Since Xavier came back from their 17-day break imposed by covid (in other programs), Muskies games have fallen into a familiar rhythm. Start off incredibly slowly, wake up late in the first half, battle to dig out of an early hole, hope to have enough gas left in the tank to finish late. Other than a perfunctory beating of Butler, each game has followed that basic pattern. X came up just short against Villanova, outlasted Creighton in a shootout, just held on against DePaul, and failed to survive at Marquette and against Providence.
A pattern has no doubt developed here. The question is, how does Xavier break it?
The answer, of course, is Adam Kunkel.
The number one problem right now is that Xavier is flat to start games. From scoring 17 points in the first 16 minutes against Nova to falling behind Providence 28-14, the team has consistently underperformed its potential in the early portions of contests, leaving a hole to climb out of late on. Kunkel is a live wire. It would be an exaggeration to pretend that everything he touches turns to gold, but it all turns to something. His presence injects energy into a game, and that's not a luxury Xavier can afford to bring off the bench right now.
There's also the question of outside shooting, particularly that Xavier doesn't have any right now and desperately needs some. Kunkel is second on the team in made threes and three-point percentage, and he leads the team in both categories in Big East play. Barring the discovery of an extra year of eligibility for Brad Redford, Kunkel is Xavier's best option as a shooter.
He's also an excellent offensive player in general. He's very active on and off the ball, not allowing the defense a moment's peace. He's a true three level scorer, hitting 42% of his shots from the mid-range in addition to his prowess at the rim and from deep. He leads the team in 2P% in league play and is the fifth most efficient offensive player in the Big East. He has a 5.5:1 A:TO in Big East play. Heck, he has a 3.5:1 steal to turnover ratio in the league. The man just never turns it over.
There are drawbacks; I'm not going to sit here and pretend he's infallible. Chief among those is defense. Kunkel passes the defensive eye test for me, but his numbers don't compare favorably to Nate Johnson's. According to EvanMiya.com, the team is about a bucket better defensively per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor than it is with Kunkel. There are other numbers available, including DBPR, where Johnson is significantly better, and box DBPR, where Kunkel actually comes out slightly ahead. Individual defensive contributions are difficult to parse out in basketball, so pick whatever stat supports your preconceived notions and run with it.
Nate Johnson is an excellent player, but he's clearly in a shooting slump and Xavier needs offense from the two guard spot. Shaking up the lineup to get Kunkel into the starting five will inject immediate energy into a portion of the game where Xavier desperately needs it, and coming off the bench might be the change Johnson needs to find his form. I don't know that starting Kunk is the perfect solution, but it's worth a try to restart Xavier's sputtering offense.