies will run into a team in the tournament that is very familiar with a 1-3-1, particularly one with the combination of length and athleticism Coach Mack can run out there at all five positions in that defense. When the zone is jarring opponents, Xavier's defense can be the catalyst to the big runs we've enjoyed all year. You don't envy the coach who has just a couple of days to prepare his team to handle it.
There you have it, sports fans. I'm with those of you who aren't in love with how Xavier's defense has played down the stretch, though it should be noted that X went 3-1 in those games and knocked off the #1 team in the nation. Maybe all this fretting is for naught. Maybe it's all valid. Whatever the case, I think there's reason to be cautiously optimistic about the defense's ability to buoy the team in the NCAA tournament.