The Butler Bulldogs probably didn't anticipate going 2-9 in their first season in the Big East but, as so often happens when a decent school jumps up to play with the high-majors, things haven't gone as planned in Indianapolis. Butler dropped their first five, beat Marquette, lost two more, squeaked past Seton Hall, then lost two more. That leaves them in perfect position to play the spoiler to teams looking to make the NCAAs (and not much else), and Xavier enters this game hanging on the precipice that overlooks the bubble.
The Musketeers are coming off a bit of a slump themselves, and could use a win at 9pm to make sure that further damage isn't done to a resume that looked ironclad just two weeks ago. Now 16-7 (6-4) and sporting a KenPom of 42, a BPI of 41, and an RPI of 46, Xavier isn't in a position to lose to a team ensconced at the bottom of the conference. While a win is more an exercise in damage limitation than a resume builder, a loss is a potential anchor come Selection Sunday. Joe Lunardi currently has X as a 10 seed, but you can bet that will drop if they add a third bad loss. These are the kind of games the Musketeers came to the Big East to avoid and, thankfully, there are only two left.
Just like when these teams met earlier in the year, Butler will be relying on their defense to do the heavy lifting. Unlike when these teams met earlier in the year, the Bulldogs are no longer even playing defense well. A squad that was 35th in the nation back in January is now 75th and is posting a 109 defensive efficiency (lower numbers are better) in conference play. Butler is still difficult to score on from deep, but they are allowing opponents to shot 52% *(54.3% in conference) inside the arc, so raining threes isn't really necessary for most teams. Since conference play started Butler is next to last in blocks, steals, and effective field goal percentage.
Over on the offensive side of the ball, the picture is somehow even more bleak. The team is worst in the conference in offensive efficiency, next to last in offensive rebounding, three point percentage, and shots blocked. They rank above seventh in the conference in only one offensive category, turnover percentage. Butler is currently playing the slowest offense in the conference as well, so tend to take their time before missing a shot. The Bulldogs remain neither terribly deep, only eight players see time, nor terribly tall.
The player: 6-6, 185 sophomore guard
Kellie Kellen Dunham.
The numbers: 17.4/3.9/1.7 on .391/.377/.826 shooting.
More numbers: 89.9% minutes played, 13.6% TO Rate.
The words: Dunham has faded from the spotlight for the simple reason that his shooting has just been awful. The .417/.425/.813 line that Dunham was gunning when Butler came to Xavier has plunged during conference play. Dunham continues to fire up 14 shots per game, but fewer and fewer are falling for him now.
The player: 5-11, 187 junior guard Alex Barlow.
The numbers: 5.5/3.8/3.4 on .349/.356/.750 shooting.
More numbers: 77.3% minutes played, 20% assist rate, 3.5% steal rate.
The words: Barlow was shooting .408/.419/.765 when these teams first met, but his shooting has taken an even bigger hit than Dunham's. Barlow won't shoot the ball very much at all and in fact hasn't taken double digit shots since Jan 11th. Barlow hits the defensive glass at a 12.8% rate, which is impressive for a guard his size. He finds teammates well, as his assist rate shows, but his A/TO is just barely better than even. 34.9% from the floor, though, is just terrible.
The player: 6-6, 216 senior forward Khyle Marshall
The numbers: 15.3/5/.7 on .541/.000/.500 shooting.
More numbers: 9.8% offensive rebounding rate, 9.0% TO Rate.
The words: Unlike Dunham and Barlow, Marshall hasn't seen a complete collapse of his numbers in conference play. If he could make a free throw, those numbers would look even better. Marshall is one of only three Bulldogs with an offensive efficiency rating over 100. In accordance with that, he'll take 29% of his team's shots when he is on the floor, more even than Kellen Dunham.
The player: 6-7, 225 freshman forward Andrew Chrabascz.
The numbers: 6.1/3/.6 on .583/.333/.810 shooting.
More numbers: 133.7 ORtg (12th in the nation), 11% offensive rebounding rate, 9.4% TO Rate.
The words: It's not all bad news for the Bulldogs, and Butler fans must be excited to watch the development of Chrabascz. Since these teams first met, the freshman has been in double figures five times, shot 61% from the floor, and torched Georgetown for 24 points on 9-13 from the floor. That's only six fewer points than Chrabascz had scored before he touched the Cintas Center floor. He is a vastly different player than he was a month ago, and he'll have to be accounted for.
The player: 6-9, 200 junior forward Kameron Woods.
The numbers: 8.5/9.1/2.2 on .476/.000/.645 shooting.
More numbers: 25.8% defensive rebounding rate, 2.9% block rate, 82.6% minutes played.
The words: Back to the bad news for Butler fans, Kameron Woods numbers have also dropped precipitously in the last month. I said back in January that Woods wasn't out there to score. He still isn't, but his lack of offensive contribution becomes all the more noticeable when he is the only true post on the floor for his team.
Erik Fromm (6.2/3.3/.6) has been deposed to the bench since the arrival on the scene of Chrabascz. While his numbers are superficially the same, the 6-8 senior forward is trending in the opposite direction and has totaled 11 points in the last five games. 6-4 freshman guard Elijah Brown scored 10 in 20 minutes against Xavier the last time, and still takes 25% of his team's shots despite shooting 36%. The only other Butler player who gets even as much time as Erik Stenger is 6-0 guard Jackson Aldridge, but he's not likely to impact this game.
- What does Butler have left? One thing that can be said for the Bulldogs is that they have not capitulated this year. Only three of their nine Big East losses (including Xavier) have come by double digits. Butler may lose, but they don't just roll over. Saturday they led against Georgetown away before finally losing. If they aren't demoralized yet, they still have some sting in the tail.
- Is everyone ready to play? Spahn and Sain and pray for rain, but I can't come up with a rhyme for what comes after Semaj and Stainbrook. When the Musketeers were rolling along earlier in the Big East season, it was because the bench and the other starters were all doing their part. For that same kind of streak to happen again, Xavier has to get production from someone other than the big two. Myles Davis had seven against Providence, Justin Martin was proficient, and Isaiah Philmore went for eight and eight. The Musketeers need the whole team ready to get the momentum back.
- Can Xavier score from deep? Most teams don't need to beat the Bulldogs from behind the arc, which is good, because Butler leads the conference in three point defense. Xavier, meanwhile, is shooting 32.9% from deep in their last 10 and getting blocked on the interior more than any other team in the conference. Knocking down a few three pointers would go a long way toward making this game more comfortable.
- Don't assume the win: Butler is bad and Xavier should win this game. If the Musketeers come out playing like that though, they'll lose. This team isn't good enough to sleepwalk through games and win.
- Feed the post: Butler is awful, and that's not actually a strong enough word, defending inside. As mentioned above, Butler's conference opponents make over 54% of their two point attempts. When Matt Stainbrook gets to the rim, he shoots 59%, Jalen Reynolds shoots 62%, James Farr shoots 71%, and Isaiah Philmore and Semaj Christon both come in at 60%. Getting the ball into the lane will be paramount.
- Just get the win: According to KenPom's projections, Xavier figures to go 1-6 in conference after this game. While I choose to believe that there are more than one winnable game still out there, it emphasizes how difficult Xavier's run in to the conference tournament is. Be it a work of art, ugly, a shootout, or a 43-41 slog, Xavier absolutely has to leave Hinkle with a win.