clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

About that possession...

With 28 seconds left Xavier had the ball and a chance to tie. What should Travis Steele have done?

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Xavier
Just slipped through his fingers
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports




Those are the 13 seconds that decided the game last night. Xavier trailed by two, 60-58, when Eric Dixon committed his third turnover of the game. Xavier immediately called timeout and set the offense.

The play Xavier came up with worked. Paul Scruggs brought the ball up the floor and handed to Nate Johnson. Johnson worked right into a pass to Adam Kunkel. Kunkel passed back to Scruggs and then ran the same action that go him the game winner against Marquette last year. Scruggs drove right and then realized that Justin Moore and Collin Gillespie had run into each other. As the rest of the team set, Paul went to his dominant left hand and blew past Moore. It was a moment of opportunism that got him all the way to the rim where contact could have been called. (It would have been a soft call.)

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Xavier
You can’t ask for a better look
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, Scruggs missed. Jack Nunge watched in despair as the ball bounced off of him multiple times before Moore corralled it. There was time left for X to still get back in the game, but Nova’s ludicrous free throw shooting finished off the game. Xavier cut it to two one more time, but it wasn’t to be.

Almost immediately, cries went up that this was Travis Steele’s fault. Scruggs had gone too early, Xavier had played conservatively, and “100%” of Xavier fans would have preferred a single three point shot for the win. That last claim is absurd, but there is some merit to breaking down the vital decision. Here are the factors that led to that call.

Game situation

Xavier’s defense had been in lockdown mode since the ten minute mark in the second half. At that point X was down 12 and should have been out of the game. Nova scored just ten points the rest of the way, four of them on free throws after the Scruggs layup miss. Villanova had made just two field goals in the last 9:51 of game play. A runner by an Collin Gillespie, and a jumper by Justin Moore. Xavier was coming off two straight stops.

Villanova’s defense, meanwhile, was leaking at the seams. Since that ten minute mark Xavier had scored 16 points and on four of their last five possessions. (The miss being the Colby Jones live drive three that came up short.) Paul Scruggs was playing exceptionally well and had not turned the ball over all game. Much as we discussed on the podcast and Twitter, come winning time the ball was in Paul’s hands.

Game theory

There are two ways to play this situation.

The first is the way that happened. Whether Coach Steele told his team to go quickly, told them to take the first good look, or Scruggs just took advantage of the defensive miscue, Xavier shot with over 16 seconds left in the game. The thinking behind that is that on a make you are putting the game back on the shoulders of your defense, knowing that Nova will go at seven and if you grab a board you can use your last timeout to set up a game winning play.

If, as did happen, you miss after going early you can continue to extend the game. Foul with 16 to play and Nova has to be perfect from the line and hope you don’t make a three. Xavier, unfortunately, didn’t attempt a three pointer after Moore made both free throws. Villanova, to their credit, was nails at the line all night. Sometimes you tip your cap.

The other option is to hold the ball for the last shot. Here you are basically playing one time for the win. It’s a tacit admission that you don’t think your team will get a stop or be able to play with Villanova in overtime. If this is the case you hold the ball until about seven seconds and send Paul then. You either get to the rim for the tie or look for one shot for the win. If you miss, it’s curtains. This is the high risk, reward option.


Personally, I like the call to go early last night. Xavier had the momentum, had turned Nova over twice in the last two minutes, and had allowed two field goals in the last quarter of the game. If Scruggs ties it, you clamp down on defense again, get your stop, and hope for your chance to win with two or three seconds left on the clock. Otherwise, you ride the momentum and the home crowd in overtime against a team that is down to five players.

Ultimately, either call is the right one of the shot falls. Unfortunately, the shots weren’t falling for Xavier yesterday. If the Musketeers had just made two of the wide open looks they missed, if they had even just made two of the ten layups they missed, none of this would matter. They didn’t though, and that left the ball in Paul Scruggs hands with 28 seconds to play.