The good news is that the Xavier Musketeers won on Friday night to go to 4-0. Last season at this time the team was 2-2 and on their way to the early season swoon that doomed them to the NIT. That’s not happening this year because the Musketeers have won four straight. That’s the good news out of tonight.
That good news is due to the one thing that Xavier is doing very well this year, playing defense. The Musketeers were stifling again tonight, holding Missouri State to .86 points per possession an forcing an incredible 33.8% turnover rate on a team that hadn’t been turning the ball over like that. Missouri State actually shot the ball fairly well, Xavier just kept them from shooting very much and allowed them to only collect five of their misses. Toss in a 12.9% block rate and you have yet another dominating defensive performance.
Thus far this year Xavier has not allowed any opponent to average a point per possession. Not until game 11 of last year did Xavier manage four games of such defensive prowess. At no point last season did the Musketeers hold four straight opponents under a point per possession. If the defense seems good, that’s because it is. Currently Xavier sits 27th in the nation with an 88.8 defensive efficiency.
Which brings us to the worrying part of Xavier’s season so far. The Musketeers rushed to an early lead in this game by working inside out and stretching the Bears defense. That led to rhythm shooting and Tyrique Jones (15/6/0) and Zach Freemantle (7/2/0) to scoring 10 early. Missouri State adjusted, and they did so the same way that every other team has thus far, they went zone and dared Xavier to shoot them out of it. Even after this game Xavier is 190th in 3PA/FGA, an indication that they actively avoid the three pointer and try to work the ball inside.
Ultimately, though, teams are going to pack the paint and make Xavier shoot from outside. That’s exactly what Missouri State did, and it paid off for them. The Musketeers led by 11 early and by nine for a lot of the first half, but the Bears just kept digging in deeper in the paint and making X shoot. Shoot they did, but not well. Xavier is now 341st in the nation with a 20.9% three point percentage. Paul Scruggs (14/4/5) was a perfectly respectable 2-5, but no one else was even mediocre. Outside Scruggs, the Musketeers shot 3-18, good for 16%. Quentin Goodin (6/2/6) was 2-8 from behind the arc and didn’t attempt a shot from anywhere else. Naji Marshall (12/5/1) was 0-4.
Those numbers are alarming but can be offset by elite interior offense. Xavier didn’t get that tonight. Tyrique went for 15, but the constant pressure meant that he also turned the ball over five times. Zach Freemantle had four points early and one bucket for the rest of the game. Jason Carter (2/4/2) was 1-5 inside. Xavier is now down to 96th in the nation with a 53% shooting percentage inside the arc. Teams are so unafraid of Musketeers spotting up that they are loading the paint and making Xavier’s bigs either score through double teams or kick out to a shooter.
Once again, this game came down to one player putting the ball on the floor and making a play, and once again that player was Paul Scruggs. Xavier scored only three points in the last four minutes but the vital two of them came at the right time. Scruggs caught a pass top of the key and, with the incessantly chirping but not very good Tyrik Dixon faceguarding Quentin Goodin 30 feet from the bucket, ran to the rim and sent X on their way to 4-0.
Come next Thursday the Musketeers leave the friendly confines of the Cintas Center for the first time. In Charleston they’ll face first the Towson Tigers and then at least two other teams who know they can walk away from most of the Musketeers on the perimeter. Kyky Tandy might be back, but he won’t fix things single-handedly. X is 4-0 right now. To keep that run going they are going to have to make some outside shots. If not, that digit on the right will start changing with some regularity.