Forget North Carolina, Kentucky, or even Oklahoma — Xavier may be the nation’s top team in 2016.
The Musketeers, still undefeated after a double-digit rout of Auburn this weekend, have also beaten Dayton, Cincinnati and Michigan by massive margins, and the combination of a versatile offense and an aggressive, lock-down defense has Xavier on the cusp of what could be a very special season.
Per Ken Pomeroy, the Musketeers are projected to lose just one game during the rest of its slate — against Villanova — and should coach Chris Mack’s squad continue this momentum, Xavier is destined to grab a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Other than Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook, most of Xavier returns from the 2015 squad, so what has helped separate this team from years past?
Lineup versatility: Mack was on the forefront of deploying a small-ball lineup. The team’s most frequently used lineup, according to Ken Pom, relies on one player taller than 6-foot-6 — Jalen Reynolds, a 6-foot-10 junior big. Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett are both 6-6, and their interchangeability allows Xavier to switch on perimeter ball screens and presents offensive mismatches, which XU exploits with aplomb.
The Musketeers typically play only one traditional big: James Farr often comes off the bench to sub for Reynolds, and a lineup with both Farr and Reynolds has been used just 2.4 percent of the team’s possessions in the past five games. But because the other four Musketeers are interchangeable, Mack can tinker with different lineups that afford the team ever-changing possibilities. This is most evident defensively.
Perfect pack-line. The pack-line defense originated with Dick Bennett, and though it is most often associated with his son, Tony, at Virginia, the pack-line has long been utilized at Xavier. Mack’s 2016 version is particularly stingy. The pack-line forces perimeter shots, as players help defend the gaps and keep the ball out of the paint. Xaiver has the ideal lineup for such a defense.
Because the guards can constantly switch around the three-point line, it’s difficult for opponents to get an edge and penetrate the lane. Xavier’s defensive three-point field goal attempts percentage (41.4 percent) is one of the nation’s highest, as teams are forced to take ill-advised, and well-closed out, threes. And they usually don’t make many, just 30.4 percent.
Xavier’s guards also all have quick hands, capable of jarring an opponent’s dribble and generating turnovers. More than 20 percent of the Musketeers’ defensive possessions result in a giveaway in 2016, which is the most ever for a Mack-coached squad. Remy Abell, who transferred from Indiana with a reputation as a defensive stopper, isn’t the sole disrupter. JP Macura, a 6-5 wing, struggled with injuries a year ago, but as the team’s first guard option off the bench he has excelled at frustrating opponents, posting the team’s second best steal rate.
When an opponent does manage to break through Xavier’s shell and weave into the interior, Reynolds and Farr are not only capable rim protectors — both have block rates of more than five percent — they keep teams from accumulating any extra possessions. Xavier’s defensive rebounding rate ranks second nationally, and its just as hard to score over Xavier’s perimeter defense as it is to score off a carom. Again, Xavier’s lineup versatility plays an integral role — since his freshman year in 2015, Mack has stressed Bluiett needed to be a factor on the defensive glass, and the wing now grabs 22.2 percent of those boards, a vast improvement from a year ago. This allows Mack to tinker and use essentially a four-guard lineup.
Hit the glass at both ends: Despite an offensive efficiency rating (1.13 points per possession) that ranks within the top 20 of KenPom’s database, Xavier’s offense isn’t that pretty. The team doesn’t take many threes — just a third of their overall attempts — though it is proficient from deep (37 percent). But when XU ventures inside the three-point line, the percentages for both two-point field goals and shots at the rim (per Hoop-Math.com) drop precipitously.
Farr and Reynolds are the only two Musketeers to convert more than 55 percent of their shots at the rim, and the team’s percentage around the bucket ranks second to last in the Big East.
But what has really buoyed the team’s efficiency is its relentless pursuit of offensive rebounds. The team grabs 40 percent of their misses, and Farr and Reynolds, in particular, are the most effective at crashing the glass, and the duo uses their length and superb body control to outmaneuver and outmuscle opposing bigs from the ball’s trajectory, scoring 1.07 points per board.
Xavier is not a program you’d normally associate with the nations elite, but some of its best players Bluiett, Reynolds and Myles Davis have all been national names since they arrived on campus. Add in the growth of Edmond Sumner and Farr, however, and you can see how the Musketeers have attained a top-ten ranking and zero losses through late December. If they keep up their level of play, there’s no reason to think they can’t seriously compete for the national championship this season.
Blue bloods, beware.