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Finding ways to win

While St. John’s decompensated, Xavier dug in and got a gritty win on the road.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With 10 minutes to play last night, Xavier led by just three points. Shamoire Ponds was showing every sign of finding his rhythm, having just capped a three point play, and Xavier’s win probability was down to 54%. Just barely better than a coin toss in favor of the Musketeers. Xavier was hanging on not just to a game, but possibly their entire season, by a thread. The Red Storm was cranking up the pressure and Carnesecca was getting loud. Six minutes and 35 seconds later, the game was over as a contest.

Xavier has been winning during their recent streak on the back of ferocious defense and dominant post play. Last night, that wasn’t exactly the case. X took just as many three pointers as they did twos last night. In the opening barrage that staked Xavier to a lead that they never surrendered, the Musketeers launched ten threes in the first ten minutes. It was a complete change of tone from the way they had been playing. After that first ten minutes, Xavier had wrestled their chances of a win up to 50% from a low of 23.9%.

While the three point shooting tapered off, Xavier took only 14 in the next 30 minutes and seven in the second half, the threat continued to stretch the St. John’s defense. While 9-24 isn’t a great shooting night, it kept the Red Storm honest. Chris Mullin, an utterly clueless tactician, kept using his smaller big men to front the post in order to offer a hand worth of help on the outside. Relying on help from the other post or from a dropping guard left St. John’s open to post to post passing or the high opposite swing. That’s how Tyrique Jones ended up leading the team in assists.

While Mullin did absolutely nothing to help his team win, and indeed was probably the proximate cause of their loss, Xavier’s coaching staff leaned into their strengths. Jones and Zach Hankins went 8-11 inside on a combination of over the top looks and put backs. How any coach could watch what happened last night and not adjust and have a post inside Hankins or Jones is utterly beyond me. Xavier dominated the glass to the tune of a 50% offensive rebounding rate. They have only done that three times before in Big East play. Prior to this season the last time the Red Storm had allowed that was December 8th of 2012. As it happened, Chris Mullin simply sat and watched.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As Xavier changed tack and crushed the offensive glass, even Kyle Castlin and Quentin Goodin got two each, SJU didn’t adapt at all. Instead, Mullin led to a complete decompensation from his squad. With just over five minutes to play, the game still hung in the balance. Xavier’s win chances were 87%, but that isn’t insurmountable. After a technical from a rapidly unraveling from Shamorie Ponds, Chris Mullin went ahead and picked up his own. Less than 90 seconds later, Xavier’s win percentage was 99. Yes, the Red Storm press started to eat into the lead, and yes, Xavier will need to learn to handle pressure better, but the damage was done.

This game came down to the ability to adapt. Xavier came out of the gate firing from deep in a change from where they had been executing on their run. While the defense lapsed a bit, the Musketeers also sent guards to the glass on the offensive end and harvested 22 second chance points. On the other bench, Chris Mullin adjusted by sitting on the scorer’s table like a lost little boy and then throwing a fit when things didn’t go his way. On the knife edge of the season, it’s what you can adjust to that wins games. We don’t yet know if Travis Steele will be one of the best coaches in the conference, but we can rest assured he’ll never be the worst.

And one more thing...