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Should Xavier go small?

The Muskies have some interesting potential lineups available if they’re willing to get weird with it.

NCAA Basketball: Delaware at Xavier
I think I remember this dunk missing.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

There are some things we know about Xavier. One of them is that they’re not very good at scoring in the half court. The offense is currently 77th in the country in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom, dragged down by an atrocious 49.2% EFG%, which is 216th in the country. Of Big East teams, that ranks 10th out of 11.

In transition, however, they turn into the best shooting team in the nation. The Muskies get almost a third of their initial shot attempts in transition according to hoop-math.com, and they’re posting a delightful 60.9% EFG% in those shots, including 42.5% from beyond the arc. What they’re doing in the last 20 seconds of the shot clock isn’t working that well, but their work in transition is unimpeachable. So how to get more of that?

Put in dudes who play fast, obviously. Basketball is generally broken into posts, wings, and guards, delineations that are further broken down into so many further, more specific subsets that we aren’t going to go into them here. One thing that doesn’t get too much attention (in circles I run in, at any rate) is the distinction between guys who can play in transition and guys who don’t. Runners and lumberers, if you will.

For those of you who haven’t been watching Xavier or have reverse T-rex vision where you can only see things that aren’t in motion, I’ll quickly break down Xavier’s roster along these lines: Ousmane, Ciani, Nemeiksa, and Djokovic all lumber, though Djokovic less than the first three. Claude, Olivari, McKnight, Green, Swain, and Nzeh (whose foul problems and limited minutes mean I don’t really factor him into the below calculations) can run.

Xavier’s current lineup plans consist of three runners and two lumberers on the floor at any given time. Of the top ten five-man lineups in the last five games according to KenPom, only one featuring four runners - McKnight, Olivari, Claude, Swain, and Ousmane - has seen more than 5% of the available minutes. [Ed. note: as I think about it for even two seconds, I guess all lineups are five men and I didn’t need to make that distinction. Typing this note is less effort than restructuring that sentence though.] That lineup gets 11.4% of the minutes; every documented four-runner lineup in the top ten on KenPom adds up to under a quarter of Xavier’s minutes.

TL;DR: I get into the weeds of methodology a little bit below. The punch line is that it would take Xavier about three additional transition chances per game to make up for the defensive rebounding deficiency that would come from running a small lineup the whole game. If you don’t want to read the whole story of how I came to that conclusion and just want to scroll to the comments section or click out entirely, my feelings won’t be hurt. Just trying to save you a little bit of time, which is your most valuable and least renewable resource.

There are, of course, obvious drawbacks to this. The first place I wanted to look was defensive rebounding. The numbers on this aren’t going to be exactly precise, but they should come pretty close. Presuming Xavier keeps Abou at the 5, the 4 is occupied by Nemo, Ciani, or Djokovic. Those guys average about a 14% DReb%, which isn’t great. On the whole, Xavier is 273rd in the country in share of defensive rebounds coming from the PF.

So if the power forwards aren’t rebounding very well, what do we lose on the glass by pulling one? Well...

Xavier is averaging a raw tempo of 71.4 possessions per game. Teams are turning the ball over in 17% of those possessions and shooting 39.7% from the floor; that adds up to 35.7 misses per game. Teams have also missed 81 FT against Xavier, some of which have obviously been the first of two. Assuming 5 FT rebounds per game tracks pretty perfectly with the 40.7 rebounds on Xavier’s defensive end they’ve been averaging so far, so I’m comfortable assuming there are about 41 chances on Xavier’s defensive glass per game.

Xavier has curiously effective defensive rebounding guards. Olivari leads the way with a 13.9% DReb%, but McKnight (12.2%) and Claude (10.9%) aren’t far behind and certainly hold their own. Throw in Abou Ousmane and there’s more than half of the misses accounted for with DReb% already. That leaves about 18 missed shots up for grabs that need to be accounted for by either opponents getting offensive rebounds or Xavier’s PF grabbing the ball.

Sasa Ciani leads the remaining lumberers with a 16.5% DReb%; Trey Green is worst of the runners with a 6.6% mark. Everyone else left available to play the four in this thought experiment falls between those two. Doing all the math and extrapolating that out to a full game - and assuming everything else stays the same, which it obviously wouldn’t - swapping out the average defensive rebounding big guy for the average defensive rebounding little guy would cost Xavier almost exactly 1 additional attempt per game.

Assuming they’re all at the rim and teams continue to both shoot and turn the ball over on second chances at the same or similar rates they do overall, this change would cost X about 1 point a game on the glass, +/- for whatever adjustments to the assumptions that you deem fit.

How many transition possessions would it take Xavier to get that back?

Well, Xavier has shot 377-857 (44%) overall on the year; crunching out the threes and twos gets you to a 49.2% EFG%. Hoop-math.com says that just under a third of Xavier’s shots have come in transition, so I’m going to say 280 shot attempts. Of those, 36.4% have been threes, so 102 three-point attempts in transition, which leaves 178 two-pointers. The Muskies are shooting 42.5% from three in transition, which comes out to about 43-102. I’ve tortured the numbers until they screamed and come out with 106-178 from inside the arc in transition.

Take that, do a little subtraction that I’m not going to bore you with, and you come up with Xavier shooting .443/.280 from two/three in the half court and .596/.422 in transition. X’s EFG% is 43.5% in the half court and 60.9% in transition; in other words, a shot in transition is worth .35 points more than one in the half court for Xavier. To make back the gap given up on the offensive glass, the Muskies would need to find three additional shots in transition.

I know I said defensive rebounding would be the first place I’d look, but we’re already 1,000 words in and I have some stuff I still need to add back in above here, so I’m going to call it. The long and short of it is that Xavier is a bad defensive rebounding team already and that they could sacrifice more on that weakness to leverage a relative strength.

Should they do that? Like most things in a heavily interconnected system like basketball, it depends on what tradeoffs they’re willing to make and whatever secondary consequences migth develop. Would Xavier’s 31st-ranked two-point defense suffer? Would their 215th-ranked TO defense take a step forward? How would this affect the offense in the half court?

I don’t have the answers to those. What I do have is a ton of math that says Xavier could go to a small lineup and leverage increased tempo to make up for a relatively small decrease in efficiency on the defensive glass. UConn is a top-10 offensive rebounding team; maybe Xavier shouldn’t try it next time out. On the other hand, their defensive efficiency in the half court is leagues better than it is in transition, so maybe we’ll see more lineups pushing Dailyn Swain or Des Claude to the four than usual on Wednesday. Either way, I think going small is a valuable tool that Xavier can use in situations where they can get out and run.