This is a big one. They're all big ones from here on out. The fact that this one matters at all is a testament to Xavier's scalding hot streak, a span of three weeks in which they've gone 5-0 and have had legitimate claim to being the best team in the conference. Last in the league on the eve of Valentine's Day, the Muskies now sit third in the Big East table.
One of the teams they've hopped is Butler. The Bulldogs are 1-4 in that same time span and have struggled at both ends of the court. Once needing to just hold serve to be comfortable on Selection Sunday, they've had bad luck (OT losses to St. John's and Providence) and bad basketball (losses to Marquette and Villanova by a combined 31 points) bite them at the worst possible time.
The next week or so will do a lot to clarify the Big East Tournament seeding picture. Nova and Marquette will end up with the top two seeds. Beyond that, 5 of the other 8 teams could still get the 3 seed, and 5 teams could still land the 10 seed. Xavier's potential span is 3-9. It's a mess.
Not only is this one big on its face and in the Big East picture, but both of these teams are among the 5 or 6 Big East schools that haven't punched a ticket yet but still harbor realistic hopes of doing so. Xavier will play bubble teams in its last 2 regular season games and again in the early stages of the Big East Tournament. It's a battle to prove to the committee who is most worthy of inclusion, and most of the league still has it all to play for in the next 2 weeks.
Butler's offense has gone cold in Big East play. They're still superb at ball security, where they rank third in the league, but they're 8th in EFG%, 7th in 3P% and OReb%, and last in getting to the free throw line. Despite those struggles, they're still 3rd in the league in three-point frequency. They're also last in assist rate, which is either a cause or a symptom of their other troubles.
On defense, it's not that much better. They're superb on the glass, where they lead the league in DReb%. They're 8th in the league in defensive EFG%, 9th in keeping opponents off the line, and 10th in block rate. They also don't force many turnovers.
|Thompson is the straw that stirs the drink for the Bulldogs... sometimes. He is deferential on the offensive end probably to a point of diminishing returns and has yet to crack double digits since January 22nd, despite starting and playing at least 20 minutes in all 9 games since then. He is a good distributor, although he is not elite at taking care of the ball, which can lead him into trouble.
|Baldwin is a volume scorer who does most of his work moving toward the basket and has struggled to consistently make jump shots all season. He has failed to take the leap Butler seems to have been hoping he would this season, although his usage numbers indicate that they think he has, but he did have a good game against Xavier in the teams first meeting.
|McDermott is on the floor to space things out for Butler on offense and try to knock down any kickouts Baldwin or the bigs can find. He almost exclusively catches and shoots his threes, and knocks them down at a pretty good rate, but brings very little else to the table.
|Tucker shoots the ball a lot when he is on the floor, but is really inconsistent with hit results, especially from inside the arc. He is actually Butler's best defensive rebounder, which will be important for them against Xavier, but is coming off a 4 point performance on 2-9 shooting against Villanova.
|Fowler is a little bit of a conundrum. He is second in the conference in offensive rebounding rate, yet takes almost half of his field goals from three point range. He is comically bad a defensive rebounding and blocking shots for a man his size, yet fouls like the object of the game is to use them all up. He splits time down low with Joey Brunk, and either of the two may actually get the start.
Butler brings 3 major contributors off of the bench, the primary of which is the team’s second leading scorer, Paul Jorgensen. He will spell the guard spots and usually pushes Baldwin more onto the ball as he fills a similar role to that of McDermott as primarily a spot up shooter. Joey Brunk came off the bench last game in a bid to get the big man firing again, but failed to regain the magic that saw him put 20 on Seton Hall in the second game of 2019, the last time he reached double digits. Ohio native Henry Baddley also comes off the bench to give the Bulldogs an athletic spark and try to force turnovers, which he usually does quite well. He is not really a threat to score the ball with regularity, but could give Xavier trouble if Butler decides to opt for full court pressure at some point.
-Do the streaks continue? Butler has been playing like a team somewhere outside the top 100 since February 10, while Xavier has been playing like a team knocking on the door of the top 10 in that time. Form is temporary and all that, but the past three weeks have these teams on drastically different trajectories.
-Can Xavier control the ball again? Last time these two teams played, X had just 10 turnovers, and 4 of those came from Tyrique. The Muskies had basically no problems getting the ball up and initiating the offense. Butler doesn't press much or force a ton of turnovers, but you have to imagine they're cooking something up after watching how X has responded to good presses.
-Who wins the battle of the benches? At Cintas, X got a total of 3 bench points while Butler got 30. Xavier will have a little more bench depth this time around with Q in the lineup. You would assume the Muskies will need more than 3 points on 1-12 from the floor from the reserves this time. If they can hold even with the Butler bench unit, it should be a good day.
-Fly to the glass. Jordan Tucker is an elite defensive rebounder. After him, Butler's big men are fairly mediocre; Paul Scruggs and Kyle Castlin each have better DReb rates than Nate Fowler and Joey Brunk. Butler has to gang rebound to be effective on the defensive glass. They weren't able to do that at Cintas, and Xavier needs to keep the pressure on them at Hinkle.
-Blanket Kamar Baldwin. Naji et al. have taken some pretty good players out of their flow, and the blueprint used against Myles Powell and Seton Hall could apply here. Butler rides Baldwin like Seattle Slew; their next most effective offensive players are not guys who go get their own buckets. He was pretty good at Cintas; Xavier can't afford to let him be more than that at Hinkle.
-Don't leave it late. With 4 minutes left the last time these two teams played, Xavier was down 10 and nursing their last 2.2% of win probability like it was that baby raccoon Calvin tries to rescue in the March 9-18, 1987 editions of Calvin & Hobbes. X managed to bring it all the way back thanks in part to the partisan Cintas crowd. Faced with similar circumstances on the road, we might see a more difficult end. Xavier has the wherewithal to put this one to bed, and I hope they do.