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Hoops Preview: Xavier’s retooling — and still dangerous

The Musketeers promoted Travis Steele, returned a promising trio and hit the grad-transfer market hard. So far, though, the Big East power has grappled with bouts of inconsistency.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

When Xavier announced the internal promotion of Travis Steele as Chris Mack’s replacement in late March, the program did it with everyman charm: tweeting a picture of the 37-year-old signing his contract alongside athletic director Greg Christopher at a high-top table in the bar of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio.

For the program situated on a steep hillside sloping toward Victory Parkway, the move is in keeping with its ethos.

The last time the Musketeers went off campus for a hire outside the program was in 2001, when Thad Matta was plucked from Butler. Since then, succession has been the through-line of its last three coaching searches.

After Matta won a pair of Atlantic 10 titles made three NCAA tournament trips, including an Elite Eight run in 2004, he was plucked by the leviathan up the road in the Columbus. Sean Miller was anointed and went on to win three league titles and made four NCAA trips, including a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. After five years on the job, he decamped to Arizona, which paved the way for Mack’s nine-year run.

Looking inward reaped rewards. Each time, the man — often a top assistant on the prior coach’s staff — raised the the Musketeer’s a few notches higher. Outside of Villanova, no other program in the Big East, which Xavier joined in 2013, has enjoyed the same run consistency. as successful. Now, Xavier owns the most NCAA tournament wins without reaching a Final Four.

That nugget that frames expectations for Steele’s tenure.

Last year, the Muskies spent the bulk of the season ensconced in the top 10, swiped the Big East crown from ‘Nova and secured a No. 1 seed in March. A second-round upset at the hands of Florida State and the departure of Mack for Louisville tinged the season with disappointment, but it also underscored how far the program has come in 30 years.

Chief among Steele’s tasks: filling six open scholarships, four of which were created by the departures of Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kareem Kanter. Retooling is the operative word. Junior guard Quentin Goodin’s role has grown, while sophomores Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall — both of whom were top-75 recruits in Mack’s final class — make for a duo that is a natural heir apparent to Bluiett and Macura. Next, Steele was among the nation’s most active coaches on the grad-transfer market, importing guard Kyle Castlin, combo forward Ryan Welage and post Zach Hankins to Cincinnati.

While it’s understood that this season is one of transition, Steele appears poised to capitalize on Xavier’s stability. There’s an operating budget of nearly $8 million, per data maintained in the Equity in Athletics database. The 10,200-seat Cintas Center is consistently crammed. And Steele’s staff has lined up a top-20 class in 2019 to fuse with soon-to-be veterans in Scruggs, Marshall and Goodin.

In other words, down years are relative in the Queen City.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at San Diego State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (6-3) Xavier (7-4)
Position Missouri (6-3) Xavier (7-4)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Quentin Goodin (Jr., 6-4, 194)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Paul Scruggs (So., 6-3, 200)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Kyle Castlin (Sr. 6-4, 193)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Naji Marshall (So., 6-7, 200)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Tyrique Jones (Jr., 6-9, 235)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | During its four-game homestand, Missouri’s drilled 44.4 percent of its 3-point attempts and only turned the ball over 19.1 percent of the time. Maybe their shooting slumps a bit, but that’s a recipe that blots out the fact MU is one the nation’s worst teams at finishing plays and drawing fouls around the rim. If it’s not a Tilmon post-up, easy buckets on the interior are a rare commodity.

Missouri’s deployed Tilmon more as a screener and allowed him to use his mobility in space. Those pick-and-rolls also help create dribble penetration and forces defenses to rotate, which is a boon if the Tigers kick the ball out and try to swing it for open jumpers.

The run of games at Mizzou Arena has also allowed Xavier Pinson to steady himself at point guard and Torrence Watson lock in his shooting stroke. Getting that kind of steady production eases the burden on Mark Smith and helps MU manipulate floor spacing in a way that exacts a tax when teams run double teams at Tilmon on the low block.

Xavier Defense | If the season were canceled today, this would be the Xavier’s worst defensive performance since 2005 — the first season of Sean Miller’s tenure. The Musketeers normally stingy Pack Line defense has been riddled with lapses on the perimeter, ranking 298th in 3-point field goal defense, per KenPom. Worse, the system is designed to make it easier for help defenders close out space and be there as a shooter makes a catch.

In the offseason, Steele salivated at the idea of rolling out an experienced, athletic and versatile lineup of Goodin, Scruggs, Marshall, and Tyrique Jones. While Marshall’s been sound, Scruggs, Castlin and Goodin have been torched on spot-ups, allowing 1.38 PPP and 45.6-percent shooting.

Now, the Muskies’ tightened some bolts on Saturday against Eastern Kentucky. But the Tigers have shot the ball well enough to punish Steele’s bunch if there’s any regression. It’s also worth monitoring how Jones, who is a stellar rim protector and aggressive rebounder, fares when matched up against Tilmon on the interior.

Missouri offense vs. Xavier defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 106.2 (111) 19.0 (328) 50.9 (181) 20.4 (251) 31.4 (101) 34.8 (165) 39.0 (31) 45.6 (293) 66.7 (259) 9.2 (176) 8.8 (193)
Xavier 100.8 (123) 17.4 (232) 51.8 (220) 18.4 (213) 28.1 (130) 27.5 (47) 37.6 (298) 48.2 (114) 64.2 (40) 10.2 (127) 10.2 (80)

When Xavier has the ball...

