Thursday’s game was a body blow to Xavier Nation. The Musketeers really need a win to keep their hopes of not having to win four game in four days to get into the NCAA tournament. For a long stretch of the game, they looked as if they would deliver that win. Instead, they surrendered 52 second half points to a thoroughly mediocre offense and made James Akinjo look like Allen Iverson. All of the excitement of back to back wins nearly a month ago has been flushed away in a four game losing streak. February seems destined to be a trudge.
Scroll through Twitter and you’ll find a host of reasons why this is. The genius certain he can read the mind of a 21 year old based on a facial expression he sees on television is sure the team doesn’t want it enough. Others look at team stripped of its best talent and restocked with two freshman that have amounted to nothing and three grad transfers and see underachieving that must be the fault of the coach. And then there’s the large group of people who pronounces anyone who has anything negative to say not a true fan.
The simple fact about why this team doesn’t seem to be very good is that it isn’t very good. Effort alone will not change 33% three point shooting. Coaching alone won’t add the lateral footspeed necessary to keep opponents from shooting 37% on the same three point shots. There are no easy fixes here. The absurd idea that Coach Steele should have this collection of players competing with the top two or even leading the rest of the pack needs to die.
What that leaves us with is the worst Xavier team of the analytics era. 58% of opponents buckets are assisted because, with the exception of Paul Scruggs, Xavier is simply not quick enough in the man to man and routinely gets gouged open. The Musketeers aren’t feasting on second chance points like they have recently because Kyle Castlin at 5.4% is the third best offensive rebounder on the team. Xavier’s team defense is a wretched 171st in the nation because Coach Steele can’t play Ryan Welage’s shooting without also using him on the other end of the floor, because Keonte Kennedy is better on defense but sports a team worst 80 offensive efficiency, and because Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin simply aren’t consistently good on ball defenders.
And yes, there are some coaching issues here as well. Coach Steele recognized that his team tends to wear down late (see: Villanova, the Georgetown loss, Marquette), but followed that statement up by giving players outside his usual rotation exactly 10 of 200 possible minutes in the next game. The continued insistence of Steele to not play his lone bench spark plug in Elias Harden defies explanation. Perhaps less obvious but no less damaging is Xavier’s insistence on remaining in a man to man defense when slow recovery is leading to an unprecedented three point barrage.
It’s likely none of that made you feel any better. You likely shouldn’t. Mediocre basketball teams have bad numbers all over the place. Still, there’s reason for hope even in a season plagued by false starts. While it seems like X shoots too many threes, they actually are 229th in the nation in 3PA/FGA, an indication that the team is trying to feed the ball inside. Paul Scruggs has emerged not just as Xavier’s best player, but as a genuine star, shooting 81% at the line and 46.7% behind the arc.
What the rest of the season will bring is hard to tell. If you’re glass half full you will see a new coach making adjustments, a burgeoning star, and a program still fighting for wins. If you prefer February to September as a month, you’ll see inexplicable rotations and a very average basketball team doing a lot of bad things. Either way, it’s likely something is going to happen in the next month that you will find very frustrating. For the first time in a long time, Xavier can’t find the momentum to just keep going forward.