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A Coaching Win

Xavier’s coaching staff had their best game of the season, and the players rewarded them with a win.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Providence Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Steele looked beleaguered a week ago. Xavier had just somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against DePaul, gone to 11-13, and left their coach standing on the sideline looking, just for a moment, like a man adrift.

Fast forward exactly a week and Travis Steele is a whirling ball of frenetically clapping energy as his team roars past Providence in a packed, but still, Dunkin Donuts Center to cap a week of two desperately needed wins. Today, Steele looked the man Xavier’s athletic department was happy to give the job until Tom Izzo leaves MSU and Steele goes there. Against both Greg McDermott and the perpetually touted but forever underdelivering Ed Cooley, Steele had put on a clinic.

It started against Creighton. The Bluejays had carved the Musketeers to pieces the last time out by attacking every ball screen and rolling Martin Krampelj into the post. This time out, Steele countered by throwing a flex zone at the Jays on some possessions, but also using more athletic defenders to make the entries to the post more difficult and contest more readily the resultant three pointers. Ryan Welage and his 6-10 wingspan played 16 more minutes in the second contest, Tyrique Jones played six more, and Zach Hankins played three fewer despite the game going into OT.

As a result, Creighton took 13 more three pointers than they had in the first meeting, Martin Krampelj took 14 shots, but had to step outside the arc for six of them, and Xavier’s flexible defense forced the Jays into shooting just 40% inside the arc and 31% outside. It undoubtedly took the commitment of the players to do it, but Steele’s rotation, specifically his deployment of Welage and Harden, had forced McDermott into a problem he couldn’t solve.

Today, it was more of the same. Providence came into the game determined to zone Xavier and make them win by making threes. Everyone knew this would be the plan coming in, it would be up to the coaches to adapt and make secondary or tertiary plans work off that. In the first half, Steele elected to play Welage and Harden and attempt to space the floor to feed the post. While this worked, Xavier’s first bucket was a dunk and the two shooters were 3-4 from deep, Xavier lacked the dynamism to defend Providence and could not get on the offensive glass at all.

Come the second half, come a second plan. Almost immediately, Steele went to a big body lineup featuring Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, and Quentin Goodin rotating over either both bigs, or used Kyle Castlin to allow a mismatch on Paul Scruggs. With that personnel switch (and Q, Scruggs, and Naji all played the entire half) came also a different plan of attack. Using the speed of all three to keep the Friars hugged up outside, Steele deployed Jones high and let him back seal his man. This led to both a parade of dunks for Jones, and wide open lanes for cutting guards. In this loop of Xavier dunks, note how frequently no one is between the Musketeer catching the ball and the rim.

With one of the two post men high, or with a guard cross screening, Steele deployed his squad in a way to leave the post defender isolated on the high hip of the offensive player. That is what leads to a dunk parade and Tyrique Jones going 9-11. Astonishingly, Ed Cooley never adjusted, content to watch Xavier dunk their way from down six to up nearly 20. A 20-12 points in the paint deficit for Xavier at halftime ended 34-26 in the Musketeers favor. As the zone did collapse on Tyrique from time to time, Xavier was content to knock down 6-7 stand still threes in the half. Paul Scruggs, in particular, could have used a graphing calculator to figure out the angles he needed after a pitch out and quick rotation left him standing as the only person in his quadrant of the floor,

The shell pressure that Cooley showed was semi-effective for one possession before Steele sent Tyrique middle, Naji weakside, and let the guards run by. It was textbook press break. On defense, Xavier went man up on Nate Watson and dared him to beat them. He responded with a solid 7-12, but Alpha Diallo was frustrated by a combination of Marshall and Scruggs and the rest of the Friars, frankly, can’t shoot. A full on line change after Xavier went 6-0 to start the half only deepened the Providence malaise.

This is not Xavier’s normal level and this is not a season of missed opportunities. The Musketeers are callow and inconsistent. This week, however, their rookie coach outschemed two of the bigger names in the conference and his charges executed for him. For Travis Steele, this is a Saturday to savor.