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Recalibrating expectations

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A large portion of Xavier Nation expected this season to pick up where Coach Mack left off. College basketball doesn’t work like that.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

With just over seven minutes to go in a game at home against a non-conference opponent last night, Xavier was down by 18. The game was done and dusted at that point. A late and fruitless rally put some gloss on the scoreline, but there was no escaping the fact that the Musketeers flat out got destroyed yesterday, and didn’t look particularly good doing it. For all the Xavier honks who proclaimed that the program would march on regardless of coach, it could only have been a rude awakening. Expectations for this season need to be adjusted.

To some extent, fans knew this coming in. When coaches change, verbal commits leave, players transfer, and incoming transfers fall through. This happened to Xavier this year, and it left Coach Steele scrambling with a roster that was largely pieced together after a graduation exodus and everything that came with Chris Mack leaving. Some struggles were to be expected as the new pieces came together. What perhaps wasn’t anticipated was getting drilled in the first game against real competition. (And this after struggling to beat two bad teams.)

And make no mistake, Xavier go crushed last night. When Ethan Happ scored at 7:36 to play to make the score 63-45, the game was over as a contest. To Xavier’s credit, they didn’t quit. To their detriment, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. Ultimately Xavier’s failure came down to three things that doomed them to a rare home loss.

Horrendous execution:

I’m not sure what else you would call going 9-16 from the line, 5-24 behind the arc, an offensive rebounding rate of 24.3%, and a turnover rate of 15.4% against a Wisconsin team not particularly intent on turning anyone over. Think of a part of the game of basketball. Got one? Xavier was bad at it last night. On the defensive end Xavier continued their three game trend of defending the arc very badly. Last night, they added the new feature of allowing a 34% offensive rebounding rate. In the second half alone, the Badgers grabbed 10 second chance points and poured in 24 points in the paint.

Lack of cohesion:

This is part and parcel of essentially replacing a whole team. In theory, a solid point guard would help stitch the parts together, but Xavier’s floor general had played 15 minutes coming in and spent this game looking like he didn’t know that Tre and JP weren’t coming back. 13 points on 18 shots, including 1-8 from behind the arc, isn’t going to help a team get going. More than just Q’s struggles, though, Xavier looks disjointed on the offensive end right now. Their predilection for early shot clock jumpers was noted by everyone in attendance or watching anywhere. Even possessions that got deep tended to end in what Joel called “Tre type shots from guys who aren’t Tre type shooters.” Despite shooting 62.9% inside the arc, Xavier still heaved up 24 threes to garner a grand total of 15 points. A team allegedly lead by the offensive mind that brought some of the beautiful actions last year spent most of this game as impotent and confused as the average male in a Cialis advertisement.

Poor coaching:

Ethan Happ is both the center point of the Wisconsin offense and a career 56% free throw shooter. When Xavier pulled with nine with 2:45 to play it seemed like the stage was set to force Greg Gard to either pull his best player or ride with him at the line. Instead Xavier and Coach Steele just kept playing straight up. Happ went for 2/3/0 and only went to the line once in the last two minutes. The rest of the Badgers went 4-5 from the line in that time. Why Happ didn’t get grabbed any time he caught the ball is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, the most glaring issue of the game was Steele’s decision to go back with Tyrique Jones instead of Zach Hankins in the second half. Happ spent most of the time Jones was on the court putting on a clinic in post offense. While Hankins was content to wall up, Jones was on a turntable every time Happ flinched. When Wisconsin ran the same backscreen action to get Happ the ball against a guard three times in a row, Xavier didn’t adjust. Two of those times Happ caught the ball on the low block with a one armed Q on his back. By the time Steele adjusted the defense to get Hankins back in, the game was functionally over.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Xavier
“Defense”
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, I’m assuming the coaching staff watched the same game where all it took was a quick screen to get Naji Marshall downhill against a whole host of guys who couldn’t hope to check him. Instead of running that simple action, usually just a ball side UCLA or front cut, over and over again or feeding one of the post players combing to go 6-9 from the floor and 3-3 from the line, Xavier kept heaving three pointers. You can argue that the players should read and react, but there is a very well paid guy in a suit standing right there who is supposed to make those adjustments. The in game nous of the winningest coach in program history isn’t easily replaced.

None of this is to say that this season is over, should be scrapped, or may not end in the Sweet 16 or later. Simply put, though, the team that has showed up on the floor for the first three games isn’t going anywhere. “Rebuilding” is almost a taboo word in college basketball, but right now it looks that is exactly what Xavier is doing.