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Fixing the fallout

The seeds for Xavier’s losses were sown in their two most recent wins.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Xavier Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the event of nuclear fallout, it is what you can’t see that can kill you quickly. Gamma radiation has no mass and isn’t a particle. The photon of energy that comes from an unstable nucleus penetrates the human body and can cause massive internal bleeding, vomiting, disorientation, and death quite quickly. It is invisible and undetectable without sophisticated equipment. It can end you before you have any clue what is wrong. Alpha and beta radiation are different. You can see them coming. More importantly they must, generally speaking, being ingested or inhaled. There is a degree of agency that proceeds death from alpha or beta radiation. You will, ultimately, know and see what killed you.

So it goes with Xavier’s two losses this season. Far from being a sudden collapse caused by forces unseen, the seeds of Xavier’s demise were sown in the two games prior to the losses. Two games that were, almost paradoxically, two of Xavier’s best so far this season. The Musketeers took some of the wrong lessons from those games and in doing so internalized the things that would do them in against Creighton and Seton Hall.

The first was a heavy lean into the three point shot. It was hard to argue with the idea in the Oklahoma game. Xavier shot a torrid 59.4% behind the arc on 32 attempts. (That would have been season high if not for the Oakland blowout). The next game the Musketeers did it again, launching 24 attempts, and making 54.2% of them, against Marquette. The percentages are obviously not the problem. Any team making more than 50% of its threes should just keep chucking. Xavier did that, but they didn’t course correct when the shots stopped dropping.

X blitzed out of the gates again against Creighton, but then they cooled off. Not just a little, either. After hitting 6-11 to start the game, Xavier made just two of their next 21 threes. The Musketeers just kept taking the poison in, though. The 32 threes they lifted tied for the most they have in a contested game this season. Worryingly, they only took 36 two point attempts in the same time frame. Coming into the game less than 35% of Xavier’s field goal attempts were threes. In the Creighton game, 47% were despite only 25% of them going down.

No matter then, just learn that lesson for the next game. The raw numbers suggest that Xavier did. The Musketeers took 24 threes against 41 two point tries. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Xavier’s interior game, by and large, worked against Seton Hall. The 56.1% they shot inside the arc was the fourth best mark they had posted all season. Despite they, they still shot their fourth highest number of threes for the season. That may not seem like much, but consider that Xavier was much more willing to switch gears against Bradley, Tennessee Tech, and Toledo and throw the ball inside even when they weren’t as successful there as they were against Seton Hall.

Ultimately, no team that shoots the three as poorly as Xavier did in the two losses will win almost regardless of how many they take. The Seton Hall loss comes more as a result of another issue that Xavier’s recent wins had papered over: terrible interior defense. Against both Oklahoma and Marquette the Musketeers were gashed inside. Both of those teams shot over 57% inside the arc. Those games are second and third worst on the season, with the 65.8% Seton Hall shot running away with the honors.

The hot shooting papered over the cracks in the last two wins, but the signs were there. Xavier’s interior defense has been a problem all season. Bryan Griffin is a great rebounder but is yet to get up to Big East speed on defense. Zach Freemantle is an offensive force who struggles to even be average defensively. Jason Carter’s injury didn’t help things against Seton Hall, but he has struggled at times as well. It is telling that Coach Steele has been working on a zone recently. While Xavier defends the arc decently, they have spent four of the last five games being brutalized in the paint.

The things that have beaten Xavier in the last two games have been there for the last four. They have willingly ingested the bad offensive habits they seem stuck in and have taken in the bad interior defense that saw them get run off the floor by Seton Hall. The Musketeers will have had a week to fix things when they take the court against St. John’s. It’s imperative they don’t keep being the masters of their own destruction.