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Tough coaches win tough games

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In a game decided by details and preparation, Travis Steele came through.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Cincinnati
Travis Steele got the details right
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Crosstown Shootout is frequently decided by fine margins. Who gets back on defense, who picks up fewer technical fouls, who adjusts to Lenny Brown in the lane, who throws the first punch, who runs the city, things like that. Yesterday’s edition was no exception to this rule. Xavier won by eight in a game that could have gone either way because they got the little things right and because they had the players to do it.

Travis Steele has, rightly and wrongly, taken a lot of criticism in his first two years on the job at Xavier. His teams have occasionally played great defense and undone that with offense that was mediocre at best. They’ve occasionally played well enough to be in a big games and suffered serious defensive lapses. The roster has been a patchwork quilt of recruits still left on the market when Chris Mack left, Mack’s players, transfers, and Steele’s guys coming in. It has, in short, been a transition.

Yesterday, some of that transition began to bear fruit. Coach Steele came into the game with a team that had played mostly low and mid majors and was untested against even the most tenuous of high major teams. Coach Brannen had a team that had played once. Xavier had problems with rebounding and turnovers against a team that figured to prey on those weaknesses. UC also clings to a veneer of their old toughness as well, but it was Coach Steele’s team that would put paid to that.

The first place where Travis Steele’s handiwork showed was the roster. Transfer Nate Johnson was a menace on defense, threw down a dunk punctuated with a scream, and jarred two more threes to raise his shooting percentage from deep to 51.7%. Bryan Griffin had an offensive rating over 200 and remained an immovable man mountain inside. Those are two transfers that have made an impact this year. Jason Carter was an addition from last season and is making an enormous impact now. In this game he was his warm flannel self. 6/2/2 in 32 minutes came with zero turnovers and the biggest shot of the game.

Those guys have been playing, but Xavier’s cupboard has been a little bare. The day before the game it was announced that the Musketeers would add three players to the roster for the Shootout. Adam Kunkel had been practicing with the team and that showed in his 15 minutes. He clearly has the confidence of his teammates and brims with confidence himself. Colby Jones and CJ Wilcher were another matter. After 10 days of quarantine it was hard to imagine they could jump right into the rotation. It’s a testament to Coach Steele that he had them ready to go to the point he got 20 minutes from them. That’s incredible coaching (and incredible dedication by those young men). Jones chipped in 5/4/3 and looked like a rotation player who has been in the team all year.

UC had transfers as well in Chris Vogt and Rapolas Ivanauskas. Both can score, but both are butter soft and slower than rush hour traffic. Coach Steele knew this and tweaked the offense slightly to take advantage of it. Knowing that it would cause some issues rebounding, though likely not planning on zero offensive rebounds, Steele spread the floor with smaller lineups and ran high low action that brought UC’s bigs away from the rim and opened the lane for drives from guards.

This showed in two ways. The Bearcats blocked only two shots. Despite Xavier spreading the floor and going small, they did most of their damage inside the arc. That UC’s block rate was .065 shows that their bigs weren’t able to get to Xavier’s driving guards or Paul Scruggs telescopic left arm. The tactical change also showed that Xavier doesn’t need their best offensive player to be on his game to win. Zach Freemantle had a 72 offensive rating, was 7-15 from the floor, and turned the ball over twice as much as any other player in the game. Xavier won because Coach Steele adjusted by using Freemantle to pull Vogt or Ivanauskas away from the bucket on decoy duty and have him cut late in the shot clock or offensive action. Big Frosty ran past his traffic cone of a defender twice late in the game to score on passes that found him wide open near the paint.

Finally, Coach Steele recognized as well as anyone what was happening in the game. Paul Scruggs was on one yesterday. Xavier’s senior finished with 20/5/5. Scruggs has been a shooter for most of his career, but yesterday he sliced the Bearcat defense to pieces off the dribble. Coach Steele used his newfound depth to rest Scruggs and keep him fresh down the stretch. That paid off as the senior went 8-8 from the line and had the rebound, assist, and then jumper on the two buckets that gave Xavier the lead for good.

Travis Steele has come under fire in his time at Xavier, but he played a masterclass yesterday. His transfers and freshmen were ready to go, he game planned and adjusted well, and he knew to ride the hot hand when it mattered. If Xavier is turning a corner now, it’s in large part thanks to their coach.