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Xavier v. Butler: Preview

It's about time for Big Kenny to open up another can on the Bulldogs.
It's about time for Big Kenny to open up another can on the Bulldogs.

This is a monster week for Xavier, for obvious reasons. Coming off a stunning comeback over Purdue - that was preceded by a slightly less stunning comeback at Vanderbilt - Xavier is looking forward to renewing the intra-city rivalry with the University of Cincinnati this Saturday. Before that grudge match can get underway, however, there is the small matter of playing the two-time defending national runners-up at their place facing the Musketeers. Despite Butler's recent success - and perhaps because of their even more recent struggles - this game is being billed by some as a classic trap game for the boys in blue.

Since renewing an old conference rivalry, Butler and Xavier have played in a couple of very close fought games. Xavier last trip to Hinkle came down to the wire, when a dodgy clock, some extremely questionable officiating, and a Gordon Hayward bunny combined to give Coach Mack his first publicly-documented seizure. That one-point loss was followed by last year's dire 51-49 affair at Cintas. The teams combined to shoot 32% from the floor and 14% from deep, but Big Kenny's 12 and 10 off the bench and just enough free throw shooting at the end carried Xavier to the victory.

Mario Mercurio extended the series with Butler that - along with Xavier's games with Gonzaga and Memphis - comprises part of a functional "non-BCS World Series." While X, Butler, Gonzaga, and Memphis are the programs outside the Big Six that have had the most impressive runs of sustained excellence, Butler has fallen on hard times this year. This should have been Gordon Hayward's senior season, but he took off two years ago; with him, Shelvin Mack, and Matt Howard all gone, the Bulldogs have really struggled to get anything going on offense this season.

That is attributable first and foremost to the fact that they are a well-below-average shooting team. Their eFG of 44.8% ranks them 272nd in the nation. The components of that number are just as grim to look at; they are shooting 28.9% from behind the arc (281st), 45.6% from two-point range (218th), and 61.5% from the free throw line (296th). Only being the 50th best team in the nation at getting to the free throw line partially redeems an otherwise poor offense. About 20% of their possessions end on turnovers, which isn't awful but also isn't up to the standard of the teams that Xavier has been playing lately.

A lot of Butler's offensive troubles can be traced to leading scorer Crishawn Hopkins. While he made a difference in the NCAA tournament last year - and was somewhat laughably touted as a NBA-ready talent by a Butler fan during our award-winning "Know Your Non-conference Opponent" series - his transition from energy guy off the bench to lead guard has been a little bit rough. The 6'1" sophomore is getting 12.3/2.3/1.8 per game, but it is taking him eleven shots per outing to get that. His shooting line of .360/.317/.840 is no doubt somewhat less efficient than Coach Stevens desires, and his 2.5 TO per game don't help the cause, either. Hopkins posts 1.1 points per shot, a number that places him in a range that even shameless volume scorers find a little embarrassing.

One thing that hasn't changed about Butler's offense from years past is the tempo at which Coach Brad Stevens has them playing. Since Stevens took over the Bulldogs program, they have played at an extremely slow pace, and this year is no different. Their tempo is just under 65 possessions per game, good for 295th fastest in the nation and more than three possessions slower than Xavier's average. Lowering the number of possessions in a game is a good way for a mediocre offensive team to stay in a lot of ball games (other ways to do this include getting better at basketball), and that's an edge that Butler needs more this year than any year in recent memory.

Despite the fact that more than 36% of the team's field goals attempted come from beyond the arc, Butler's two most efficient scoring threats work in the paint. Junior Andrew Smith is averaging 10.4/6.8/0.8 on .446/.296/.596 shooting. Smith is 61st in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and and the 6'11" center's 47 free throw attempts on the year help him mitigate the damage from his less than impressive shooting line. Sophomore Khyle Marshall gets less help from the officials, but the 6'6" forward's 9.6/4.3/0.4 comes on a relatively efficient .604/1.000/.545 shooting line. Smith and Marshall get 1.48 and 1.45 points per shot, respectively, which kind of makes you wonder why they've combined to shoot 109 times and Hopkins has shot 89 times all by himself. Kameron Woods - a 6'9", 185 lb freshman - rounds out the interesting interior players for Butler. Though he plays only 16 minutes per game, he manages to average 5.1/5.7/0.6, and half of his rebounds on the year are on the offensive end.

