It has not gone unnoticed that Coach Chris Mack’s teams tend to improve as the season goes on. Peaking at the right time has helped Mack reach three Sweet Sixteens in his six years, including guiding last year’s team that seemed destined for the bubble to a late season surge and a spot once again in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament bracket.
The biggest difference down the stretch for last year’s team was on defense. Early on the team struggled, Matt Stainbrook was a liability in pick-and–roll situations, JP Macura couldn’t stay in front of anyone and even excellent on-ball defender Remy Abell was often out of position and didn’t grasp the idea of team defense. Over the course of the year the team improved not only by the use of a unique 1-3-1 defense but also by learning to work together on defense.
So far this season Xavier ranks 6th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to KenPom. It would be easy to assume that this is primarily the result of moving on from the immobile Stainbrook and diminutive Dee Davis, but it’s much more about team than individuals and about basketball IQ rather than size and speed.
From the beginning of the season it has been apparent that this team understands where they are supposed to be and how to play together. Try watching the players not guarding the ball on defense. They move as one, shading over to help each other and rotating seamlessly so that when one Musketeer leaves his man to help on the ball, the next Musketeer "helps the helper" leaving only long and difficult passes that allow the defense time to recover.
This kind of team defense has always been Mack’s goal. It is how the "Pack Line" defense is supposed to work and why it is so effective at Virginia and Arizona where it has been played best in recent years.
The mastery of Mack’s coaching job is not just seen in the strength of Xavier’s team defense. The true brilliance is that, having grasped and executed the fundamental principles of the defensive system so early, it has freed up time in practice to add little wrinkles to what Xavier does, making them even more of a challenge to face. Each game it seems Mack has added something new.
For instance, so far this year we have seen the occasional addition of a new defense on under-the-basket out-of-bounds plays (which Mack has implemented once or twice in the past but never so early in the season). In this defense he puts two long armed big men both on the in-bounder. In most cases the result is throwing the ball all the way into the back court, killing a few seconds and eliminating the chance of a cleverly designed play. The other possibility is to pass into the corner where Xavier immediately double teams the ball and has caused turnovers.
Another wrinkle has been "soft-doubling" the post. In the soft-double, a guard or wing harasses the post man shortly after he catches the ball by stepping towards him and slapping at the ball if he brings it down. But the defender does not commit all the way to a real double team. If you are not really solid in your rotations defensively this is a great way to get caught in between guarding two players and in effect guarding neither. Xavier has done it effectively to make life difficult for post men and without giving up good looks when they pass out of the post.
Most recently in the Auburn game, Xavier added to its versatility by showing they could be effective with a bigger lineup. Most of the season Xavier has played small with 6-foot-6 Trevon Bluiett at the power forward and only one true post player. Against Auburn, Xavier went big, playing around half the game with two post players on the floor together. In the process Xavier brought back some of last year’s tricks that we hadn’t seen this year.
Xavier has been very effective using a cross-screen under the basket, entering the ball from the baseline to the low block and getting layups and dunks for their big men. While they continued to run that action against Auburn, they also used the second post player to pass "high to low" for easy dunks and layups.
The screens are set similarly down by the basket but by passing the ball to a tall post player around the foul line and having him pass the ball down low (as Matt Stainbrook did so well last year), it gives defense another look. It also helps Mack run his offense like clockwork with big or small lineups so he has flexibility in how the Musketeers matchup defensively.
The Musketeers have been very good so far this year but if Coach Mack can keep adding to the repertoire without skipping a beat on those fundamental things Xavier does well, this could be a special team and a particularly impressive coaching job.