On Friday afternoon the Xavier Musketeers took on Kennesaw St in their first NCAA Tournament game in five years. Xavier came into the game as a 3 seed and 13 point favorite, but that's not quite how it played out. Through 30 minutes Xavier had allowed 61 points to a low-major team and had created a 13 point deficit. But over the final 10 minutes it was all Xavier. Down the stretch the Musketeers held Kennesaw St to 6 points and rattled off a 15-0 run. Let's take a closer look at what the Xavier defense to create a comeback and save the Musketeer season.
Terminology: This article will highlight Xavier's defense, particularly their Pick n Roll defense. Drop-coverage is a term for a Pick n Roll defensive scheme that positions the defending big-man in the paint to stop the drive. There are other names for this scheme, but we will stick with drop-coverage.
Let's start by taking a look at Xavier's defense prior to the beginning of the comeback. This is a possession early in the Second Half as Kennesaw St began to open up their lead. In this clip K St runs a variation of the Pick n Roll for their point guard Rodgers. Nunge is in drop coverage and needs to be in position to stop the drive, but he's a couple steps late. Rodgers gets downhill and is able to convert the layup around Nunge. Very little resistance from the defense here.
About 3 minutes later now and Coach Miller has gone to zone in desperation to slow down the Kennesaw St offense. Xavier lines up in a 3-2 zone and K St immediately attacks the corners. No rotation from the Xavier defense and a lazy shot contest. Xavier goes back to man-to-man shortly after this.
Few minutes later and Xavier is back in man-to-man. Kennesaw St runs a ballscreen for star player Terrell Burden to again attack Xavier's Pick n Roll defense. Burden does a good job forcing a switch and then pulling Nunge to the perimeter to attack in isolation. Nunge gets caught in poor guarding position, there's no help and this is too easy for Burden.
Couple minutes later now and Xavier has finally started to make a comeback. Again K St is running ballscreens to attack Nunge's drop-coverage. However this time Nunge is in position to stop the drive and return to the roller. Boum does a great job recovering to his man and pressuring the ball causing a tough pass and Nunge's active hands create a tough shot.
Two minutes later and Xavier's defense has really tightened up. Kennesaw St runs a ballscreen for Burden but this time Colby Jones quickly gets over the screen and cuts off the drive. Jones keeps his body in front of Burden and makes a very nice contest on the shot. This is high level on-ball defense.
Tie game now and this is my favorite defensive possession of the game from Xavier. Coach Miller has Jones on the point guard and he again gets over the screen and recovers to his man quickly. Burden takes the ball back to the perimeter and is able to get a step past Jones but Nunge is quick to rotate over to stop the ball and eventually block it. Great defense and great communication on the late shot-clock switch between Jones and Nunge.
About 90 seconds later and it is again a tie-game. Same as the third clip, Kennesaw St runs a ballscreen and is able to force Nunge to switch onto the ballhandler. Watch the difference now: Nunge is in good guarding position and prevents a blow-by, Boum is active and quick to help, and Nunge makes the extra effort to contest the shot and force the miss. Only seven minutes later in gametime but the difference in defensive energy and effort is remarkable.
Lastly the most important defensive possession of the Xavier season. Kennesaw St runs a ballscreen for Burden and Xavier has moved to 'switch screens.' Burden gets a step on Hunter and has a clear path to the basket when Jack Nunge steps over. Great help-defense and awareness from Nunge.
Through the first thirty minutes of the game, Xavier was allowing 2 points/minute to a team that ranked 154th in Offensive Efficiency. In the final ten minutes Xavier held that same team to .6 points/minute. So what changed?
In the first thirty minutes Kennesaw St picked Xavier's defense apart repeatedly in the Pick n Roll. Xavier's Coach Sean Miller was forced to utilize zone defense to slow down the action, but K St made the necessary adjustments. In the final ten minutes however, Xavier, and specifically Colby Jones and Jack Nunge, were tremendous guarding this action.
Colby Jones continues to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big East and has been employed by Coach Miller to stop stars from Marquette's Tyler Kolek to UConn's Jordan Hawkins. His partner, Jack Nunge, does not have the same defensive pedigree. But in the most important ten minute stretch of the Xavier season, Nunge was not good, he was great. Xavier will need forty minutes of this level of effort, intensity and communication if they hope to advance to the Sweet Sixteen on Sunday.