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The break that broke Xavier

Prior to a long layoff at the end of January Xavier was one of the best teams in the nation. Then it all went south.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Xavier
Probably not a make.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Cast your mind back to the start of February. 2021 had started fitfully for the Xavier Musketeers, but they could just not stop winning. Their first Covid pause had ended with a battering of Butler in which Xavier just brutalized the Bulldogs in a game that was never in doubt. The Musketeers stroked 10 of 20 threes that game. They were a team that could shoot, occasionally defend, and win. They were 11-2, 4-2 in the Big East. No one was calling for Travis Steele’s job, fans were surreptitiously looking for rooms in Indianapolis.

Then, another Covid break hit. Xavier had just come off a 20 day layoff and they plunged straight into another one that lasted another 14 days. In that span they missed seven games and over 40 practices. Ben Stanley had played in January, but he was lost for the year. Jason Carter sustained an ankle injury he would never shake. Nate Johnson would come back but play only three more games before succumbing to a leg injury that slowed him for the final two games he did play.

Those 34 days off ended up being the death knell of Xavier’s season. The team that was 11-2 before the final break would finish by losing six of their last eight. The occasionally explosive offense disappeared, replaced by a team that would post five of it’s nine worst outings after the layoff. Quite simply, the cohesion of the team was gone. All the momentum that is built by spending most waking moments together in a gym, the cohesion other teams were developing, vanished. As everyone else gelled, Xavier’s players spent 33 of 35 days isolated from each other as the team tried to get healthy.

When they finally got the all clear to return, they were a different team. Prior to that final break Xavier was shooting 38.4% from behind the arc. Had that clip continued they would have found themselves 16th in the nation. The Musketeers were lifting a reasonable 22 of their 60 shot attempts per game behind the arc, and they were making a lot of them. They weren’t too shabby in the paint, either, making 54.6% of their 38 attempts per game, good for a number on pace to be 27th in the nation. In short, Xavier was an excellent shooting team that was a decent defense away from being great.

Then it all fell apart. Take 34 days off of your job. Don’t practice any of it. When you return, the daily rhythms will feel off. Now, imagine you spent those 34 days mostly isolated. No face to face contact with your co-workers, no instruction on your job, no repetition of the vital fine motor skills needed for success, just sitting and waiting.

That’s what faced Xavier when they finally came back to play. The difference between that scenario and what happened to X is that all of the Musketeers competitors had gotten better and that the skills required to excel in the field of college basketball fade fast. You can’t not shoot a ball in even a practice scenario for over a month and then step back into Big East conference play and expect to have any luck. Unfortunately, that’s what Xavier had to do.

The numbers after the break are brutal. Xavier’s offense didn’t change drastically, it was mostly still the same guys taking the same shots until Nate Johnson went down. What did change, and this was drastic, was the success rate. Xavier made just 26.9% of their three pointers after their break. For the season that would place them 334th out of the 347 teams that played this year. That is a difference of 318 spots from the shooting number of their first 13 games. That is absolutely incredible and season defining.

The story inside the arc was better. Xavier shot 53.6% from two point range even after the break. That is down a full percentage point, but still good for top 50 in the nation, if only just. Unfortunately, every Xavier opponent knew that. Here some kudos should go to Xavier’s staff, as the Musketeers still fought to get the ball inside and saw only a 1.8 shots per game reduction in their two point rate. There was a commensurate rise in attempts from beyond that arc that stands to reason as teams dared Xavier to shoot them out of games.

The simple fact is that Xavier’s swoon came down to nothing more than their inability to put the ball in the basket when it mattered. All the open looks in the world, all the executed offense, all the excellent passing (and Xavier was 9th in the nation in assist rate), doesn’t matter when the shots don’t go down. Two games told that story.

The first was the 11-40 from deep in the loss to St. John’s. Xavier’s offensive efficiency that game was their seventh best for the season. They shot well inside and from the line, they didn’t turn the ball over an inordinate amount, and they rebounded reasonably. What they couldn’t do was make the shots they were given. Had they made, say, 38% of those 40 they theoretically score 96 points and win the game.

The other game was the heartbreaker against Butler yesterday. For an eight minute stretch Xavier simply could not get the ball in the basket. In 14 possessions they turned the ball over once and shot 2-14 from the floor. No amount of well coached or well run offense matters when the shot at the end doesn’t go in. Since Xavier’s last Covid break, the shots have not gone in. In the end, that’s the reason they won’t hear their name called come Selection Sunday.