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Xavier’s defense has quietly become elite

The Musketeers have talked good defensive game, recently they’ve also backed it up.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Xavier
There might be better defenders than Paul Scruggs, but it’s not due to a lack of effort.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

After 23 games last year Xavier’s defense was bad. That’s a strong opening statement, but the numbers back it up. The team that Coach Travis Steele had said had a chance to be one of Xavier’s best defenses ever was instead posting a defensive efficiency of 103.1, good for 145th in the nation if extrapolated over a whole season. But for DePaul, that would have landed Xavier firmly at the bottom of the Big East. 145th is the area usually reserved for teams like Valparaiso, Miami (Oh), and Army. No team receiving an at large bid had a defensive efficiency worse than 101.5.

It would have been easy at that point to write Xavier off as a bad defensive team and start looking toward 2019-20. Coach Steele wasn’t willing to do that, though, and the Musketeers responded. While it may not have always been evident, and while there had been bumps in the road and great efforts undone by mediocre offense, Xavier’s defense made a very quick transition from awful to very, very good.

Starting on February 9th against DePaul, in a loss, the Musketeers flipped the switch defensively. They also went 8-3 from that point on. Prior to that Xavier had been allowing 1.07 points per possession and had allowed at least 75 points in 10 of 23 games. They didn’t allow 75 in regulation again the rest of the year. (Texas got to 78 but needed overtime). Opponents points per possession dropped to .99 and Xavier’s defensive efficiency dropped to 93.2.

A defensive efficiency of 93.2 isn’t 145th in the nation, it actually would have finished 18th. There were only two teams (Clemson and Northwestern) in the top 20 of defensive efficiency that didn’t make the make the tournament, and one of them probably should have been. That kind of turn around at almost the flip of the switch speaks to consistent and focused coaching, as well as the decision to start playing the Tyrique Jones and Zach Hankins double post.

That success has translated well this year. Xavier hadn’t faced elite offensive competition in their first two games, but they took advantage of that by being suffocating on defense. Against Missouri’s much better offense, Xavier’s defense got even better. Even after the game, Missouri is 86th in the nation in adjusted offense. They had been averaging 1.05 points per possession and had won by 40 and 15 in games where their offense had rolled.

The Musketeers clamped down. The Tigers only managed .72 points per possession in scoring 58 points over 80 possessions. Right now Xavier’s defensive efficiency is 88.8, good for 25th in the nation. That’s an elite defense that has risen from the ashes of a horrendous start to last season. Steele’s charges have been challenging all shots hard, as per the packline principle, but have also added a 22.5% turnover rate to the mix. That and shutting off the offensive glass to the tune of an 80% defensive rebounding rate has made for a defense that has quietly become one of the best in the nation.