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Should Xavier be playing faster?

The Musketeers prefer to play slowly but have had some success when the pace tips up. Not all, though, is as it seems.

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The Xavier Musketeers of this season are not a basketball team that plays fast. Xavier’s adjusted tempo of 67.9 is 201st in the nation. Not the glacial pace of Liberty and Virginia (who would meet in the slowest contest in college basketball at around 60 possessions) or the blistering pace of Mississippi Valley St, Houston Baptist, or Alabama, who get nearly nine more possession per game than X. The Musketeers don’t land near either extreme, but they favor going slowly.

This is one of the few places in sports where it is safe to trust your eyes, because in watching a Xavier game you will frequently see the point guard, or point forward, walk the ball up the floor before initiating offense. This has led to Xavier playing a lower scoring style and very rarely getting into a game where fast break points are a significant factor.

Usually a team plays slowly because turnovers increase when the pace does. That isn’t really the case with Xavier. In Xavier’s second fastest game (the Wake loss), they only turned the ball over 10.6% of the time. In fact there is almost no correlation between Xavier’s pace and turnovers. In their fastest games, both against St. John’s, they turned the ball over between 25-29% of the time. Dip down to the 72-74 possession range and Xavier doesn’t have a single game where they have turned the ball over more than their season average of 19.4%. That seems to augur well for playing faster.

But, wait, as always, there’s more! Xavier has played four 71 possession games this season and thrown the ball away 20% or more of the time in three of them and 19.7% in the other. So much for the better ball security as the offense goes faster theory. Is X better with the ball when they are slower? In the two slowest games the Musketeers have played the turnover rate has hovered around 15%. Jump up to 65-67 possession games, though, and you find games where X turned it over 23%, 22.8%, 25.3%, and 31.5% (TCU). So playing slowly doesn’t increase ball security either.

In the 12 fastest games Xavier has played this year, they are 11-1. Again, though, this is a bit of an alternative fact, because six of those games came against teams below 100 in the KenPom, (three below 200), and only one against a Q1 opponent. That span includes six of Xavier’s eight Q3 or Q4 wins. In Xavier’s slowest 11 games they are only 6-5. Six of those games came against Q1 opponents, so comparing the speed there to a game against Jacksonville in November seems the very definition of apples to oranges.

So what, if anything, does this tell us? Frankly, not a lot. Xavier shoots twos better when they run, likely because they get more layups in transition in those games, and shoots threes better when they are deliberate. No common thread extends through the discussion of Xavier’s pace but for that they tend to get out and go against bad teams, slow down against good. Xavier’s two fastest games against Q1 opponents have been blowouts in the wrong direction (home to Seton Hall, at Marquette). Their two slowest against Q1 opponents? Also losses.

All this to say that solving the problem of the 112th best offense in the nation is not as simple as picking up the pace. The offense seems to be what it is at this point. Deliberate, turnover prone, occasionally capable of shooting well enough to prop up the defense. And that defense? Pace doesn’t affect it. It remains elite regardless of how many times per game an opponent sees it.