Coming off of two-injury shortened seasons at a low-level Ivy League school, Kyle Castlin was an unknown commodity when he signed with Xavier in April of 2018. We knew he could shoot well at that level when healthy. He rebounded a little, distributed a little, and didn’t turn the ball over much. It was a big ask for him to make a leap from the team that finished 231st in the KenPom to one that was coming off of a Big East championship and a one-seed.
The season started well for KC. Getting the start - as he would in Xavier’s first 23 games - against IUPUI, he went for a cool 9 and 8 with an ORtg of 140. He dropped 6 on Evansville the next time out, but then wouldn’t have more than a single bucket in any of Xavier’s next three games, all losses.
From there, Kyle settled into what he would be for Xavier, throwing up a series of high-efficiency, low-usage games heading into Big East play. His style of play was simple: he rarely hunted shots of offense, recycled play without taking many risks, and ran to the glass on both ends. He averaged 6.4 boards per 40 minutes of play, not bad at all for a 6’4” guard in the Big East. He also provided a steadying influence on the floor and made winning plays.
The start of conference play was an abrupt, inconvenient adjustment for Kyle. The first four games in the league saw him drop ORtgs of 0 twice and score a total of four points. With Xavier apparently going nowhere and the future being the main concern, public opinion on the Columbia transfer was bottoming out. The historical record shows that we had questions about his starting role.
The next time out, he dropped 12 in Xavier’s furious comeback on the way to a 70-69 win over Butler, effectively feeding me my own words. That win was on the precipice of a six-game losing streak that saw Castlin lose his starting spot to the double pivot but - after averaging 10.5 MPG in the first 4 Big East games - significantly increase his playing time.
Down the stretch, Castlin did a little bit of everything. He rebounded, hit his shots, played defense... perhaps most remarkably, in 13 February and March games, he turned the ball over just 5 times.
Two plays will define Castlin’s time at Xavier to me. The first came in the St. John’s game on February 28. Needing a win at MSG, Xavier had seen a 52-42 lead cut to 58-55 as the Johnnies rallied behind the play of their backcourt stars and the coaching of one of their assistants. Naji Marshall pulled up for a three that caught a lot of iron.
With the ball pinballing around the rim and bigger men queuing up for the board, Castlin sprinted for the left block. In a window of space you couldn’t fit a lawn chair in, he snared the board with his left hand and tapped it up off the glass and in before disappearing into the photographers beneath the basket. St. John’s would never get their chance to come down and tie the game, and by the time they scored again, Xavier was basically home and dry.
The second was also at MSG, against Creighton in the Big East tournament. Xavier was playing for the auto bid at that point and needed everything they could get. The Muskies had struggled through some significant offensive misfires, at one point going 12 minutes in the second half between buckets by someone not named Kyle Castlin. Despite that, a Zach Hankins stickback had them clinging to a two-point lead for the game’s final possession.
Against the second-best shooting team in the league, Xavier needed one stop on a do-or-die final possession to move on. Creighton ran action to the right, drawing Xavier to guard the strong side. With the clock ticking into the single digits, Creighton star Ty-Shon Alexander somehow escaped the scrambled and drifted, entirely unmarked, to the left wing.
Alexander was 4-8 from deep on the day, and his offense had sparked a charge that had brought Creighton back into the game. Both teams needed this game to keep their waning NCAA hopes alive, and now Creighton had the ball in the hands of their leading scorer with a chance to win the game.
Kyle Castlin was first to respond. Bursting from the amoeba of student-athletes on the right side of the court, abandoning his defensive assignment to respond to the emergency on the other side of the floor, he sprinted from the left side of the lane to the right wing and launched himself at full stretch towards Alexander.
If you watched the Final Four, you know how perilous this action is. One miscalculation sends an 80% free throw shooter to the line with a chance to tie or win the game. Castlin’s aim was true, though. Not only did effectively challenge the shot, he cleanly blocked it. Alexander came to the floor without a meaningful protest to the officials; he knew what had just happened.
The thing about being at the right place at the right time is that it involves being at the right place at the wrong time an awful lot. You don’t pop up there to meet the moment when your team needs you unless you’ve committed to popping up there every time and dealing with the disappointment of the ball bouncing the other way more often than not.
In a season of transition, when Xavier rebuilt a roster and a staff on the fly, Kyle Castlin was the guy running to the right spot over and over again. When the moment came, he was there to pull Xavier’s fat out of the fire. When the Muskies needed Winning Plays, Kyle Castlin made them.