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Xavier’s shifting defenses present a challenge for Gonzaga

Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard (11) defends Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen (10) during the second half an NCAA Sweet 16 game, March 23, 2017, in San Jose, California. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard (11) defends Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen (10) during the second half an NCAA Sweet 16 game, March 23, 2017, in San Jose, California. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – So, what can Gonzaga expect defensively from Xavier, its Elite Eight opponent on Saturday?

A lot. The Musketeers run a 1-3-1 defense, except when they run a 2-3 zone, and they only run those zones when they’re not playing man-to-man. They switch defenses on the fly, and the higher-seeded teams they’ve already slain this NCAA Tournament have been confounded Xavier’s defensive metamorphoses.

“It’s definitely an area that our team’s improved,” said coach Chris Mack when asked about his team’s quick changes. “I probably didn’t give them a chance to improve early in the year because we didn’t play multiple defenses, but I think we recognize a a program that in order to give our guys the best chance to compete that was what we had to do.”

Xavier’s use of multiple defenses is more stopgap measure than program identity, even though it has anchored the team’s NCAA Tournament run. Mack recognized that his team was not good at man-to-man defense during the year, and also as injuries mounted he needed to find ways to save his players’ energy while playing them heavier minutes.

For Gonzaga’s part, Bulldogs coach Mark Few did not seem too worried about his players being confused by Xavier’s different defensive looks.

“These guys are pretty intuitive about the differnce between a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 and how to attack it,” Few said. “So I don’t think we’re going to get too caught up in that.”

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