Well, I didn't expect that. Even with Semaj Christon returning and even at home, I didn't see this one going Xavier's way. Vegas oddsmakers had the Musketeers as four and a half point underdogs to Butler at tipoff. Optimistic fans thought Xavier could win, but no one saw this coming.
.365/.222.417. Those are Butler's shooting numbers from the night (afternoon?) Massively hyped Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke put up a stellar 3-11 on the strength of a 1-7 from behind the arc. All game long, Butler was harassed, harried, and aggravated by a Xavier defense that was energetic as it was relentless.
Things started out like any other game. Travis Taylor scored early and then the teams got about the business of settling in to play the latest installment in what is warming into an excellent rivalry. The first sign that this may have been Xavier's night was a sequence of possessions that saw Jeff Robinson (17/8/0) bury a three pointer to give Xavier a 9-3 lead and Rotnei Clarke miss the attempt for a quick answer. Still, 9-3 with 14:24 to play is hardly a reason to go to the four corners and, despite a brief Butler run, Xavier kept adding to the lead. One minute after the under 12 timeout, Dee Davis (9/1/2) made his final field goal of the game to stake Xavier to a 21-10 lead. The Cintas crowd was feeling something, and it was clear the Musketeers were as well.
Butler refused to go away though, and chipped the lead back down to 23-15 by trying to slow the pace. Jeff Robinson scored six in those five minutes to keep the Musketeers rolling and in general played like there was a reason Coach Chris Mack has shown confidence in him. After the under eight timeout, Xavier stretched the lead to 30-17 on another bucket from Jeff Robinson and a three pointer from the currently on fire Brad Redford (3-4 from deep on the game, 9-11 on the year). Semaj Christon (2/1/8) tacked on his only two points of the game and, with 4:51 to play in the first half, Butler was staring down the barrel of a blowout in a game they were favored to win.
This is Butler though, and Butler means Brad Stevens. Stevens realized his team was getting beaten down the court due to their aggression on the offensive glass and remedied that by sending only one man in after Bulldog misses (which were copious). Just like that, the lead was pared to six. Two Dee Davis free throws meant Xavier took an eight point lead to the half, but it was clear Butler had their strategy sorted and this game was in the balance.
Less than two minutes into the second half, Butler was within five, Xavier had one field goal in nearly eight minutes of play, and it seemed like things were starting to swing. The much maligned Travis Taylor (15/9/3) came up big at that point for the home team with four quick points, the second bucket off an inch perfect pass from Davis, that made the lead 40-31. Somehow, that was as close as Butler would get.
When teams lose their stars they can do a couple of different things. Programs rebuild sometimes, Michigan after the Fab Five, UK after the Monster Mash squad, and Dayton forever are examples of that. Sometimes, talent doesn't come in waves. On the other hand, sometimes guys step out of the shadows and start to make the plays they didn't seem to have in them. Justin Martin (10/3/0) was lost in the shuffle, and frequently just plain lost, last year. Never confident, he was an afterthought most games. Tonight he played 30 minutes and poured in six of Xavier's next eleven points as the Musketeers inexorably put Butler away.
More than just Justin Martin getting his feet under him or anyone scoring, it was the defense that made the difference tonight. The hustle epitomized by Erik Stenger flying headlong across the court to grab a Jeff Robinson miss was also evident on the defensive end. Rotnei Clarke never looked comfortable as Dee Davis played as if he were Clarke's sentient shadow. Whenever the Butler point caught the ball he could look forward to the attentions of Davis arriving right with it. With the Bulldogs unable to initiate offense, they began to slip out of the game, eventually putting up a hapless 18 points in the second half. Post players who showed a guard the ball lost it, guards who tried to slow things down became targets, cutters were bumped, and it seemed every shot was contested. For anyone who enjoys team defense, Xavier was an absolute joy to watch tonight.
This game that was supposed to be a hard fought Xavier loss that showed exactly how much they had lost in the off-season instead ended with Landen Amos trying to feed Tim Whelan. It's hard to say a whole lot about season that is only two games old, but maybe something is happening down on Victory Parkway. The Musketeers that took the court tonight were determined, vicious on defense, unselfish to a fault on offense, and completely focused on team play. There was no massive comeback, no postgame chest thumping and relieved celebration, and no talk of being the best players in the Atlantic 10. Instead, there was a team, and it was winning a game.
Can Semaj play and how does he fit in? In the postgame Coach Mack mentioned that in Monday night's practice the young guard couldn't use his arm enough to shoot much more than a five footer. By game time, the coaching staff thought a free throw was a possibility. Semaj took only two shots, but he made one of them and, far more importantly, he kept the ball moving. His five turnovers seem like a lot until you realize they came paired with eight assists. That's eight assists from a guard playing his first college game. So long as he keeps the ball going, Christon will fit in just fine.
Can Xavier hang with Butler on the boards? Yes. More even than that, the box score shows Xavier winning the battle of the boards, 29-28. Travis Taylor, in particular, was a monster inside, often simply outjumping everyone to grab one of his nine boards. Jeff Robinson was also active on the glass, grabbing eight rebounds. Erik Stenger managed four, but his effort in sealing off opened the ball up for Xavier's leapers. Athleticism may be the way Xavier combats bigger teams like Butler.
Is Brad Redford viable for long stretches of the game? 22 minutes, 3-4 from deep, no glaring defensive issues, 9/1/1. If Redford keeps that up he will be a matchup nightmare coming off the bench. For now, he seems ready to handle the grind of a college game.
Next Game: Nov 17, vs. Robert Morris @2p