Yesterday Joel made the very good point that this season could never be expected to be another Xavier birthright Sweet 16 run. Transition from the best team in school history with the winningest coach in school history to a cobbled together mix of grad transfers and low level recruits with a new coach was not going to be easy. At the turn of the new year, something close to worst case scenario is happening. Xavier isn’t near the running for an at-large bid, fans are hoping for the NIT, and the team is consistently reeling. Still, it’s fair to ask what you were expecting.
There have been some things, though, that even the resident pessimist in every group couldn’t have foreseen. As the season limps on, Xavier keeps throwing up some performances and numbers that boggle the mind.
The struggles of Quentin Goodin and Naji Marshall
One thing that fans could hang their hat on coming into this year was the fact that Xavier seemed to have two stars in waiting holding down point guard and small forward. Quentin Goodin was entering his third year of running the team and had finished last year as a genuine offensive threat. Naji Marshall had shown freshman year flashes of being a genuine superstar, including a 21/7/4 demolition of Georgetown. As the year went on, both players seemed to get stronger.
This year, both have taken not just steps, but leaps backward. Neither play is shooting the ball effectively at all. Naji’s EFG is 45.6%, Goodin’s is 43.7%. Those are 12% and 5% regressions respectively. From deep the two have been especially hapless, with Goodin’s 27.3% a full five percent higher than Naji’s mark. Unfortunately, no two Xavier players have used the ball more and only Ryan Welage approaches Goodin and Marshall’s mark in percentage of shots taken. Throw in a significant uptick in turnover rate for Marshall and you have Xavier’s sixth and seventh most efficient players in a seven man rotation ranking first and second in usage.
Even if some hiccups were coming, the one thing Xavier has always been able to do is defend. So maybe the games wouldn’t be great, but some grind it out wins should be possible. Instead, the Musketeers have served up their worst team since 2005. You have to go all the way back to a year where Churchill Odia played 25 games to find a Xavier team that has been this bad defensively. The Musketeers aren’t awful at much outside of three point defense, and teams take 42% of their shots against X from deep, but they aren’t good at anything either. They don’t defensive rebound well, they don’t choke off inside shooters, they don’t make steals, and they don’t block shots. Couple all that with the packline weakness on the outside and you have the 122nd ranked defense in the nation.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this season is the way Xavier has played offense. Travis Steele came with the reputation of being the offensive mastermind that orchestrated the eighth best offense in the nation last year. Obviously, losing two NBA players, two G league players, and the teams most effective post scorer was going to change things. Anyone expecting an offensive powerhouse was willfully deluded. What has been surprising, though, is the way Xavier has failed to get themselves into successful positions.
Last season the team the three at 37.2%, roughly four percent better than this year. However, this season the team is taking more three pointers and more of them off the dribble than last season. Almost 90% of the Musketeers three point attempts were assisted, this year that number is down significantly to 86%. Further, 50% of the shots Xavier takes after a defensive rebound are threes and 40% of all their transition attempts are threes. In short, Xavier is shooting the three more often, more quickly, and far worse, than they were last year.
That’s not all, though. If you’ve felt that the ball has been sticking and isn’t moving well, the numbers bear that out. Again, it would have been very fair to expect the players to not execute at as high a level this year as Trevon, JP, Kerem, et. al, did last year. What has been surprising is that the offense itself has drastically changed. Where last year 57.3% of field goals were assisted, this year the number stands at 54.4%. That drop is good to move from 57th in the nation all the way down to 123rd. Even as well as last year’s team could shoot, they still took 43% of their attempts at the rim. This season that is down to 38% while two point jumper attempts has gone up 2%. Xavier’s tempo has also fallen off as their time spent on the offensive end has increased, meaning the team is now taking longer to get worse shots, and getting fewer of them per game.
It was very fair to temper expectations coming into this season. A rose-colored view of an at large bid was there for those of us who always want our team to be among the best, but it perhaps wasn’t reality. That the vision has fallen by the wayside isn’t a surprise, but the way it has may be. With poor defense, an offense running seemingly backwards, and struggling stars, Xavier’s season to forget is being plagued by problems more difficult to foresee.