Xavier is in position to win the regular season title for the first time since the formation of the new Big East. However, this team has even bigger goals for this season. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Sean O’Mara have made it to three consecutive NCAA tournaments – making it as far as the Elite 8 last season.
This season, they want nothing short of an NCAA Championship.
The Musketeers are having their best offensive season under Head Coach Chris Mack – ranking 5th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. However, as the graphic below shows, they have struggled on the defensive end similar to the other offensive powerhouses.
Yet, of these teams, Xavier’s defensive issues may be the easiest to fix.
Their struggles are personnel related. They recently promoted Kerem Kanter to the starting lineup, but the move has come with awful defensive results. The graphic below shows the on-court metrics for the rotation players over the last 11 games.
Opponents shot 69% from 2 with Kanter on the floor during this span, which led to the worst defensive PPP on the team. He is the only rotation player with a negative NetRtg.
Over the last 11 games, they’ve made the defensive problem worse. Not only does Kanter start, but he is playing 4.3 more minutes now than he was before this stretch. Kanter’s minute increase has been funded by the two players who can least afford playing time cuts – Kaiser Gates and O’Mara.
O’Mara and Gates are much better defensive options, as the numbers suggest, and they need to get both on the floor as much as possible. Gates leads the team with a +.15 NetRtg and his impact on his teammates' performance is incredible.
Gates is built for today’s game – a small ball 4, who is shooting 39% from beyond the arc this season. Defensively, he does a really good job switching on ball screens and his length and athleticism helps him contest shots.
Chris Mack should rebuild his lineup starting with the 3 highest players in NetRtg over the last 11 games – Gates, O’Mara, and Quentin Goodin. This trio only played together for 14% of the possessions, but the results were remarkable, especially on defense.
Add in Bluiett, a likely All-American, to play the 2-guard spot. The final spot becomes an option for Chris Mack between Macura and Naji Marshall. This lineup, with the flexibility of Macura/Marshall, remains a strong lineup on the defensive end allowing just .94 PPP.
Compare the lineups. The decision isn’t even close.
To get better overall, Xavier needs to sacrifice slightly on the offensive end to see large gains defensively. With these changes, they will be better equipped to make a tournament run.
However, to win an NCAA Championship, teams need to be able to win close games. Xavier does just that. In their first 16 games, they beat their opponents by an average of +14.9 points per game. But, during the last 11 games, they won by only +4.6 points. They're 9-2 in that span.
It helps to have a clutch scorer. During the 11-game stretch, Bluiett has been ridiculously good in crunch time (last 10 minutes of games within 10 points + overtime).
These numbers include this game saving 4-point play against Georgetown…
… and this dagger against Butler the following game:
It also helps to have a team full of good free throw shooters. In the final 5 mins of the games that are within 4 points, Xavier is shooting 82% from the FT line. They know how to end games.
If they make the changes to get better defensively, this could be the team to beat.