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How did Xavier do it?

Beating Villanova has long been this program’s insurmountable hurdle, but yesterday they got it done.

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

Last year’s Xavier team was probably the best one the school has ever seen. They secured a one see, won the Big East regular season title, put five players into the professional ranks, and finished the season with 29 wins. They also lost two games to Villanova by a combined total of 40 points. A 24 point loss on the road in January was followed by an only mildly more palatable 16 points loss at home in February that was both Xavier’s only home loss and their only loss at all in a two month span.

Yesterday, Xavier’s weakest team of the analytics era, a team coming off a recent six game losing streak and one harboring only the faintest of at-large hopes, beat Nova by 12 in game that somehow wasn’t even that close as the clock ticked down. For the third team in the four game run, it was gameplanning that got the job done.

What Xavier did yesterday was slow the game to a glacial pace. The last time the Musketeers played a game this slow was November 26th... of 2016. In that game Xavier outscored Northern Iowa 20-5 in the first ten minutes and then had the luxury of cruise control the rest of the way. Ten guys played double digit minutes and Tim Stainbrook saw time. Yesterday was not that. Coach Steele came out with a game plan to keep the slow, only 60 possessions, and then did just that.

This can be playing with fire with Nova. The Wildcats also can play a slow pace, but they make it count by taking and making threes at an incredible rate. Against Butler they needed 61 possessions to score 80 points and they poured in 86 against DePaul on just 63 possessions. To go slowly against Nova is to dare them to kill you from beyond the arc.

Unless, of course, that is your plan. Over the last three games, Villanova is taking an unholy 61.3% of their shots from deep. Last year, they shot 40% on threes. This year, that number is down to 35%. More telling, though, is the Wildcats inability to score inside. In the recent past Nova has had the ability to score inside. As they have transitioned to shooting even more threes, that has gone away. Yesterday, Xavier swallowed hard and decided to fight Nova at the three point line, confident that Tyrique Jones and Zach Hankins could hold their own alone inside. The result was Villanova getting off 36 threes (61% of their shots again), but the Musketeers being in better position to contest some of those and riding their luck on the rest. Nova took only 23 two point attempts, and converted only 43.5% of them. Because Jones and Hankins held firm, Xavier had a fighting chance at the arc.

Down at the other end of the floor, the story was almost exactly opposite. Xavier pounded the ball inside or attacked off the dribble. The Musketeers took 12 fewer shots than the Wildcats, but took 54% of theirs from inside the arc and made 64% of those. Tyrique Jones and Zach Hankins were 7-11 from the floor, and the bevy of guards cutting off them were 9-14 inside the three point line. Xavier attacked the paint relentlessly and won the game because of it.

Finally, Travis Steele leaned into his defense. Gone were Ryan Welage and Kyle Castlin, limited to single digit minute cameos. On instead was Banners favorite Elias Harden for 26 minutes of action. Harden provides an unquestioned spark, but he’s also long and athletic enough to create havoc on quick passing or challenge a shooter he has to recover to. Yesterday, that’s exactly what Xavier needed. When it was all said and done, just a little bit of hope was starting to peak over the horizon.