Xavier does a lot of things well on offense this year. Their three point shooting has improved to 35.4%, in the top 100 in the nation. Inside the arc they are comfortably inside the top 50. They generally shoot the ball well, take care of the ball well, and are sixth in the nation in assists per made field goal. That’s the basis of a good offense. Why, then, is Xavier only 42nd in the nation in offensive efficiency?
The one thing Xavier doesn’t do well is rather vital to the game of basketball. X neither gets to the line often, nor executes well when they do. Xavier’s 68.6% mark at the line is 223rd in the nation. The amount of free throws they shoot per field goal attempt is 249th. The Musketeers just don’t shoot free throws often enough to have an elite offense.
This has not been the case in Xavier’s history. Skip Prosser wanted to make more free throws than his opponent attempted. That peaked in the 1998-99 season when X had a free throw rate of 49.5%, good for third in the nation. That became part of the Musketeer DNA. From that point on Xavier’s free throw rate didn’t dip below 37% until Travis Steele’s first year.
Some part of that has to do with the way Steele runs offense. Xavier now shoots more three pointers than they have at any point since Sean Miller’s third season at the helm. The 38.6% rate they shot was 70th in the nation that season, but would be solidly in the 150s this season. Basketball has changed, and Xavier has changed with it. The three point shot has taken over the game.
That, of course, means fewer free throw attempts. “Never foul a jump shooter” is a defensive mantra that dates back to when people first realized that jumping helped. More jumpers equals fewer free throws. Still, other teams have figured out how to get to the line. Xavier’s free throw rate hasn’t dropped concomitantly with the rest of the game. Stephen F. Austin has an astronomical 60.4% to lead the nation, but 38 are over 40%. 120 teams are at or over 35%. Xavier languishes down with Maine and Nebraska Omaha.
Fixing the issue isn’t simple. Xavier isn’t designed to get to the line. Their leading scorer is a big who plays mostly in the midrange and takes a shockingly low 26.2% of his shots at the rim. Next comes a guard who gets to the rim more but is the team’s primary ballhandler and a shooter in his own right in Paul Scruggs. Nate Johnson is third on the team in scoring and is almost solely a shooter. Xavier’s leaders in free throw rate are Bryan Griffin (46.5%), Colby Jones (38.7%), and Jason Carter (38.5%). Only Carter is a statistical qualifier, only Jones makes over 60% of his free throws.
Xavier has two players who might be considered threats to get to the rim and, therefore, the line. Dwon Odom missed games with Covid and is only now getting some of his time back. Against Cincinnati he was a very good 6-8 from the line and aggressive getting to the lane. Outside that game he has attempted only 10 free throws. Kyky Tandy is shooting 81% from the line and has the skills to get to the rim, but he has been so abhorrent shooting the ball inside the arc (39.4%) that there is no functional reason to foul him. As things stand right now Tandy can’t even get himself on the floor.
All of that to say that the thing that prevents Xavier’s offense from being truly elite is not likely to get fixed any time soon. Their offense is not predicated to it because they hunt shots. Their primary scorers reflect that by being mostly jump shooters. Their players who do earn chances to the line generally don’t finish them well, and the players you’d expect to get to the line simply haven’t. For now, Xavier is simply going to have to shoot well to win. Free points are going to be hard to come by.