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Championship winning defense

Xavier’s defense hasn’t been good this year, but on Wednesday night it was excellent.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Xavier
A picture of guys playing defense would have been better, but I like this one more.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

It would have made perfect sense to come into this game thinking that Xavier would need to score 89 to win. What came as something of a shock was the game long zipping up that the Marquette offense had to endure. The Golden Eagles came into the game a top ten offense in the nation. The leave Cincinnati looking like a team a notch below the elite in the Big East.

Xavier’s defense this year has not been elite. Frankly, it’s likely not been good enough to merit them for consideration for the Final Four. (More on that later in the week). Tonight, however, it was borderline elite. The Musketeers changed their standard packline look in order to chase Marquette off the arc and dare Marquette’s bigs into man to man confrontations with the front line of Kanter, O’Mara, and Jones.

In the first half, that meant that Markus Howard had some room to operate in the paint. He took advantage of that to the tune of 24 points, but he worked through contact for every single one of them. That conciliation of the lane also meant that Howard never got untracked behind the arc and wasn’t able to to do game changing damage to the Musketeers. In the second half, JP Macura and Paul Scruggs spent more time on Howard held him to nine on 3-9 shooting.

Over in the bargain rack, Andrew Rowsey never got going. For most of the game, he wore 6-7 Naji Marshall like an ill-fitting suit. When Marquette ran screen action to get Rowsey free, he found a remarkably determined Kaiser Gates in front of him. As a result, he was a total non-factor in the game. Notably, even Xavier’s bigs hedged screens hard on the arc, willing to concede a drive in order to not let the Golden Eagles begin raining threes. A team that shoots 40% behind the arc shot 26.1% tonight in large part because they simply never had a good look.

And those misses didn’t turn into anything, either. Challenged to handle the interior defense alone, the bigs relied on a team rebounding effort, and they got it. Trevon Bluiett led the way with eight defensive rebounds, but every Xavier player ended at least one Marquette possession and five players had three or more defensive rebounds.

With all the pressure outside the arc and Xavier’s bigs in a different class than Marquette’s, the Golden Eagles needed players who could create their own shots to get going. Howard did, but his team ultimately ended up with only nine unassisted baskets. Normally, assisted buckets are a good thing, but in this game with Xavier closing hard outside, someone in yellow needed to make something happen. No one could.

All of that, plus Xavier getting double digit minutes from nine different players, led to Marquette getting .95 points per possession .475/.261/.667 shooting. One of the best shooting teams in the nation came into the Cintas and flat out got owned by the Musketeers. Xavier is 51st in the nation in defensive efficiency now. That’s not an early April number. What happened tonight though, that was championship level defense, and the Musketeers have it in the arsenal.