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Game Recap: Xavier Continues Defensive Struggles in Loss to Villanova

Xavier surrendered 53 second half points in the loss.

James Bell was left in the left corner multiple times in the rout
James Bell was left in the left corner multiple times in the rout
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in many games, Xavier was locked in on the defensive end for a half of basketball; limiting #6 Villanova to 28 points in a high paced first half. The Musketeers were aided by a pair of missed dunks and free throws, but shut down easy scoring opportunities for the home team in the first 20 minutes. However, Xavier was unable to marry a good offensive output to their defensive effort, turning the ball over 11 times a first half that saw Chris Mack’s team manage a putrid 0.64 points per possession. In the second stanza, the Musketeers reverted back to the team they have been in conference play; a team that cannot string together defensive stops. Villanova scored 53 second half points en route to a dominating 81-58 win on Monday night.

The most telling stat of Xavier’s second half defensive lapse was their two point defense. Villanova made 14 of their 20 2-point attempts in the second half, while rebounding 3 of their six 2-point misses. Thus, when the home team attempted a 2-pointer in the second 20 minutes, there was an 85% chance they would either score or maintain possession. Furthermore, 10 of Villanova’s 14 second half 2-pointers were either dunks (5), layups (4), or tip shots (1).

Allowing that many easy buckets simply comes down to not having pride in shutting down the opponent. Chris Mack’s pack-line system ideally invites opponents to shoot contested jump shots, meaning defense is compacted to the paint, with defenders moving as a unit to limit opportunities inside. Monday’s performance was the complete opposite of what pack line defense should pride itself on, and Xavier needs to play with more intensity on the defensive end in order to turn around their struggles.

Part of the issue defensively may lie with Xavier’s personnel. The Musketeers do not have a power forward that can guard multi-dimensional forwards such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Providence’s LaDontae Henton, St. John’s Jakarr Sampson, or Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston. Pinkston was the latest "stretch 4" to have success against the Musketeers; converting 3 first half triples en route to 11 points in the game. Isaiah Philmore is the man assigned to guard players like Pinkston, and does not have the lateral quickness to play fundamental defense without fouling players that have multiple scoring threats.

On the perimeter, Xavier’s guards are not tall enough to contest three point jumpers from opposing guards. After Justin Martin was relegated to the bench with four fouls at the 17:41 mark of the second half, 6 foot 2 freshman Myles Davis entered the game to guard Villanova’s 6 foot 6 senior James Bell. Bell responded by torching the Musketeers to the tune of 21 second half points, converting on 5 shots from behind the arc. Several teams in the Big East –Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova- have multiple starting guards taller than 6 foot 5 that can create matchup nightmares for Xavier when Martin or Semaj Christon head to the bench.

Ultimately, Chris Mack needs to choose an identity for his team’s defense. Will they be a true pack-line team, allowing teams to shoot from the perimeter? Or will they extend defense, creating havoc outside the 3-point line with potential to give up inside looks? Against Villanova, Xavier did neither, getting torched from inside and out in the second half. In desperation mode, Mack even implemented a new run-and-jump press, which ended up looking more like a run-and-leave-James-Bell-open-in-the-left-corner press.

Granted, Villanova is a talented offensive team all around, but the key to beating them is completely shutting off one offensive option. In 32 possessions in Monday’s second half, the home team scored a staggering 53 points – indicating that no offensive option was limited.

Xavier has now made it through the first round of their double round robin Big East schedule. In order to be in consideration for an at-large NCAA berth, another 5-4 record will likely need to occur. This task becomes more difficult, as home games against Creighton and Villanova will make defending the Cintas Center home court more difficult. In order to win 5 of their final 9 conference matchups, the Musketeers need to rediscover their defensive identity.

The team showed they have lock down potential earlier this season, forcing long field goal droughts in games against Alabama, Wake Forest, and St. John’s. Saturday’s home game against Providence could set the tone for the rest of the season. One thing is for sure; Xavier will not win many games in which 15% of opponent's 2-point field goals result in a defensive rebound.