Result: Xavier, 77-65 in 72 possessions.
All For One, One For All: Each of the seven Musketeers in the regular rotation has an offensive rating above 105, and Xavier is also the only D-I team to have six players who average double figures. All those solid parts combine to create the second-best raw offensive efficiency in D-I. Xavier entered with a 1.18 points per possession average, better than all but Florida.
While Xavier lacks the size and supreme explosiveness of Kansas, the team resembles the Jayhawks in its remarkable balance and the interchangeability of its parts. The Musketeers can play large, with 6'9” big men Jason Love and Josh Duncan on the court, or they can take them both out to go with a smaller lineup, as they did when Love fouled out midway through the second half. Either way, the offense keeps on chugging.
“As a coach I'm not saying 'you shoot, you don't shoot, let's make sure we have six [in double figures].' It just happens because of the balance, and the different people that can do things,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “Josh Duncan, who plays the five for us, had a big basket on a dribble-drive, C.J. Anderson, who's a small forward for us, is very good close to the basket, [forward] B.J. Raymond is an excellent shooter, Derrick Brown can do a little bit of everything, so you put that whole group together and it lends itself to a lot of balance.”
Seminal Play: After a layup by Massachusetts guard Chris Lowe cut the Xavier lead to 63-56 with 4:47 to play, the Minutemen went to a full-court press. Point guard Drew Lavender took the inbounds pass, slipped smoothly through the resistance, and easily took the ball coast-to-coast for a backbreaking layup.
You Won't Believe: Lavender, who stands just 5'7” tall, supplemented an outstanding all-around afternoon with a game- and career-high nine rebounds. The Musketeer's motor used his sublime quickness to beat opponents to loose balls and his quick-jumping ability to steal rebounds away from bigger players.
What We Learned: The Musketeers can efficiently score even when their precision three-point attack fails them.
AMHERST, Mass.—The threes failed to fall like they normally do for Xavier, but the Musketeers still found a way to dominate Massachusetts on both ends of the court Sunday afternoon. Xavier (17-4, 5-1 Atlantic 10) shredded the interior defense of the Minutemen (13-6, 2-3) and shut down two of the nation's top scorers to come away with a 77-65 victory at the Mullins Center and claim sole possession of first in the A-10.
Xavier shot just 4-of-22 from three-point range—a far cry from its excellent 41% average entering the game—but the Musketeers were able to repeatedly drive into the lane or dump it down low to score close to the basket. Xavier had generated 32.7% of its offense via the long-range shot on the season, and while that number was cut in half on Sunday, the team managed to score a solid 1.07 points per possession.
“If one person's off from three point range, we can pound it inside to Derrick [Brown] or to [Jason] Love or to Josh [Duncan],” point guard Drew Lavender said. “And if they take that away that opens up penetration for me and Stan [Burrell] and the rest of the guards.”
While collectively smaller than the Minutemen—no one amongst Xavier's top five in minutes played is more than 6'7”—the Musketeers' collection of versatile swingmen proved too fast and too strong to keep away from the hoop. Dante Milligan, Massachusetts' shot-blocking center, spent most of the afternoon on the bench due to foul trouble, and the Minutemen had no one inside to cover up mistakes or grab critical rebounds. Xavier rebounded 17 out of their 32 misses on the offensive glass, an excellent percentage, and was able to get to the free-throw line 34 times, trips that often resulted from getting hacked on second-chance attempts near the basket.
“UMass mixed their defense up and played kind of a zone, a matchup, switched and went with cutters,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “Against that type of defense you don't want to live and die with the three, you want to be able to get the ball close to the basket, and we did.”
Xavier finished 21-of-35 from two-point range, and every one of those makes came in the paint, as the Musketeers doubled up the Minutemen in post points. Orchestrating the interior attack was Lavender, the 5'7” dervish whose quickness far exceeded that of any other player on the court. Lavender proved impossible for Massachusetts to keep out of the lane, as he scored four slashing layups and led Xavier with 19 points.
Lavender also helped the Musketeers utilize the home team's characteristic running game. Thanks to 16 forced turnovers and good work on the defensive boards—astonishingly, Lavender snagged a career-high nine rebounds, including seven on the defensive end—the Musketeers were consistently able to speed the ball up the court to create fast break opportunities and open driving lanes. It was Xavier that looked like the third-fastest team in the nation, not the out-of-sorts Minutemen, who never could find a comfortable pace at which to attack the defense.
“[Lavender] does a great job of controlling their basketball team, as well as I've seen,” Massachusetts coach Travis Ford said. “He does a great job of controlling the tempo, controlling his team, controlling himself. They have a lot of weapons.”
Xavier had four players score in double figures, and two others scored eight. The low-scorer in the Musketeers' small-but-deadly seven-man rotation was senior guard Burrell, who had only five points but keyed the defensive effort on Massachusetts sophomore guard Ricky Harris. Harris entered 28thin the nation in scoring, at 20.7 points per game, but was largely invisible in his 34 minutes. He shot 2-of-8 for five points, the first time this season he has been held to single-digits. His fellow scorer, forward Gary Forbes, didn't fare much better, with 16 points (four off his average) on 5-of-15 shooting.
“I think Burrell's maybe the best defensive player in the [Atlantic 10]. Ricky gets a lot of shots off [point guard] Chris Lowe, and off Gary Forbes, driving and kicking, and [Xavier] didn't allow that tonight,” Ford said. “But if you stand around a lot and watch, it's easy to guard you. Ricky's gotta realize it all looks great when you score 20 points a game, but when a real defender gets on you then what are you gonna do?”
Xavier held the Minutemen to 35 eFG% shooting in the first half, which allowed the Musketeers to take control of the game. While Xavier played strong interior defense, much of the blame for the poor effort fell on the Massachusetts shooters, who missed numerous open looks from long range.
The key stretch came midway through the first period. With the game knotted at nine at the 14:34 mark, Massachusetts' offense went completely cold, and Xavier ran off a 12-1 run over the next five minutes to take a 21-10 lead. The Minutemen would not seriously challenge for the remainder of the game.
Massachusetts forward Etienne Brower led all scorers with 22 points, while Lowe added 12, but those two were the only Minutemen able to get any offense going. Forwards Brown and C.J. Anderson scored 14 and 13, respectively, for the Musketeers, while center Duncan added 10.
“They're as well balanced a team as I've seen in a long, long time,” Ford said. “I can't remember a more balanced team.”
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.