To say Xavier is hot right now is understating things just a little bit. Since the disaster in the Bahamas, the team has knocked off (in order) 209, 218, 21, 69, 75, 71, and 61 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings of all things division one basketball. KenPom currently ranks Xavier as the 29th best team in the land, and ESPN ranks them just behind that in 30th. It should be noted that, in attaining those lofty ranks, Xavier has played the 13th toughest schedule in the nation and currently sits 12-3 and 2-0 in the third best conference in the land. So, yes, Xavier basketball is absolutely on fire.
The latest team to discover that Xavier has unequivocally jumped into the upper tier is a program trying to make that jump alongside them. The Butler Bulldogs came into the Cintas on Saturday fresh off having taken Villanove to overtime and looking to get to 1-1 in the conference rather than already being in a two game hole. In a game between two teams becoming rivals almost as quickly as their fanbases can trade insults on Twitter, it was likely going to come down to which star could impose himself on the game.
Butler has long been known for having the kind of everyman star player that Indiana fans can relate to. Gordon Hayward was gawky, looked awkward, and had the public persona of someone you'd be desperate for your daughter to date. Matt Howard was somehow even gawkier and also seemed good date material, if only because it took only one look for you to know there would be no extra curricular activity. Last year the Bulldogs had Rotnei Clarke, a stout gunner who lived outside the three point line quite contentedly. Into that gap this year steps Kellen Dunham and, while the hype machine just keeps rolling, Dunham is actually a volume scorer who shoots almost as much as Jordan Crawford did.
Dunham tried to come out quickly for the Bulldogs but, dubious fouls on Dee Davis aside, he simply couldn't get untracked. Xavier's star man Semaj Christon (20/2/8), on the other hand, didn't force his offense but took his time to settle into the game. Halfway through the first period the Musketeers led by one (22-21) and this looked like it was gearing up to be another 40 minute, give or take, classic between the two Big East teams. Christon poured in ten points in the remainder of the half as the Musketeers struggled just to stay close to a Butler team they simply could not stop from scoring. When the teams headed to the tunnel at halftime, Butler led 42-37 and was shooting a blistering 61% from the floor.
From that point on the game did indeed become a battle of which team's leading man could exert more influence over the game. Last year, that would have meant Semaj Christon taking 20 shots in order to haul his team back into it. Maybe earlier this year it would have meant the same thing, but the sophomore guard has learned to defer to his teammates (both Matt Stainbrook and James Farr shoot more when on the floor) and facilitate the offense. That's led to an assist rate of 27.1% and a team rate as high as it's has been since 2008. With 16 points already at the half, the first few possessions would tell the story of which Christon was on display.
To start the second half, Xavier had assists on their first three buckets as they quickly got back into the game. Semaj chipped in one of those assists, one of the six he distributed in the second half as the Butler defense began to collapse on him whenever he touched the ball. The first assist went to Dee Davis (12/0/1) who had missed most of the first half with two fouls but opened the second with five quick points. The Musketeers opened the half on a 9-0 run to take the lead, but Butler fought back quickly and the game went back and forth, with neither team able to pull away.
When Xavier finally did take the lead for good, it was their backcourt doing the work. A Christon steal and layup made it 64-62 with six and a half to play, and Christon found a cutting Dee Davis 30 seconds later to make the lead 66-64. From that point, the Musketeers went into Zip Em Up mode. Butler scored a grand total of four points in the last 6:13 of the game as Christon and Matt Stainbrook (17/7/4) chipped in blocks, Justin Martin (13/7/1) came up with a steal, and the team came up with five possession ending defensive rebounds.
While Semaj filled literally every line on the statsheet except for turnovers, Kellen Dunham was conspicuously absent from the decisive period of the game. With Dee Davis relentlessly chasing him off the ball and crippled by his own ability to get at the rim, Dunham went 1-6 from the floor in the second half and turned the ball over twice. It's an oversimplification to say that the game boiled completely down to two players, Xavier's team effort was excellent, but Semaj Christon posted an astronomical one game offensive efficiency rating of 138 while Kellen Dunham managed a team worst 72. Sometimes the oversimplified story seems to say it all. Dunham generates more content for his ESPN news feed, but Xavier's star sophomore did what was needed to win the game.
- What gives? Butler defends the offensive glass well, and Xavier attacks it well. As this is a zero sum game, someone had to change course. Once again, it was the Musketeers who forced their will on another team. A 27.5% offensive rebound rate is higher than the Bulldogs usually allow, and Xavier grabbed four in the decisive final 6:13 of the game.
- Can Xavier shoot against this defense? .509/.333/.833 adds up to to an effective field goal percentage of 53.6%, well above what Butler usually allows. Xavier was patient on offense even when Butler was racking up points in the first half, and ended the game with 16 assists on their 28 made field goals.
- Will Semaj go off? As I mentioned in the Conversation (despite asking Joel not to run it) I feel like I called this one a bit. Dunham was far too slow for Christon, and Barlow was far too short. After Semaj spent the first half destroying them to the tune of 16 points, Butler ran multiple defenders at Xavier's point man for the entire second half. Christon responded to that by finding the open man and racking up six assists to go with four more points. In all, it was a great game for him.
Xavier SI infographic:
Tweet of the game:
A credit where credit is due correction of Rob Dauster by the Master of Reality