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The coaching is becoming a concern

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Travis Steele has, mostly, done a good job his first three seasons, he hasn’t in the last three games.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching at any level is a more fraught thing than anyone who hasn’t done it can realize. In 11U soccer it can be the overweight dad behind you certain that his son is the next Messi that screams abuse. Move on to your local high school basketball team and every has been or never was thinks that the key is just more 2-3 zone or perhaps just as simple as getting more offensive rebounds. Strategy questions aside, the overriding theme is that you, the coach, are a clown. Most of us here have never coached at the high major college level, but the pressure there must be immense. With that as background some of the “fire Travis Steele” idiocy on Twitter can be brushed off as just that. That said, there is a confusing and consistent vein of mismanagement seeping into some of Xavier’s recent games.

Against UConn Xavier tore out to a 16-7 lead that gave them an 82.5% chance of winning the game. That’s not nailed on that early in the contest, but it’s a great start. At that point Steele mixed up his lineups, necessary coming off a Covid break, and spent four minutes with Dieonte Miles, playing for the first time since December 9th, CJ Wilcher, and Dwon Odom on the floor. The Huskies went on a 16-3 run of their own while Steele waited out his experimental lineup and Xavier never regained the lead in the game. Last season’s bench scoring spark plug Kyky Tandy never appeared.

That game was easily, and probably rightly, dismissed as a one off. The team was missing Bryan Griffin, had missed significant time off a Covid break, and needed to try something to lengthen the bench. Then came St. John’s. The Tandy question came to the fore when Kyky came in played five minutes, accrued two steals, two assists, and three points, and then vanished back to the bench. More alarmingly, Steele succumbed to a coaching trope by removing Paul Scruggs, almost never a danger to foul out, from the game after his second foul. The scoring difference before Scruggs came back was the final margin in the game. As Adam Kunkel struggled mightily and Jason Carter vanished into the background of the game, Tandy and Odom remained anchored on the bench and neither Dieonte Miles nor Danny Ramsey got a look. Xavier lost again.

You could also be forgiven for thinking that Xavier lost on Sunday, though a check of the results reveals the mildly surprising fact that game was actually a win. Xavier was playing a trash team shorn of three of its best players and managed to make a complete dog’s breakfast of it. Once again, the coaching approach was odd. As Xavier sputtered and struggled to get going, a theme that would last all game, they most looked like rolling when Tandy and Danny Ramsey came off the bench. Tandy was everything a coach would want. He hustled, rebounded, scored, and, unlike most of his teammates, looked like he wanted to do what was required to win. Danny Ramsey scored four in five minutes, grabbed a tenth of Xavier’s offensive rebounds for the game, and threw down a monster dunk.

Neither of those guys sniffed the floor for meaningful time again. Jason Carter wasn’t as anonymous as he had been but didn’t light the world on fire. Nate Johnson misfired and Paul Scruggs struggled. Despite those very obvious problems, Steele rode with his starters against a Butler team that Xavier should have obliterated. Only Dwon Odom came off the bench for double digit minutes. Xavier ran through treacle to win the game.

The Tandy conundrum is what will define this stretch of games. Tandy has, at times, struggled defensively and with effort. He can be slow footed on that end of the floor and shot hungry on the other end. That hasn’t been the case the last two games. Kyky has played like a guy who is responding to coaching. His effort on defense was what made Danny Ramsey’s sprint and dunk (what a moment for a great kid and what a disappointment fans weren’t there for it) happen. He ran hard, defended well, and made his shots. Despite that, he got benched again.

After the game Steele said of Tandy that, “He’s gotta rebound, he’s got to get to those loose balls, he’s got to defend a little better.” This all sounds good, but it’s wrong. Tandy did rebound in his time on the floor. His two defensive boards were more than Carter, Adam Kunkel, and Dwon Odom combined, and equalled the output of Nate Johnson. As already mentioned, it was his effort on a loose ball that got Danny Ramsey his moment. Tandy’s defense was at least on par with his teammates. All of that to say that, frankly, what the coach said after the game made no sense. His stated reasons for not playing Kyky don’t mesh with the reality of what happened on the court.

When Tandy leaves after this season it won’t come as a shock to many. As Kyky watched a shooter not be able to shoot and Paul Scruggs struggle to get himself into the game, he must have wondered what he had to do to get back into the game. Steele also said “we’re gonna score points” of his team that was doing the exact opposite of that. Scoring won’t get Tandy back on the floor, he’s shooting 38% from deep and scored five points in seven minutes. Defense and rebounding apparently go unrecognized.

This season is reaching the pointy end. As it does, Coach Steele needs to figure out what he is doing with his rotations. On the bench he has a player who has been bad at times but seems to be responding to coaching attempts by changing his game. Steele will also add a weapon in Bryan Griffin that he has been reluctant to utilize. He can either put this roster together well to make a run, or he can watch this season end like the last two have. If that happens, it won’t just be Kyky Tandy’s time at Xavier that will be limited.