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Can Xavier make the tournament with this defense? A historical examination

Xavier can score the ball pretty well, but they’re not getting any stops right now. Is there any future in this?

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-Xavier at Illinois
It’s like HAVOC, except ineffective.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The title of the post says basically everything you need to know, but let’s set a few parameters. First, Xavier’s offense is currently 27th in the country according to KenPom, from whom we will be taking all our tempo-free stats for the duration of this post. This places them somewhere outside of elite, but still very good on the offensive end.

Speaking of outside of elite, Xavier’s defense is 150th, comfortably clear of the elite range. In fact, that’s actually really bad. This is almost entirely because they can’t force turnovers and only 5 teams in the country give up a higher percentage of their points surrendered from behind the arc. Causes aside though, the bottom line is X can’t defend right now.

The question then becomes, can Xavier’s very good offense carry its horrible defense to at-large consideration? To answer that, we need a spreadsheet. All I’ve done is taken every offense that finished a year between 20 and 40 in adjusted efficiency and then seen what the worst defenses they’ve been able to drag to the tournament are. Here are the bottom six:

Oh, for reasons that I trust are obvious, auto bids have been excluded from this study.

6. 2015 Oregon (26-10, 23rd AdjO, 113 AdjD)

8 seed, second round exit

Oregon rode a solid offense in 2015, but they got in on the back of good wins, particularly twice against KenPom #8 Utah. They had some bad losses, particularly against #186 Washington State and #119 Washington in back-to-back games, but mostly put together a strong resume. They were ultimately undone by allowing 1.18 PPP in their tournament loss to Wisconsin.

5. 2013 Boise St. (21-11, 25 AdjO, 119 AdjD)

13 seed, play-in game exit

This one is kind of confounding. Boise St. was 1-6 in KenPom A-level games, with their only win coming in November on the road against Creighton. Other than that, they compiled a decent amount of wins and crapped out in the first round of their own conference tournament. They gave up a staggering 1.31 PPP against La Salle in the play-in game and that was that.

4. 2014 NC State (22-14, 34 AdjO, 121 AdjD)

12 seed, first round exit

This team saddled up star wing TJ Warren and rode him as hard as it could, including to a win over Xavier in the play-in game. By virtue of playing in a strong ACC, they avoided bad losses all season and picked up a couple of nice wins late in the season at KenPom #16 Pittsburgh and at a neutral site against KenPom #18 Syracuse. They led by 12 with 5 minutes to go and 8 with 2 minutes to go before falling to 5 seed Saint Louis in overtime.

3. 2009 Boston College (22-12, 33 AdjO, 150 AdjD)

7 seed, first round exit

Punch big. This was not a good Boston College team, but they won at KenPom #1 North Carolina and home to KP #10 Duke. Sure, they also lost to #254 Harvard at home, but the committee loves a good storyline, I guess, and their giant killer status apparently earned them a bid. It was short lived, as USC ran them out of the building in the first round.

2. 2017 Virginia Tech (22-11, 21 AdjO, 156 AdjD)

9 seed, first round exit

This was a properly bad defense. An NC State team that was going nowhere hung 104 on them in 84 possessions without OT. They somehow put together a 5-7 record in KenPom A-level games and managed to avoid bad losses altogether. Interestingly, this team could make it rain from three and leaned heavily on that skill. They shot 41% from behind the arc in their first round game, but lost thanks to giving up 1.31 PPP against Wisconsin.

1. 2012 Colorado St. (20-12, 35 AdjO, 189 AdjD)

11 seed, first round exit

I don't know what the committee saw here. A team whose best win was home to New Mexico and was a combined 3-7 in KenPom A- or B-level games and landed 88th in the final KenPom should need an auto bid. Instead, they snuck in after losing in the second round of the MWC tournament. After leading at the half, they pieced together 2 whole points in the first 10 minutes of the second half and lost to Murray State in the first round of a matchup that wouldn't have been out of place in the NIT.

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That's the six worst defenses carried to the tournament by an offense on par with Xavier's so far this year. They went 2-6, and one of those wins was in the play-in game.

There weren't more than another handful of defenses anywhere outside the top 100 that made it to an NCAA tournament in the past ten years with an offense between 20 and 40. For the most part, a defense that bad dooms you without an absolutely elite offense.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that Xavier's offense could get there. They're currently 294th in the nation in FT%; tidying that up a bit could alone boost the AdjO. They also turn the ball over like it has been greased, and you would assume that might ease off a bit as players become more accustomed to playing with each other and in Coach Steele's system.

My guess is that most of us would still like to see the defense tightened a bit though. The three-point defense is currently almost historically porous, and Xavier doesn't help matters by not forcing any turnovers. This is a matter of both personnel and execution, and it's going to be incumbent on the staff to get it figured out.

If you think Xavier is right now who they will be on Selection Sunday, the odds of hearing their name called are not high. If you think the offense finds another gear or the defense becomes less permissive, then there's not too much history X would have to buck to go dancing again.