Complementing Hopkins at the guard positions are Chase Stigall and Ronald Nored. Stigall is a 6'4" junior who is similarly shameless when it comes to shooting. He is putting up 9.5/2.3/1.3 on .357/.345/.583 shooting, which, I'm sure you know, isn't good. With four steals on the year and an A:TO south of one, Stigall doesn't bring a lot to the table if he's not scoring. Pairing his 1.09 PPS with Hopkins' 1.10 and getting 4 TO per game from the duo is not a recipe for effective offensive play.

Alone among the Bulldogs' guards, Nored seems to have some awareness of his limitations. While his shooting line is a miserable .350/.222/.700, he only shoots five times per game. His line of 6.4/3.3/5.4 is augmented by almost three steals per game and an A:TO over two. Nored's defensive prowess is a big concern for Butler opponents. Not only does he average the aforementioned steals, but he is also a tenacious on-ball defender, often forcing guards to set the offense well away from the bucket or give up the ball earlier than they would have otherwise preferred. His efforts were in large part responsible for Tu and Cheek combining for 19/7/8 with 5 TO and a shooting line of 3-21/1-11/12-16 last time these teams met.

Speaking of defense, Butler stays in games - when they do - with good defensive efforts. While their shooting defense is "holding" teams to an eFG on 50.8% - good for 246th in the nation - they force turnovers on 23.7% of opponents' possessions (77th best nationally). They are also 41st in the country in keeping other teams off of the offensive boards, giving up an offensive rebound on only 27.5% of opponents' misses. These factors combine with their glacial pace to keep them in games that their talent can't.

Three questions:
-Can Xavier consistently force the pace?
Brad Stevens knows how to keep a decent team (i.e., Butler) with a very good one (i.e., Xavier, we hope). The fewer possessions in this game, the more of a chance that the Bulldogs stay in it. Holloway, Lyons, and Davis can all get on the ball and run at defenses, but the Muskies are going to need consistent efforts from the wings and big men to turn this game into a track meet. Xavier needs to have Big Kenny et al raking down boards and getting the ball and themselves down the court early and often.

-Are free throws going to be a season-long problem for the Muskies? A couple of flat performances from the line early in the schedule are somewhat acceptable as long as the team gets the straightened out in short order. The time for that has come and gone for Xavier; poor free throw shooting has helped the Muskies dig the holes from which they have had to ascend in their last two games. If this team wants to make a meaningful postseason run, it needs to start executing from the line at a rate a whole lot better than the 59.6% number it's currently posting.

-How many minutes does Brad Redford have in him? Redford has earned a warm place in the hearts of Xavier fans with his quick release and unlimited shooting range, but he helped spark the Vanderbilt rally and was called upon to deputize for a foul-plagued Mark Lyons in the first half of the Purdue game. Coach Mack seems to be gaining confidence in Redford as more than just a specialist, and his plus/minus during Xavier's comebacks has made a compelling case for his impact on the game. If Red can hold his own on defense for long stretches of the game, he might just find himself on the court for as long as his knee will allow.

Three keys:
-Add possessions.
With Butler's propensity to slow the pace, Xavier make each possession meaningful. The obvious way to do this is to get good shots and avoid turnovers, but second-chance points will also be big for the Muskies. Butler does a good job of keeping opponents off the glass and has an effective height within an inch of Xavier's. If Kenny Frease can occupy Andrew Smith, Travis Taylor and Andre Walker will have a little more room to stick back or tap out Musketeer misses.

-Set the offense away from Ronald Nored. It seems ridiculous to try to take a defender out of the game, but Nored alone is responsible for more than a third of Butler's steals and generally causes havoc on the ball. Xavier starts two guards who are capable of initiating the offense, and brings the admirably composed Dee Davis off the bench. In situations in which X has two of Davis, Cheek, and Tu on the floor, starting the offense with whichever one of them Nored isn't hounding might not be that bad of an idea.

-Play the whole game.
Letting down hasn't been a meaningful problem for Xavier this year, but getting started sure has been. The Muskies can't keep coming out of the blocks stagnant and hoping to save themselves with a late flurry of defense and clutch shooting. Butler doesn't bring a whole lot of offensive firepower to the floor; there's no reason Xavier shouldn't come out of the gates looking to lock them down. Defense has led to offense for the Muskies all year; seeing stops and scores in the first five minutes rather than just the last five would be a good sign for X fans.

Bottom line:
Butler is a good program in a down year, and Xavier is a good program with an undefeated team that has three BCS wins to its name already. On paper, this one should be a walkover for the Muskies. Playing it on the road makes it a little more tricky, but Butler has only been averaging a half-full (or half-empty, if you're one of those people) gymnasium this year. With the Crosstown Shootout looming, it would be nice to see the Muskies put a game in the bag early and play it out all the way. A down Butler team gives them the opportunity to do just that.