As amusing as it was to watch Ryan Day and Ohio State once more spit the bit at Michigan, this is firmly college basketball season in my mind, The team in Ohio that matters at the moment is the Xavier Musketeers. Xavier, for the second year in a row, has started at 4-2. Last season at this time X was 32nd in the KenPom (after starting at 38th), this year they are 29th after starting at 34th. Things on the surface are much the same. It would be hard to blame any casual college basketball fan who looked and thought “same old Xavier.”
But this isn’t same old Xavier. This Musketeers team has gotten 193 minutes in six games from returning players. “Players” really isn’t even the word, because it has all come from Des Claude. At this point last season the only minutes from rotation guys that weren’t returning were 107 from Claude and 184 from Souley Boum. That’s how you go from 55th in minutes continuity to 343rd.
The one thing that remains the same is the head coach. You spend the money on Sean Miller to get games like St. Mary’s. Xavier desperately needed a win, they went out and grabbed a convincing one. The way the Musketeers are doing it is different, though.
Last year Xavier’s offense was amazing. They finished the year 8th in the nation. They had a game early where they scored 1.32 ppp. They put 1.14 past Gonzaga and obliterated Florida’s top 30 defense. In the seventh game, admittedly one after our comparison, four players went for double figures and Jack Nunge scored 25. The team was shooting 44% from behind the arc at that point.
This season X is shooting 31.6% behind the arc. Their offense isn’t awful, but it isn’t impressive. The Musketeers are 53rd in the nation in offensive efficiency, but none of their single category numbers is above 63rd. Their 306th in the nation in free throw shooting and turn the ball over 17% of the time. None of it, FT% aside, is shockingly bad, but this 4-2 start hasn’t been built on the back of good offense.
What has been excellent is Xavier’s defense. Right now, X is 18th in the nation defensively. Purdue is the only team to average more than a point per possession against them, and right now the Boilermakers are the top team in the nation, sport the fifth best offense, and have also beaten three straight top 10 teams. Allowing some points to them is not a serious concern. It also goes without saying that this year’s defense is better than last year’s. Last season after six game teams were averaging 1.01 ppp against Xavier. That includes games against Morgan St and Fairfield.
So the names have changed, the offense is worse, and the defense is better. Crucially, the coach is still the same and, true to his reputation, has found an entirely new way to win. The losses are equally acceptable this season as well. Xavier has dropped a Q1 and a game that will flirt with Q1 status all year. Last season the losses were Indiana and Gonzaga at this point. X just doesn’t drop the resume cripplers like FAU losing to Bryant (how?) or Michigan getting thumped by LBSU at home. There are no good losses, but some don’t hurt quite as much.
Getting through this stretch at 4-2 leaves Xavier in a good spot. No bad losses, one really good win, and some buy games add up to a decent start. X needs to throttle Oakland and then things get serious again when Houston comes to town to start December. (Sidebar: Xavier plays the teams ranked first, second, third, fifth in the KenPom this year.) Last year’s start was long forgotten by the time the Musketeers danced to the Sweet 16, but it told us a lot about how they would do it. This year the record is the same, but if the pattern of the start informing the end holds true, this Xavier team will go about things in a much different manner.