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Breaking down the tape on a game winner

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Every second of glory is set up by the little things before it.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Xavier
We only had two pictures to work with
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Kunkel is hogging the headlines this morning. He should be. He did, after all, literally call game on a stepback three pointer to send Xavier to 8-0. That he was in position to get that shot came from both his own inspiration and a well executed play that got Xavier’s most effective players in the most effective spots. Using the FS1 feed and the magic of YouTube, let’s break it down. (To follow along use this link, for multiple angles use this one.)

This is the standard go time for an end of game situation. With between seven and eight seconds left there is time to run a set for a good look and maybe get a second chance without leaving loads of time for the other team to call a timeout and get in position for a decent play.

Xavier has gone with a standard set here. Zach Freemantle can both pick and pop, so he’s a good choice to set the high screen. Crucially, Theo John has fouled out by making a terrible decision, so Frosty has a clear advantage here. John got bullied all day, but he still takes up space. Paul Scruggs has the ball and 29 points and is setting left so his nearly patented spin can take him back to his right. Spread to the corners are shooters and Xavier’s most complete athlete, Colby Jones, is high both as an outlet and a safety net. All of this is smart ball.

Marquette doesn’t know it, but they have just lost the game on a basic defensive breakdown. Nate Johnson’s man, Jamal Cain, is totally flat footed on the low block. He is neither helping on the ball, nor with the best three point shooter on the floor. This leaves rebounding as his sole priority, because he isn’t helping anywhere else. His rebound assignment will be anyone coming back side. This is the kind of thing that you should know as a senior and the kind of thing film won’t miss. Cain isn’t watching his assignment though, he’s stuck ball watching.

Paul Scruggs has lost his man behind a screen (?) from Freemantle. Zach has wisely put his hands high and is just letting himself go with the flow. Justin Lewis is stepping to Scruggs, as is Dawson Garcia. For the moment, the strong side defenders are holding shape.

Agonizingly short. Scruggs got where he wanted to be and on his right hand, he just couldn’t ease it over the rim. Marquette’s defense has completely collapsed at this point. The Golden Eagles have been loaded with talent the last several years but failed to capitalize. That is generally indicative of poor coaching. So is this. All five Marquette players are in the paint and staring at the rim. None of them are finding a body or looking for the crashing Xavier players. The Musketeers grabbed 40% of their misses in this game in large part because the Golden Eagles just couldn’t be bothered. Freemantle has five offensive rebounds on the day and is running down the lane without a care in the world.

Not at all surprisingly, Xavier wins the second ball. Paul Scruggs reacts to his miss by doing the same thing he always does, fighting for every scrap. He tips the ball back high where Adam Kunkel, Nate Johnson, and Colby Jones are all waiting completely unmarked. Jamal Cain remains about 18 inches from where he started, still completely flat footed. Not a great effort.

Jamal Cain has moved! Alarm bells are sounding all over the Marquette defense, but their early laziness has put them in a hole they can’t get out of in the game time they have left. Nate Johnson is a 59% three point shooter and is wide open. The only player that Adam Kunkel has to challenge for the rebound is his teammate Colby Jones, who is also wide open. Vitally, Kunkel himself is also wide open and has the ball.

Take a moment to take this scene in. Xavier has gotten themselves in the better position because they are the better coached team, but this is still chaos. Even in that, Zach Freemantle is doing what no Marquette player did a second before and is already digging for space. Kunkel won’t see that though, because his eyes have not left the rim since he caught the ball. He can feel the defense coming, but from the moment he wrests the ball from Jones until the ball finds cords, his eyes will stay locked on the rim. That’s a pure shooter.

Kunkel’s eyes are still locked on the time. Jamal Cain is not going to get there because he got out of position five seconds ago. Justin Lewis ball watched himself all the way under the bucket and isn’t getting back to the play now. Kunkel was Symri Torrence’s assignment at the start of the play. That’s Torrence just now getting to Colby Jones. He also ball watched and also failed to find an assignment. As the clock strikes zero on Marquette there must be an awareness in the back of his mind that the guy about to shoot the ball looks vaguely like the one he was supposed to be guarding.

Games this close are won and lost on details. Xavier got themselves in better position to start and then reacted like a better coached team. While Marquette ball watched and collapsed rimward, Xavier held space and got bodies on people in the lane. Paul Scruggs won his way into the lane and then reacted to the ball faster than anyone else, because that’s what he does. Zach Freemantle got in the way and then sprinted past retreating Golden Eagles to challenge with Scruggs for the miss. As Adam Kunkel shaped to shoot, Big Frosty was already carving space again. Colby Jones did exactly what he knew to do and rotated top to prevent a fast break. Nate Johnson didn’t factor in this play, but not because he did anything wrong.

That brings us to Adam Kunkel and Travis Steele. While Marquette’s players reacted like they were at a YMCA open run, Kunkel sprinted for the ball. His effort stands out at the end of a 40 minute game that he spent the last 20 minutes of going off. With five guys in blue content to watch, he was still running as hard as he could. He said as he came eligible that all he wanted was his chance. He reacted like a young man determined not to waste it. He did that partly of his own instinct and partly because Coach Steele had him in the right spot. Steele hasn’t had a perfect two plus years at the helm, but the foundation he is laying is that of a team that scraps for everything and, suddenly, gets the details right. When it mattered, Xavier’s players knew what to do and Marquette’s didn’t. That’s the difference between undefeated and 7-1.