Xavier v. Butler: Preview

Andrew Smith will be eager to actually make an impact this time out. - Pool

For years, Xavier and Butler were conference rivals. This season, they will renew that affiliation after spending some time apart. That won't happen before tonight's game, though; the final (for now) non-conference showdown between two old rivals.

One game into the season, the Muskies are sitting on a glamorous 1.000 winning percentage and on pace to break several team records. That in and of itself should tell you the value extrapolating anything from the numbers posted thus far this season, so today's preview will be light on the usually borrowings from Ken Pomeroy's work. Which isn't to say we won't use them at all...

Elon (Butler's first opponent), while not a good team, isn't awful. They are, however, very close to awful. So, with a grain of salt, know that Butler was above average on the offensive and defensive end against the Phoenix on Saturday. Butler also defended the glass and got to the offensive boards at borderline elite levels. More interestingly, despite playing a fairly bad team, Butler neither avoided nor forced turnovers very well. Also, Butler shot very well. That shouldn't come as anything of a surprise.

Starters:
All five of the below listed players have started every one of Butler's games this season.

Rotnei Clarke is the nominal point guard for the Bulldogs. The Arkansas transfer came in with a reputation as a shooter, and he more than lived up to it on Saturday. He put up 21 points and not much else on 8-16/5-10/0-0 shooting against Elon. His A:TO of 1:1 was easy to calculate because he had one of each. Much like Allan Houston in his pomp, Clarke can kill you with his jumper if given a chance but is not renowned for his all-around game.

The other starting guard is 6'3" senior Chase Stigall, whose flowing locks would be right at home on the cover of one of those smutty paperback novels they sell in grocery stores. Of the five Brad Stevens runs out there, Stigall is probably the one whose position is the most at risk (more on that later). Stigall has proven over the source of his four years that he isn't much of a scorer - his career-high 5.2 PPG last year came on 5.9 FGA/game. His seniority gives him his starting spot for now.

Forward Roosevelt Jones put up an interesting line of 6/9/6 against the Phoenix. Jones has the ball skills to have the offense run through him; with Clarke more suited to finding catch-and-shoot jumpers than initiating the offense, there's the potential Jones finds himself in a versatile point forward role this year. For his own part - and despite standing only 6'4" - Jones is a very good rebounder and decent scorer who does most of his work from 15' and in.

Khyle Marshall is a 6'6" forward who is more into scoring than Jones is. He got 14/5/0 on 7-11/0-0/0-2 shooting Saturday. Like Jones, Marshall is an aggressive rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. He also doesn't shoot much from beyond the arc, with a career mark of 1-8 from deep.

Butler did everything they did on Saturday with almost no help from leading returning scorer Andrew Smith. The 6'11" senior center went for 0/1/1 on 0-1/0-0/0-0 shooting. Hampered by foul trouble early and often, he eventually hit the bench for good with only nine minutes played on the game. Smith has the ability to score both inside and out; he'll likely break his duck against the Musketeers on Tuesday.

Bench:
Freshman guard Kellen Dunham is a fairly dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer. At 6'5", he has the ability to shoot over guards and has a quick enough release to get rid of the ball before forwards can catch up to him. Forward Kameron Woods stands 6'8" and rebounded at elite rates in limited minutes last season. He is aggressive on the glass and a perpetual threat for easy stick-back points.

Forward Erik Fromm - also 6'8" - is a classic stretch four, with limited rebounding ability but enough range to pull the defense out behind the arc. Sophomore Alex Barlow provides deep backup at the guard positions and may see increased time this year after the expulsion of guard Chrishawn Hopkins.

Three questions:
-Can Semaj Christon play and (1B) how does he fit in?
All indications out of the Xavier camp point towards Christon being physically able to play on Tuesday. There's no future in sitting the player who is widely acknowledged to be your most talented, so Christon will doubtless get extended minutes tonight. Xavier's offense clicked like a well-oiled machine against the admittedly short-handed and over-matched Fairleigh Dickinson. Christon may be the closest thing on this roster to a ball stopper; how will he mesh with the rest of the team, who already have a game under their respective belts?

-Can Xavier hang with Butler on the boards? The Muskies destroyed FDU on the glass, but Butler is a significant step up. The Bulldogs work with a 6'11" center and three athletic forwards who attack the glass hard at both ends. If a short-handed Xavier front court can break even in the rebounding war, that's a good sign to how they will fare when Isaiah Philmore returns after his suspension.

-Is Brad Redford viable for long stretches of the game? Redford didn't have full game fitness coming back from his hamstring injury last time out, but that isn't the biggest concern for Xavier's senior guard. When he's healthy, his offense undoubtedly plays. The question is whether his secondary skills - especially on the defensive end - are solid enough to keep him on the floor without being expose. The fact that Justin Martin started at the two against FDU may have been because of Redford's lingering hamstring issue, or it may have been indicative of how the Xavier staff sees Redford as a player.

Three keys:
-Pursue Dunham and Clarke.
Kellen Dunham and Rodney Clarke are both deadly jump shooters with massive range. Butler is not afraid to get shots for them early in the shot clock. The Bulldogs showed off-ball screens both on the secondary break and early in the half court set against Elon, and Clarke and Dunham both have the green light to blaze and the shooter's conscience to keep going if the first one doesn't fall.

-Force the pace wisely. Butler does not particularly like to run, and Xavier has the athletic bigs to get the ball out and go. Smith, Marshall, and Woods all block shots at an elite rate; one way to take them out of the equation is to beat them down the floor. Both Dee Davis and Semaj Christon are comfortable pushing the ball up the court; choosing the right time to do that could pay big dividends for the Muskies.

-Keep the bigs involved. One of the most frustrating things about last season's Musketeers was their reliance on playmakers on the perimeter ragardless of the situation in the paint. Big Kenny is gone, but Taylor and Robinson both perform better when they don't have a chance to fade to the periphery of the game. Giving them both touches in positions to score - regardless of if they attack the basket or kick out - will keep the Bulldogs' defense honest.

Bottom line:
These two teams are part of a rivalry that is regaining steam, especially with the Bulldogs' entry to the Atlantic Ten. Both teams easily handled out-matched opponents in their first game, so this will be the first real test for each team. Butler has the more proven talent, but Xavier has some intriguing questions that may yet lead to a very entertaining campaign. For both of these teams, the season begins at 4pm today.

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