Xavier is undefeated this season. Xavier is playing poorly for large parts of this season. Both of those statements are true, but only one actually matters going forward. As Xavier struggles to take care of the ball against even token pressure, the metrics for the coming schedule looks worse and worse.
Xavier turned the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions against Bradley and EKU. You may recognize those as Xavier's closest wins so far. Against Oakland Xavier was average with ball retention but, frankly, it didn't matter. Against Toledo the Musketeers were excellent with the ball but struggled with shot making. The Musketeers have also been poor on the defensive glass against EKU and Bradley, allowing both to grab over 30% of their misses.
So the plan to beat X is to speed them up and hammer the offensive glass. Teams that are both big and aggressive are troubling Xavier very seriously. If you immediately cast your mind to the Big East and the teams that fill it, teams that more often than not are filled with big, aggressive athletes, the projections are not encouraging.
KenPom says, "predictions are based on the current values of the adjusted efficiencies and tempo, with home court advantage factored in." Those predictions see Xavier as pounding Tennessee Tech and then not winning again in the portion of the schedule that has been released. There are close projections to be sure. KenPom doesn't see either team with a 55% chance of winning in two of those seven games or a 60% chance in four of them. He does, however, see the Musketeers losing them all.
Bart Torvik weights things a little differently but doesn't see a great difference in outcome. Torvik's projections think Xavier will beat Marquette and Seton Hall and face a toss up game against Oklahoma. That's still a best case scenario of 3-4 in that stretch and 2-3 (perhaps not so bad) in the Big East.
Why are the metrics so stacked against the only 4-0 team in the nation? It all goes back to possessions. Xavier allows too many second chances, letting opponents grab 29.7% of their misses even with Oakland factored in. Teams that win games against good competition consistently don't do that. Xavier also wastes possessions against pressure. In the games where they have been pressed or trapped, X turned the ball over 37 times, more than a quarter of their possessions. Xavier both doesn’t close out opponent’s possessions enough and gives away theirs too easily. That all adds up to a team that struggles to beat EKU, which obviously doesn’t bode for, say, a road game against a heated rival.
In order to fix that Xavier has to do two things. One, as Coach Travis Steele could be repeatedly heard to yell on Monday, is block out. Jason Carter and Bryan Griffin have done so well, but too frequently Zach Freemantle has gotten himself in good position and then just gone flat footed. He plays the most minutes of any Xavier post, so he must close possessions. Xavier has also allowed an unforgivable nine offensive rebounds to guards in those two close games. That simply speaks to laziness on the perimeter.
Secondly Xavier has to support their young point guard. Paul Scruggs and Kyky Tandy both have turnover rates under 20% (Tandy’s is an excellent 13.4%) but neither are primary ballhandlers. Dwon Odom is, and his turnover percentage is 23%. Coach Steele has to find a way to get his one pure point guard into positions to be more successful with the ball. Some of Odom’s turnovers are just the exuberance of youth, a failed 80 foot diagonal ball more suited to soccer and a length of the court heave toward Zach Freemantle come to mind, and those will be smoothed out. Some are simply coming because Odom’s help isn’t where it needs to be and he can’t break completely away from his man. That has to be schemed out.
Right now the numbers aren’t encouraging for Xavier. Fixing just two things can change that, but they aren’t easy fixes. Travis Steele and his team are running out of cupcake games where mistakes won’t mean ugly losses.