Early this season I’ll admit I had my doubts. Xavier was shooting too many threes, watching too much on offense, looking listless on defense, and just generally acting like they had no plan. Frequently when teams do that, you need look no farther than the man in the suit to assess blame. Travis Steele, in his first year as a head man, was unquestionably off to a bad start.
This isn’t the first time that accusation has been leveled at a Xavier coach. Sean Miller lost Thad Matta’s guys and then had the worst season in the analytics era prior to this one. He didn’t look like a world beater during it. Chris Mack, either the best or the second best coach in the program’s history, lost Tu Holloway and then failed to make the tournament. For years he was haunted by the suggestion that he could game plan, but that a single in game tweak by an opponent would leave him foundered.
That looked to be the early knock on Coach Steele as well. SDSU changed the tempo of their game against Xavier and watched the Musketeers fold. Against EKU the team happily played fast and threw the ball to literally anyone nearby. After the absurd loss to Missouri Joel said, “If you can tell me what this team’s plan or identity is at this point in the year, more power to you.” As Steele watched, his teams evinced no fire and no plan.
After another waxing in which the offense was utterly abhorrent against Marquette, Steele scrapped his plan and went back to the drawing board. Perhaps that was overdue, but the first year coach then showed some of the tactical acumen for which he was so highly regarded by completely changing the offense. Gone was the guard heavy rotation of the last several years, arriving in its place was an even slower pace and a focus on the paint.
To be frank, that also started poorly. Xavier had a new plan, but by the time they were down 39-22 to Georgetown, it didn’t look like the new plan was a good one either. Coach Steele’s second adjustment was likely far more impromptu than his first as he shed his somewhat reserved demeanor and threw a right tantrum that featured a whiteboard meeting an untimely demise. The team responded, Steele stayed the course with two bigs, and Xavier roared back to win.
Against Butler Xavier rode their luck a bit, but Steele stuck with his two bigs. He also showed a 2-3 zone looked that morphed into something like a 3-2 with the rotations. Not a big adjustment, maybe, but a sign of a coach coming into his own. Finally, against Villanova Coach Steele looked past the box score numbers and saw that Zach Hankins was get shredded on screen and rolls or high screen and flares. In an attempt to stop the Nova three point barraged (which is what will eventually kills us all, I’m certain), Steele took the bold step of benching his leading scorer to that point and going with Tyrique Jones. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was the correct adjustment to make.
As the season goes on it’s likely that there will be more learning moments for Travis Steele. What is encouraging is that he’s begun to show that he’s willing to adjust on the fly to get his team into the best position it can be. With a veritable miracle needed, that’s all Xavier can ask from their first year head man.