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Defense or depth?

Xavier’s offense and coaching are elite, but the team isn’t without issues.

Xavier v Villanova
Pictured: almost half of Xavier’s rotation
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Xavier’s offense is verging on the incredible. The last time it was ranked this highly nationally the Musketeers were a one seed. There has been no time before that. Led by Souley Boum and Zach Freemantle, the Musketeers are up to seventh in the nation in efficiency. They are fourth in effective field goal percentage, fourth in three point shooting, 25th in two point shooting, and third in assists to field goals made.

I say all of that to somewhat cushion the blow that comes next. Xavier’s defense is not good. KenPom has them as 77th in the nation, Torvik has them as 92nd. Against the top 100 Xavier’s defense drops to 134th. Their effective field goal percentage defense is 177th and their three point defense is 297th. They don’t force turnovers (221st) or block shots (124th) particularly well either.

Xavier is also not a deep team. They get near as makes no difference a quarter of their minutes from the bench. That’s 309th in the nation. The rotation is the five starters, Jerome Hunter, and Desmond Claude. Kyky Tandy is averaging 12 minutes per game, but that is heavily bolstered by his stint as a starter in November. Since then he has played a total of 20 minutes spread across eight Xavier games. (Kam Craft has played 22 minutes in that span but hasn’t played in four straight.)

Both of those things are a concern. When it came right down to it, Xavier could not get the stops to see off Gonzaga or Indiana after putting themselves in position to win both games. Georgetown’s offense is 148th in the nation and still got X for 1.16 points per possession. When it comes to depth the issue is obvious. Xavier has notably tired at the end of games. There are also at least 15 games left on the schedule, the Big East tournament, and hopefully the NCAA tournament. That’s a long way to go when your second big man off the bench right now is averaging 3.7 minutes per game.

Xavier’s defensive woes start and end with the guards. Souley Boum has been an absolute revelation for Xavier this year, but he’s not a good on ball defender. Neither is the irrepressible Adam Kunkel. Colby Jones is better, but he frequently draws a forward. Des Claude is solid, but he comes with serious restrictions on the offensive end. That leaves Xavier in a position where they can either play their guards off or get caught in rotation. Either leaves the opportunity for either quick drives or rotation for three pointers.

That leads to numbers. Xavier allows 33.8% of field goal attempts against them from behind the arc and 31% of the points against them from there as well. That second number is solidly in the lower half in the nation and is a reflection of the issues that come from a scramble. Xavier does not have a single player with a DPBR over one and only two with a defensive efficiency under 90. Among the ten best lineups in the nation Xavier’s is second in offensive efficiency, the only one over 100 in defensive efficiency. The defense is bad.

Is it bad enough to be a long term concern? Probably, yes. Looking at teams with similar resumes gives you this chart: (data lifted from Bart Torvik’s incredible site).

Xavier 2023 117.1 97.9 72.5 - 5 ???
Iowa 2014 121.7 99.9 68.9 4.1 11 R68
BYU 2015 120 102.4 70.2 5.2 11 R68
Oklahoma 2014 118.7 100.2 69.6 5.3 5 R64
Iowa St. 2013 118.3 99.8 68.2 5.4 10 R32
Iowa St. 2015 119.1 98.2 69.2 5.4 3 R64
Oregon 2014 118.7 100.7 67.3 5.5 7 R32
Indiana 2012 121.2 98.2 66.6 5.6 4 R16
California 2010 120.4 97.8 66.8 5.8 8 R32
TCU 2018 119.8 100.8 68.8 5.8 6 R64
Seton Hall 2018 118.2 98.6 69.5 6.1 8 R32

Teams that play defense like Xavier does now tend to earn high seeds but be prone to upset.

In terms of depth, Xavier could use one more player in the rotation. Kam Craft is high energy on the glass and defense but prone to serious mistakes offensively. Cesare Edwards is very much a work in progress. Dieonte Miles is a great defender but useless on offense. Kyky Tandy plays, but generally only in the first half. Teams can win with little depth, Kansas got 24.8% of their minutes from the bench last season, but it requires that they don’t make mistakes and get lucky with injury.

All of that brings us back to the other elite thing Xavier has going for them: the coach. Sean Miller turned a crap offense last season into this one we see right now. He’s the best in game coach the Musketeers have ever had. In the last 10 games he’s even shown signs of fixing the defense, which is 53rd in the nation. That’s not good yet, but it’s better. With this offense and Sean Miller, Xavier has a chance to be great. To do that, they’ll have to improve on defense and find just a bit more depth.