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Are Xavier’s in-season lulls part of Coach Mack’s master plan? A Sunday Conversation

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We have ideas sometimes!

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Xavier
A sandbagging genius?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Joel

At different points against Creighton, Xavier had streaks of six, six, and seven straight stops. That’s against a top 20 offense. If we have that kind of defensive intensity and success going forward, we’re going to be as hard to stop as we looked like early on.

Bryan

Consequently, if we play defense like we did at Wells Fargo, we are going to struggle to beat most anyone. This was a really Jekyll and Hyde week from X, but I am hoping that the focus and intensity we saw today carries forward.

Brad

Today we looked locked in for the first time in a week. It’s odd that a Mack coached team would seem to switch off like that, but it happens every year where there are a couple of losses that just leave you scratching your head. It’s not like X just lost those games, they spent three weeks playing legitimately awful basketball.

Joel

It had really been since Colorado since we had played any better than just well enough to win. It was nice to see them go out and work over a team rather than just dancing around with them or needing to come back from 20 down.

In the two losses, we had really suffered from sticky balls. The assist rate in those games was 48%; on the season it’s 59% and today it was 65%. When you want to shoot jumpers as a team, it helps to be catching and shooting them rather than trying to create them off the bounce. The offense just looks so much better when the ball doesn’t stick.

Brad

It was nice to build a lead and just hold it without a great deal of drama. The announcers tried to make that run that cut the lead to 14 sound like something, but it wasn’t. (Ed. note: Creighton’s 16-3 run in the second half raised their win probability from 0.2% to 1.4%.) That flowing offense, and nice turn of phrase, by the way, helped by never really hitting a drought.

One thing about the defense today was the emphasis on turnovers. We forced 20 at a 25.6% rate. That’s a 10% jump from the season average. I don’t think we’ll keep seeing that kind of jump, but the aggression and willingness to come out of the packline a little bit was obvious. That led to a couple slip screen buckets or bad switch matchups (Clement torched Sean O’Mara off the dribble), but by and large, it worked.

Joel

The most impressive part of that performance is how stingy Creighton usually is with the ball. Coach Mack spoke in the post game presser about how good the teams effort was, and I have to agree. Even when he wasn’t shooting well or often early, Tre was in his stance and hawking the ball. That was encouraging to me to see; I don’t know that it correlates to his second half explosion, but it doesn’t have to to be valuable in its own right.

I’m having a thought, and I need someone to tell me why it’s stupid. Coach Mack coaches an NBA-style regular season. His teams always tend to have a lull in the middle of the season but then “overachieve” in March.

Contrast that to, I don’t know, Villanova. Under Jay Wright, they’ve lost in the second round as a 2 seed twice and as a 1 seed twice. They’ve also won the title, so they’re not the perfect example, but I had this thought five minutes ago and I’m not trying to turn it into a Wikipedia article.

I know there are a lot of variables, but Mack’s teams have followed that pattern in pretty much every year he hasn’t been giving walk-ons good minutes. Does he do something other coaches aren’t that makes things go this way? James Farr tweeted after the Nova boat race that everyone should relax, X is built for March; maybe he was describing something that happens intentionally behind the scenes. Am I a mile off here? Someone help me.

Brad

I can buy it. Looking at Tre’s swoon, and as I referenced earlier, X tends to hit these lulls where it almost looks like they completely lose it. Rather than some sort of effort or practice scheme (is that what you are saying?), what if it’s a tactics thing? Does Mack switch up the things the team does in March? Take the O’Mara play against Arizona. I believe it was a game planning site that showed X run it in November and then dust it off to go to the Elite Eight.

Joel

Yeah, I think my argument is based around practice schemes. To flesh it out a little more, he basically rode 6 (or fewer) dudes deep some years. If you have Tu Holloway, you can go to the Sweet 16 that way.

Now he has real depth on a regular basis, maybe this is how he leverages it. There’s no reason Paul Scruggs should be getting 21 minutes against Creighton after turning the ball over 9 times in 28 minutes on the road swing unless Coach Mack is playing at something that he’s willing to lose production in January to achieve.

I’ve heard him talk about rest and days off in pressers; maybe a lack of sharpness - which we certainly had - can be tied back to lighter practices to save legs and minds for March. I’ll acknowledge here that I’m talking out my hind end and have no proof of this, but Coach Mack’s teams usually look ready to make a good run in March. Maybe that’s not by accident.