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Nate Johnson’s slump is becoming concerning

Xavier won last night without their sharpshooter, but that won’t happen often.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Johnson is in a serious slump. From the DePaul game on, he’s shooting 6-27 (22%) from behind the arc. During that same time he’s 2-11 inside the arc. Subtract the Creighton game and that becomes 1-20 and 2-8. Those are not the numbers of the best shooter on the team, but they are the numbers Nate is putting up right now. Can Xavier win against real competition with Johnson stuck in this rut? That remains to be seen.

For starters, this is the worst slump of Johnson’s career. In his sophomore season he closed with a 4-21 stretch that is comparable. In his junior year he only had one game in which he didn’t make a three and had two games where he made eight. He did finish the season 10-31. Last year Nate didn’t slump seriously at all until he injured his leg. It seems unfair to count playing injured against him. In short, this is a level of struggle with which Nate isn’t familiar.

Prior to last night, the way Nate shot the ball tended to be the way Xavier’s games went. In Xavier’s losses, he’s 7-29 (24.1%) from behind the arc; in wins, he’s 41-90 (45%). The fact that last night was Butler has a lot to do with why Nate could go 0-5, and the team could got 3-17, from deep and still win. Butler is not a good team.

One conclusion that could lead you to is that Nate Johnson is a flat track bully. Call him the Romelu Lukaku of three point shooters. If Johnson just preys on bad teams that would explain the late season fade and his current issues. Almost the exact opposite is true. Nate has taken 49 threes this year against what KenPom categorizes Tier A teams. He’s made 22 of those for a casual 44.9%. Last season Nate’s percentage did drop against the tougher competition of the Big East, but again, that can largely be attributed to playing injured.

So what, exactly, is the issue right now? That’s hard to say. Johnson is clearly a confidence player. Once one shot dropped against Creighton, he took off. As he kept missing last night his teammates were constantly slapping him on the back and telling him to keep shooting. It’s obvious that Xavier knows that Johnson plays best when confident and are trying to keep him confident. Nate said as much in a chat with the excellent Adam Baum.

One other thing that has changed, if only marginally, is that Nate is finding his own three point shot a little bit more this year. He is by no means one of those guys who is dribbling into shots or trying dead leg threes, but he is taking about 4% more of his three point attempts off the dribble or his own move this season. That reflects not so much Xavier’s offense changing as opponents recognizing that a catching and shooting Nate Johnson can be deadly.

Fixing this issue is both difficult and deceptively simple. Nate just needs to see a couple go in. That’s why he was shooting free throws last night despite Zach Freemantle’s hilarious campaigning that he should be doing it. Shooters feel better when they see the ball go through the hoop. To that end, expect to see Xavier run early action to Nate on Saturday. He is not usually someone that the offense runs through, but rather a beneficiary of ball movement and rotation. Against DePaul he’ll likely get a couple of early sets to try to find his own shooting rhythm.

Ultimately, Nate Johnson has to make shots for Xavier to beat big teams. Winning against Butler is one thing, an MSG matchup against Villanova in March is entirely different. Hopefully by then Johnson will have cured his ills and gone back to being Xavier’s sharpshooting weapon.

Freemantle really wants those easy points.