That was an absolute blast. I don’t know what Fox Sports would charge for all-access every game, but I’d likely pay it. Hearing the coaches work their players, work the refs, and confer with their staffs was excellent. Adam Kunkel attempted to steal the show by never stopping talking, but it was the two coaches who grabbed the headlines. It was a strategist against a systems guy, and both demonstrated why what they do works in a game that Xavier almost ran away with, then had to hang on to win.
Sean Miller is an amazing coach
Travis Steele was a good coach, Mike Anderson is a good coach, Nate Odom is a good coach, Sean Miller is on a different plane. Three minutes into the game he called out the offensive set the Red Storm were running as the ball crossed half court. That’s elite recognition and communication. Late in the game Xavier needed a bucket badly and Miller had called “Stack 3” before the refs needlessly checked the monitors on a ball clearly off Andre Curbelo. As his team huddled, Miller walked out to them to confer. Someone suggested a different set and Miller responded with, “you guys can run Stack Spread?” Seeing the affirmation he wanted, he changed the call, offered some instruction, and watched Jack Nunge score a huge bucket. That’s great communication as well.
The difference in Sean Miller that was so evident in the Matt Norlander article was also obvious tonight. Miller cajoled, criticized, fired his team up, calmed them down, clowned a little bit, listened to a very chirpy Adam Kunkel, and did it all with a slightly calmer demeanor than before. The ragged edge that he had has been honed by experience, and the way he constantly listened and encouraged while then dealing out excellent basketball advice and coaching was just plain fun to watch. The F bombs still flew, but you can tell that his team respects him completely and that he cares for them right back.
Jack Nunge is still the silent killer
Nunge went for 23/11/3 tonight on 10-14 from the floor. St. John’s just had no answer for Xavier’s big man. The SJU zone gave Xavier trouble, but Nunge was active against it and when the ball went inside, he converted.
Souley Boum is a louder killer
I have no reason to think Sean Miller heard Mike Anderson say that he didn’t think Boum could play all 40, but Miller let his senior point guard handle the load. Boum wasn’t as excellent as he can be, a weird thing to say about a guy who posted 17/5/6, but he crushed the Red Storm down the stretch from the line, where he was 8-8 from the game. The last guy that nails from the free throw stripe was seated behind Xavier’s bench, and he must have loved what he saw.
Colby Jones struggled
Colby went for 7/6/4 and turned the ball over five times. With 5:10 to play, Miller implored him to rise to the challenge and not come out. With 4:39 to play, he came out. Jones is a great player who even on an off night can post that line and throw in three steals, but he never looked remotely comfortable tonight.
Mike Anderson is a good coach
Anderson was taking a ton of grief on Twitter for not coaching the same way Sean Miller does. He didn’t spend a lot of time on a white board, he didn’t break down much of what Xavier was doing, he just reminded his players of their principles and doggedly preached on them. That seemed laughable to a few when St. John’s was down 18, probably significantly less so when they cut it to five and Xavier was clinging on.
Anderson is a system coach who trusts his system and knows it will get the job done. In a career that has lasted longer than KenPom’s records, Anderson has landed a team under 80th just once and taken UAB to the Sweet 16 and Missouri to the Elite 8. Tonight, he knew his guys would make it a game if they executed their principles for 40 minutes. If Andre Curbelo hadn’t been awful, Anderson might have been the coach getting interviewed after the game.
Adam Kunkel is hilarious
The dude just does not stop talking. He talks while he plays, he talks on the way to huddles, he talks in the huddle, he talks on the way out of the huddle, and I assume he talks on the bus and plane rides. At one point a mildly bemused Coach Miller told him, “AK you gotta let me go here.” Kunk responded in the affirmative while Dante Jackson laughed in the background. Kunkel reads the game well already, and it’s clear his teammates like and trust him. He will either be a good coach or a great commentator sometime in the future.
This was never going to be easy
St. John’s in the Carnesecca is no joke, even if all the students aren’t there. The last two major conference teams that SJU played at home were a decent Nebraska team (that has beaten Creighton this year) and DePaul and the Red Storm beat them by a combined total of 39. It’s loud, St. John’s is frenetic, and there are no gimme Big East games this side of Washington DC. Q2 road wins matter and this was a good one.