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Xavier’s elite defense is saving the day

With Xavier’s offense struggling, the defense has stepped in to win games.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The struggles of Xavier’s offense have been documented well here and elsewhere. The Musketeers three point shooting has been an issue, but much else has gone wrong on the offensive end so far this year. There’s hope in the shape of the debut of Kyky Tandy and a regression to the mean when it comes to three point shooting, but until then something old has become new to propel Xavier to a 4-0 start.

Xavier was, at one point, a program built on ferocious defense. Skip Prosser ran the X-Press with James Posey at the front and all manner of turnovers (29.4% rate one year) behind. After that came Thad Matta, whose teams never finished worse than 29th in the nation in defensive efficiency and suffocated three point shooters while finishing 1st, 4th, 34th in free throw rate allowed. Sean Miller had one excellent defensive team, his last, but by then Xavier was a program in transition.

Sean Miller also became the first coach to put a Xavier team in the top 15 in offensive efficiency, landing teams at 8th and 12th. Chris Mack took over a team that was used to playing great offense sometimes at the expense of defense. Except for the rebuilding team and the statistical outlier that is the brawl year, Mack never had a team worse than 46th in the nation in offense. Defensively though, things started to slip.

Xavier never really went completely in the tank on defense, but they weren’t what they had been. Under Matta they had been consistently elite, under Miller they still finished 39th and 12th his last two seasons. Under Mack the offense became excellent, but the defense suffered, finishing in the top 50 only twice in nine season. The team was still successful, but in a completely different manner than they had been. Mack’s final team was eighth in the nation with an offensive efficiency of 120.1, far and away the highest the Musketeers have ever achieved.

Now, the pendulum is slowly swinging back the other way. Over the last 11 games last season and so far this year the Musketeers defense has been amongst the best in the nation. They likely peaked by holding Villanova’s 16th best offense to .90 points per possession and an offensive efficiency of 89.7 in a win last season. That came against a great offense, but Xavier was even more ruthless in beating a very good Missouri by allowing only 58 points in 80 possessions (.72 PPP) and an offensive efficiency of 72.5.

The defense has been excellent in almost all facets as well. Rather than focusing on one area like the Prosser pressing teams or Matta’s emphasis on pressuring shots, this squad has thus far done everything well. Teams shoot poorly behind the arc (25.6%), poorly inside the arc (47.1%), turn the ball over a lot (25%), and don’t get their misses (20% OR rate) when playing the Musketeers. Xavier doesn’t block many shots, but they do almost everything else extremely well. There isn’t an easy way to get buckets against this team.

With an offense that can’t get going, a great defense is absolutely necessary. The Musketeers aren’t likely going far without patching something together on the offensive end, but their defense means that the offense doesn’t have to take great leaps and bounds to make Xavier competitive. It’s something of a return to a bygone era of Xavier basketball, but it’s exactly what the current iteration of the Musketeers needs.