At the end of January, it looked like the sky was the limit for Xavier. At 17-5 and 9-2 in conference, they looked like they were poised to make a run at the league title and in contention for some kind of protected seed in the NCAA tournament, maybe even one close to home in Columbus.
Then something akin to disaster struck, as a team that went 7 deep lost a vital piece in Zach Freemantle. Freemantle was leading the team in rebounding and posting an astounding 15.2/8.1/2.9 game line on .585/.636/.653 shooting. In addition to his obvious statistical contributions, he was the guy Xavier could turn to to break a scoring drought and unquestionably the team’s best defensive rebounder. The move to put Jerome Hunter into the starting lineup was obvious; the impact it would have was distinctly less so.
First up would be a home Q1 game against a Providence team that was, at the time, ascendant. Without its best defensive rebounder against a team that lives on the offensive glass, Xavier shored up almost everything else, locking down Bryce Hopkins through a massive effort from Jerome Hunter, turning the ball over just 5 times in 45 minutes, and riding 23/14/3 from Jack Nunge to a dramatic overtime win.
It hasn’t been a run from strength to strength since then. Xavier has gone 6-3 without Freemantle, suffering losses to Butler and Marquette on the road and Villanova at home. After being 11th in the nation with 4 WAB accumulated through the end of January, they’re 49th in the country at just .5 WAB since then. In terms of results, they’ve been the very picture of a team treading water.
The results don’t tell the whole story though. Xavier has outscored its opponents by 74 points in those 9 games, an average of more than +8 PPG despite having lost 3 times. Those losses were by a combined 4 points: by 2 at Butler and then by 1 at Marquette and 1 home to Nova. Xavier didn’t win those games, but they didn’t look like a team floundering after losing an all-league player.
The most obvious adjustment has been through guys simply stepping up. Jerome Hunter leaps off the page; with Freemantle in, he was playing 15 minutes per game and averaging 6.1/3.4/1. In 9 games without Big Frosty, Rome has started 9 times, averaged 31 minutes per game, and put up 10.2/6.2/2.0 with an EFG% of .571. His ferocious defense against Bryce Hopkins was a harbinger of what he would unleash on big forwards unlucky enough to be his assignment down the stretch. More on that later.
Desmond Claude also saw a big jump in playing time and matched it with additional production. In 18 minutes per game, he had compiled a grim .378/.176/.476 shooting line on his way to 3.4/2.0/1.9 per game with 1.3 TO per for good measure. He has responded to an additional 7 minutes per game by throwing up a shooting line of .500/.571/1.000 and averaging 6.7/4.0/2.0 per game. His turnovers have risen from 1.3 per game to 1.4. Even Cesare Edwards, summoned from the depths of the bench that had him appearing in just 8 games all year, has responded to being pushed into the rotation for the last 9 games. He has played in all 9, averaging 10 minutes per and posting a respectable 2.8/2.4/0.8 game line. He has averaged a foul every 5 minutes, but he is visibly growing in confidence and the production is following.
From that modest collection of guys stepping up, Sean Miller has forged a team that is more than the sum of its parts. At the end of January, they were sitting 25th in the Torvik, with a scalding offense ranking 4th in the country dragging along a defense that was 112th. They basically couldn’t get stops, but they also kept pouring home points in almost every context. In the games played since then, they’ve been 12th in offensive efficiency, but their defensive mark has leapt from 112th to 56th. Not exactly the ‘85 Bears, but something resembling a respectable defense.
Oh, and in falling from 4th to 12th, the offense actually improved its adjusted efficiency from 117.6 to 120.2.
So.. how? Well first, it definitely hasn’t been addition by subtraction. You don’t improve your team by losing an all-Big East player.
What it has been is remarkable on the fly adjustment by the staff and team. Sean Miller has pulled the handbrake on the tempo, going from 73 possessions per game (15th) to 68 (136th). They went from averaging 18 threes per game to almost 22 with no loss of success rate. The two-point defense has improved significantly, from allowing teams to shoot 49.6% from inside the arc to 45.7%. Even the three-point defense has seen a marginal improvement, though I suspect it’s not statistically significant.
Even in Freemantle’s areas of strength, the Muskies have held their own. They’ve fallen from 8th to 12th in EFG%, though the number itself has slightly improved in that time. The movement in defensive rebounding percentage has been negligible as everyone has chipped in to replace the work Freemantle did on his own killing off possessions.
It’s never an ideal circumstance to lose a top player for any reason. Faced with that adversity, Xavier’s players have come together to execute a significantly altered game plan cobbled together on the fly by Sean Miller and his staff. This group is three buckets from being undefeated in 9 games without Freemantle; the ceiling remains high heading into tournament play.