Imagine you’re Travis Steele.
Your team has been sputtering, to say the least. It has been seven weeks since you’ve beaten anyone but Butler. During that time, your team has gone from being unquestionably in the tournament as a single-digit seed to squarely on the bubble. For senior night, you’ll be hosting Creighton. The Blue Jays have won 7 of 8 and beaten UConn, Seton Hall, and Villanova by a total of 38 points during that time.
Oh, and also you just lost your best shooter and third-leading scorer.
What do you do?
Well, if you’re actually Travis Steele, you draw up and execute a masterful game plan.
It started with defense, where Xavier took an offense that was top-10 in the nation and threw sand in its gears. Creighton thrives on three-point shooting and moving quickly, and X took steps to shut down both of those avenues of attack.
The first was completely abandoning the offensive glass. All of our Twitter followers are brilliant students of the game, and they were quick to note that Zach Freemantle was spending the bulk of his time on the offensive end lingering near the three-point arc. Despite his having established squatter’s rights 21 feet from the bucket, Zach only took 3 of his 12 field goal attempts from deep. When it came time for him to get his points - more on that in a moment - he went to the paint. When it wasn’t, he was deep enough that he was able to recover to the rim quicker than Creighton’s big men.
That in turn allowed Xavier’s guards and wings to recover to the arc. With Big Frosty making sure drives and rim runs didn’t turn into layups, Xavier’s smaller players were present on the catch in transition to keep Creighton’s shooters from launching whatever they’re calling Wragge Bombs now. More than half of Creighton’s shots in transition are threes; X did a great job of shutting that down yesterday.
The next big thing was all about individual execution. Coach Steele put Dwon Odom on Preseason Big East Player of the Year Marcus Zegarowski, and Odom was sensational. Zegarowski still went for 15/2/10, but he shot 6-14 and had to work for everything he got. More importantly, he was never able to impose himself on the game. When it came down to winning time, Odom owned the matchup. In the last 9 minutes of the game, Odom held Zegarowski scoreless on 0-3/0-1/0-0 shooting, blocked his shot twice, and went for 8/1/1 of his own with a steal and those two blocked shots. Talk about a closer. Coach Steele trusted his freshman, and the Odom delivered in spades.
On offense, shorn of his best shooter, Steele changed up the game plan. With the offensive glass abandoned in favor of getting back on defense to shut down the fast break, Xavier had to get quality first shots to make any progress.
Steele talked in the post-game presser about how Xavier has been averaging .55 points per possession when they shoot before ball reversal on offense. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m confident that rate would be exactly last in the nation.
Xavier moved Zach Freemantle to the perimeter early in possessions to facilitate ball reversal while pulling Creighton’s big men from the paint. From that framework, Xavier’s guards were relentless in attacking the middle of the floor. Paul Scruggs, Dwon Odom, Adam Kunkel, and Colby Jones all put the ball on the deck and went into the paint as far as Creighton would allow. If the Blue Jays turned them back, they found a teammate and repeated the process.
With the guards penetrating, the big men used intelligent movement to fill the space when Creighton stepped up. From Adam Kunkel dropping off the Bryan Griffin for a big dunk in the first half all the way through Dwon Odom eschewing a long jumper from the corner to drive and find Zach Freemantle - who had run from the ball side wing to the opposite block to find room - for a layup late in the game, X was committed to not settling for long shots. Eleven days after chucking 40 threes - each more hopeless than the one before - in a loss at St. John’s, Xavier shot 38 twos and just 21 threes in beating Creighton.
To win this game, Xavier needed to slow the tempo, defend the arc, and find good first shots on offense. Against the reigning Big East Coach of the Year, Travis Steele and Xavier put on a masterclass of planning and execution to do exactly that. #SaveTheSeason indeed.