On the 2nd of January, 2016, Xavier beat Butler handily at home to go to 13-1. That team roared out to the best start in program history, eventually hitting 21-2 before the attrition of the Big East schedule sort of kicked in. That squad, led by Jalen Reynolds and James Farr inside with Myles Davis, Edmond Sumner, JP Macura, Trevon Bluiett, and Remy Abell (what a loaded roster) around the arc received the highest seed Xavier ever has, a #2. All of that meant exactly nothing when Bronson Koenig jarred an off balance three over the despairing arms of a Remy Abell who could have done no more.
If anything that season, especially juxtaposed with last seasons falter and then run to the Elite Eight, shows that it isn’t how a team starts, it’s how it finishes. This season, Xavier just beat Butler handily at home on the 2nd of January to go to 15-1. Once again, the Musketeers are thundering out of the gate, ranked in the top five, and appear to be set for success in March. Is there anything to be gleaned from the failure last time that can inform how the 2017-18 season ends?
For starters, the two teams are put together differently. While the 15-16 squad was good offensively, it wasn’t comparatively as good as this team. That’s nowhere as evident as it is in effective field goal percentage. The 15-16 team put up a number of 51.4%, good for just 106th in the nation. This season’s team is at 57.5%, 18th in the nation. That gap is, obviously, quite large and does something to quell concerns that this team does something like score five points in the last 6:20 of a second round NCAA tournament game on their way to averaging .91 points per possession for that game and only scoring 63. Just for example.
Defensively the teams are different as well. The 15-16 teams was the best defensive squad that Chris Mack has put together. They made teams shoot outside against them, but also contested those shots well. They closed possessions on the glass, and they forced turnovers at a pretty high rate for a packline defense team. The 17-18 team doesn’t force turnovers at all (323rd in the nation) and sees their over all defensive efficiency suffer for that. That hides the fact that they hold teams to an even lower EFG% than the last great Xavier team did, they end possessions on the defensive glass slightly better, and they send opponents to the line on about 8% fewer of their field goal attempts. A better defense? Maybe, maybe not, but certainly a different one.
Aside from just the pure offense and defense come the somewhat less easy to categorize things about the team. This iteration plays blazingly fast on offense, nearly a full second quicker than two years ago’s squad. However, they force opponents to take almost 18 seconds before they use the ball, almost a second longer than that other team. While they don’t get on the offensive glass nearly as well, they turn the ball over less frequently than the team that lost to Wisconsin. Perhaps the single biggest difference comes at the line though, where this team shoots a full six percentage points higher. In games that can be decided at the horn, two, three, or four extra points per game absolutely matter.
So what does all of this tell us? For one thing, it’s impossible to accurately predict how one college basketball team will do based on the success or failures of another. However, this current team that Coach Mack has put together, at least at this point, seems less mercurial and seems to have the base to be more consistent. While this may mean that the defense may not force enough turnovers to hold a tournament opponent to 53, it also means it’s hard to see this offense sputtering it’s way to 56 points. While in 2015-16 it was a loaded team that may have peaked a little bit early, it’s easier to see this current squad as being prepared for March success.