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How hard is it to make a layup?

Xavier’s offensive struggles recently have centered around their inability to make the easiest of shots.

Xavier v Marquette
Nate Johnson taking a low percentage shot
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

“I could make that” is the common refrain of the American sports watching aficionado. Whether “that” is an uncontested three or short jumper, a simple swing pass to the flat, or the throw from second base to first, it’s hard to watch a sporting event live without hearing someone loudly bemoan that they could, indeed, do the thing that the high level athlete cannot.

This is nonsense, of course, given that most fans have probably never played in front of a crowd that wasn’t composed largely of parents of the participants and almost none of them have ever tried to do anything while being chased/jumped at/in the presence of a 6-6, 230 pound freak of nature. Just getting into position to make the “easy play” is anything but easy.

But then you come to Xavier’s current archenemy, the layup. According to Merriam-Webster, a layup is “a shot in basketball made from near the basket usually by playing the ball off the backboard.” It doesn’t mention it in there, but a layup is easy. You really could do that. You may not be Steph Curry, but when it comes to making layups, you can probably do roughly as well as he does.

This changes in a game, of course. Quite rudely, Xavier’s recent opponents have insisted on not just watching while Xavier players try to play the ball off the backboard. Still, it’s a two foot shot. Scoring gets no easier in basketball unless you are blessed with the ability to, Walker Kessler like, simply dunk everything. Grab your shoes, your bag, and your old man game and head down to the YMCA and you’ll see people finishing layups through contact.

So why, in the name of everything holy, does it seem like this simple task has become so difficult for Xavier? By Bart Torvik’s aggregated shot chart numbers, the rough average in shots at the rim, including dunks, is somewhere between 61% and 63%. Go above 67% and you are really adding value in your attempts near the rim. Dip below 57% and you are not as effective. Those are the simple numbers.

Xavier’s team percentage for the year is bang on 63%. Not good, not bad, just right in the middle. You can win games with that. That makes Xavier’s recent struggles all the more maddening. In conference play, that number dips to 58.9%. In the last four games it is 52.8%. 52.8% on shots that come at the rim is a staggeringly bad number. Were that an individual player you might counsel said person to get away from the rim because he clearly lacks the size there to be effective.

That isn’t the case with Xavier, though. Against Marquette it was Jack Nunge missing two layups. Against Villanova Zach Freemantle somehow missed all three he attempted and Colby Jones was only 1-3. In that Marquette game the guards combined to go 8-17, with only Adam Kunkel making half of his attempts. The less said about Jerome Hunter near the rim during this stretch, the better.

This also puts paid to the idea that the offense is somehow not being coached well. In conference play the Musketeers have had four games in which they had 20 or more looks at the rim from in close. That is very good offense and a sign that players are getting open in dangerous positions. What Xavier isn’t doing is making those simple looks. In games where the Musketeers take 20 or more layups, they are still only shooting 58.3%. That’s not good enough for a team built around two very good post players.

Why Xavier is missing those shots is a little more difficult to suss out. In conference play 11.5% of their shot attempts have been blocked. It’s safe to assume most of those are near the rim. In total the Musketeers have had 29 shots blocked in conference play, 38% of those by Kur Kuath and Ryan Kalkbrenner. In the three games that the Musketeers have come up against those two dominant shot blockers, they have shot 55% on layups. Two of those three games have come in the last four game stretch where X is struggling at the rim.

So shot blocking is an issue, but not the entire problem. Zach Freemantle is at a serviceable 67.6% for the year from in close, but that is a very serious drop off from the 75.9% he shot last season. Jack Nunge is at 71.4% for the season but has struggled in the last four. Simply put, X is just not executing at the rim right now and their highest usage players are the most significant offenders.

Fixing this issue doesn’t seem like a significant problem. Stay away from Kur Kuath and Ryan Kalkbrenner, hope Zach Freemantle regresses to his mean, and keep getting good looks. Just a game ago the Musketeers were 14-20 in close against DePaul. That’s 70%. Do that and the cries of “I could make that” will start to slow.