Xavier Offense | No, the Musketeers aren’t strafing teams from long range, but they’re the best team in the country converting inside the arc and can create extra possessions on the offensive backboards. Whether it’s a post-up, Goodin feeding a big man out of a high pick-and-roll or Marshall slashing out of isolation touches, the Musketeers can get to the rim.

While Scruggs, Goodin and Marshall are each efficient individually, the trio is only average 0.98 points per possession when in the same lineup — and allowing 1.23 on the other end. Out of that group, Scruggs’ game is the most balanced. He uses his jumper to set drives going left, posing a challenge if a wing defender stunts in to slow Goodin down out of a ball screen. Steele will also isolate Scruggs on the right side of the floor and let him go to work, with the sophomore knocking down pull-ups in the mid-range.

Speaking of Goodin, when he gets those high ball screens, your first instinct should be to treat him as a passer, whether it’s whipping a kickout to Scruggs and slipping a pocket pass to a rolling Jones. Regardless of whether its pick-and-roll or isolation play, expect Goodin to attack the rim, but if your bigs are sound rotating over and play straight up, he has a difficult time finishing plays.

Meantime, Marshall is waiting for his jumper to come around. (He’s only 6 of 28 from 3-point range against top 100 teams in KenPom.) About the only thing that’s panned out is playing in pick-and-rolls, particularly when he’s attacking from the top of the key.

As for Castlin, he’s struggled early. His best source of offense is getting buckets in transition, tracking down misses for putbacks or going to the free-throw line. Finally, Jones’ best touches are dumpoffs to the short corner and putbacks.

Missouri Defense | Scouting Xavier is easy. They literally send out a weekly newsletter to 28,000 coaches outlining drill work and facets of an offense that’s heavy on pick-and-rolls. Goodin, Marshall and Scruggs can punish switches, and the last time MU saw a team with a similar attack (Temple), the results weren’t encouraging.

So far, opponents have mashed Pickett and Pinson in pick-and-rolls, targeting a pair of freshmen who are still developing physically. As the season’s evolved, Mark Smith’s drawn the task of guarding the best perimeter scoring threat. It that trend holds, he’ll track Scruggs, while Geist picks up Goodin. That leaves Pickett drawing Castlin.

But how will MU approach guarding Marshall, who is really a jumbo wing? Will we see minutes tilt toward Mitchell Smith or K.J. Santos? Is the plan to remain conservative in ball screens and concede jumpers?

Xavier offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Xavier 116.31 (31) 17.5 (212) 56.2 (21) 19.7 (210) 32.6 (71) 33.9 (178) 33.2 (207) 60.3 (1) 67.8 (232) 8.8 (157) 8.9 (198)
Missouri 98.8 (85) 18.4 (332) 49.5 (142) 19.4 (149) 26.5 (92) 29.1 (70) 34.7 (207) 47.8 (103) 63.6 (34) 5.0 (324) 7.6 (257)

The Match-Up

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at San Diego State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Naji Marshall | Stretch Forward

Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
So. 6-7/220 13.0 7.0 3.3 43.4 22.7 71.8 97.5 49.6 53.1
KenPom; Sports Reference

When Naji Marshall arrived in Cincinnati, he was a bruising wing who could finish in traffic and pop off mini-runs as the fourth option on a veteran-laden roster.

Eleven games into his sophomore season, he’s elevated his nightly production and stepped into the hole created by the exits of Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. With that increase in usage comes the usual dip in overall efficiency, but a closer look reveals that his shooting percentages at the rim (68.5) and on mid-range pull-ups (45.5).

The dip in efficiency stems from an early shooting rut behind the arc, where Marshall’s connecting on just 21.5 percent of his attempts in the half court, including a woeful 7 of 37 on catch-and-shoot opportunities.

On film, Marshall excels at creating angles to get into the paint, relying on his length and spatial awareness to complete difficult finishes in congested spaces with either hand. When he does hoist up a jumper, his release is high, albeit with a motion that slightly shot-puts the ball forward. Still, his jumper is mechanically sound enough that logging reps should lift his shooting percentages.

Even if his stroke isn’t pure against Mizzou, he’s an imposing presence once he gets moving toward the rim. His handle is also tight enough that he can maneuver and work his way to a preferred spot on the floor.

The X Factor

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Auburn Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Fiddling with lineups in HoopLens’ database raises a question: Why isn’t Ryan Welage getting more minutes?

When the graduate transfer from San Jose State is on the floor, Xavier’s offensive efficiency spikes 1.42 points per possession, all without sapping any more juice defensively. There’s just one drawback: maximizing Welage presence, Steele would require curbing Goodin’s action. That’s a big ask, especially when you consider there are only 34 possessions — 4.5 percent of Xavier’s total — supporting that proposal.

Still, Welage, who has made 51.6 percent of his spot-up jumpers, injects the kind of spot-up threat that stretches defenses to a breaking point, opening up gaps for Marshall and Scruggs to exploit. Even if Steele doesn’t make a wholesale change to his lineup, Welage, who is 6-foot-10, 205 pounds, has the size to make shots over closeouts and is comfortable enough putting the ball on the floor at times to drive and loft up a floater in the lane.

Regardless, Xavier has a pair of stretch forwards that grant Steele the flexibility to play bigger lineups to suit his needs.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 69, Xavier 67 | Xavier’s backcourt should have an edge, but that presumes Castlin and Goodin are clicking in unison. And even then, can the Musketeers clamp off perimeter shooting and force MU to convert tough 2-point looks? At this point, the Musketeers’ inconsistency makes me think this is a game MU swipes on its home floor.