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Does Nate Johnson solve Xavier’s biggest problems?

The Gardner Webb transfer can do two things Xavier has struggled with, shoot the ball and play defense.

Gardner-Webb v Virginia Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Rather than a full on preview for each player on the roster this year we will be attempting to focus on one question that will determine how the player might fit on the team. The questions aren’t designed to carry either a positive or negative connotation, just really suss out how the roster is built. We’ll start with the freshman and build on to the players everyone knows. We know and you know the caveats that Covid brings, so this will be the only mention of it.

Xavier’s defense was 19th in Bart Torvik and 20th in KenPom last year. Xavier shot 32% behind the arc last season. Those two stats seem diametrically opposed to each other. After all, being in the top 20 in something and finishing 282nd are not anywhere near the same. The answer isn’t actually that simple, though, and the way to fix both issues might be Nate Johnson.

Cast your mind back to the final game of the 2019-20 regular season. Xavier desperately needed a win to seal a bid to an NCAA tournament that still seemed like it might happen. They were facing the Butler Bulldogs at home. As the game wore on, the Bulldogs slowly squeezed off the middle and dared Xavier to beat them from deep. The Musketeers responded by launching 23 three point attempts, only six of which connected. Butler won the game when Kamar Baldwin, who the entire building knew was going to shoot, worked his way free and buried a three pointer. When it mattered Xavier had neither someone reliable to make a shot or stop a shot. That loss likely would have cost them a bid to the tournament.

Enter Nate Johnson. Johnson played for Gardner Webb last season and, in the old parlance, shot the eyes out of the ball. Nate buried 41% of his three point attempts last season and failed to connect from deep in exactly one game. In two games against High Point he hit 12, he touched up Radford for eight in one game and Presbyterian and Charleston Southern for five each. That was lesser competition but, as Coach Norman Dale taught us all, the rim and court measurements remain the same regardless of location or conference. Against Tier A/B competition as a starter Johnson is shooting 35% from deep despite being the focal point of every defense.

On the subject of defense, it may be there that Xavier’s newest transfer guard can have more of an impact. Johnson is 6-4, 195 and comes with a reputation as a ferocious on ball defender who can get into passing lanes off the ball. His steal rate of 3.1% last year was in the top 150 in the nation. Against a high scoring guard or a smaller forward, Nate is a set it and forget it option for Coach Steele on the wing

That’s if he can get on the floor. Johnson comes in with something of the same issue that Jason Carter did last year. He was a big fish in the college basketball equivalent of a puddle. Gardner Webb was the third best team in the Big South last year. They were 218th in the KenPom. That’s the equivalent of the Green Bay or Lipscomb teams Xavier beat at a trot. The Runnin’ Bulldogs played one team (Wichita St.) that was ranked as high or higher than Xavier last year. They played five games against teams that were better than DePaul and only that Wichita St. game against a team that would have finished any better than next to last in the Big East. While shooting does translate, it’s worth remembering that the jump Johnson is making is not an insignificant one.

Nate Johnson comes to Xavier as the potential answer to two of the team’s biggest problems. If he is on the court and solving those problems, Coach Steele’s rotation gets longer and the team is that much better. Even if the grad senior functions mostly as a shooting weapon off the bench, he figures to add a dimension Xavier has been sorely lacking.