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How Xavier learned to love playing man and stop playing zone

The Musketeer’s defensive shakeup has been pivotal in the team’s success.

St John's v Xavier Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

An electric 5-foot-7 YouTube sensation comes first. Then, potentially a 6-foot-10 small forward who’s considered one of the best scorers in a decade of college hoops.

After defensive liabilities plagued them last year, No. 1 seed Xavier has the tools to limit Texas Southern guard Demontrae Jefferson, an aggressive scorer who averages 23 a game, and Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., a definite Top 10 pick this June.

“As I told them, our season will end if we don’t make good decisions with the basketball and we don’t defend at a high level,” Chris Mack said. “Got to have guys that have the DNA to get it done.”

Last season, with an 8-man rotation and no depth on the perimeter, the Musketeers didn’t have the numbers or the explosiveness to suffocate their opponents on the defensive end. The Musketeers had four perimeter players who were forced into playing at every position.

Forward Kaiser Gates said they needed to play zone because they all struggled keeping their assignments in front of them. When the Musketeers did play man, freshman Quentin Goodin was the only one with a clearly defined responsibility– guarding the opposing team’s point guard.

“Last year we had a limited amount of guys and we weren’t as deep as we are now,” Tyrique Jones said. “We were able to play zone last year to keep guys out of foul trouble.”

According to Jones, the defense was more a necessity than a choice. A 2-3 kept the opponent away from the basket for a while, and then a 1-3-1 with Macura pestering the ball handler at the top of the key forced more turnovers. The chaos spurned NCAA Tournament upsets over Florida State and Arizona, who had length Xavier would have struggled containing, but Xavier couldn’t find an answer when Gonzaga hit 12 of 24 threes in the Elite 8.

So this offseason, the Musketeers started trying to transform themselves into a team that prevent opponents’ good shots as well as they can create them for themselves.

“Being in the top 50 defensive teams is what we’re trying to do this year,” Goodin said. “That’s what’s correlating with our wins… we’ve been winning a lot of games in man so I feel like we’re just gonna keep doing that.”

According to KenPom, offenses across the country have scored nearly a point more per possession this season. Xavier, though, has given up fewer points per possession than they did in 2017.

The catalyst for Xavier’s improvement on that end has been Naji Marshall, a freshman who’s been assigned threats like Jalen Brunson and Marcus Foster. In February, he held Brunson, the conference player of the year, to just 11 points, and he’ll likely be tasked with doing the same to Jefferson, who gained notoriety as a teenager with viral homemade highlight videos.

Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., who won MVP at last year’s McDonald’s All American Game, would be the toughest assignment he’ll face all season if the Tigers win their first round game against Florida State. And the Seminoles have three perimeter-oriented forwards who score in the double-digits that would demand attention from Xavier’s athletic forward. Defenders like Marshall never get a break.

He said Mack expects him to handle assignments that just last year would have made Xavier’s best defenders sweat.

“I think it’s different because I’m a little bit taller and have a different wingspan,” he said. “I just take on the challenge every night, ready to guard whoever.”

No matter what position they play.