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Xavier @ Butler: preview, matchups, keys to the game

Xavier heads to Indy to play a game in a barn. Bring a stopwatch.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Butler
Fight on sight.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Form is temporary, people who watch English soccer assure me, but class is permanent. On this side of the pond, that means that teams run hot and cold, but good teams are generally good and bad teams are generally bad.

This game, then, is a fascinating case study in that theory.

Who is the host? Are they the team that lost 1 non-conference game by 1 point at the current #1 team in the nation? Or are they the team that has gone from 15-1 to 18-6, sliding 18 spots in the KenPom and punctuating their struggles with a home loss to Providence?

Who is the visitor? Is it the team that lost 5 of 6 conference games at one point, giving out buckets like they were on sale and not saving Amy for themselves on the other end? Or is it the defensive juggernaut that was 12-3 behind the #14 defense in the nation and then again 4-2 behind a unit in the top 5 over the past three weeks?

Pick your opinion on either of these teams and you can find a sample of games to support it. For the here and now, in the moment in which this game is going to be contested, Xavier is hot and Butler is reeling. We'll see if form holds.

Team fingerprint

Butler's defense was elite when they were hot, but it has come crashing down to earth in Big East play. In conference games, the Bulldogs are 8th in the league in adjusted defense. They done a good job of defending the paint and the glass, but they're conceding the arc and getting shelled to death beyond it. They also foul a ton, though free throws are of questionable strategic value to X just now. Only DePaul has given up a higher percentage of their points at the line, and only Georgetown has conceded a higher percentage of their points on threes. Butler locks down the paint, but everything else is killing them. Also, they don't force turnovers at all.

Their offense is middle of the road, landing at 5th in the league. They rebound okay, shoot it okay at all three levels, and get to the line okay. They turn it over a lot, which hampers their efficiency more than anything they do when they keep the ball. They're last in the league in team assist rate; make of that what you will.

Personnel

Starters

Starting matchups
Kamar Baldwin Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Junior
6'1", 190 Measurements 6'4", 196
16.3/4.5/3 Game line 13.3/4.7/2.8
41.5/32.1/87 Shooting line 47.8/35.8/70.5
Baldwin is an innefficient and unrepentant gunner prone to getting smoking hot and killing a game off. He can go for 30, he can gor for 4, but he's going to be the guy taking the shots for Butler
Aaron Thompson Shooting Guard Naji Marshall
Junior Class Junior
6'2", 190 Measurements 6'7", 222
6.6/3.3/5 Game line 16/5.9/3.6
48.1/8.3/61.8 Shooting line 43/30/70.4
Maybe he's the point and Baldwin is the off guard, or maybe this is right. Both will bring the ball up and initiate the offense, though Thompson is much less likely to make himself the focal point of that offense. He's a competent defender and passer who picks his spots on offense.
Sean McDermott Small Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Junior
6'6", 195 Measurements 6'8", 227
11.8/6/0.8 Game line 7.3/2.4/3.7
50.3/42/87.5 Shooting line 34.6/28.7/61.7
McDermott is the second most efficient player in the nation. He's money from basically everywhere on the court, never fouls, and never turns the ball over. His usage rate is very low, but if he gets a lot of shots he can torch a team.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Freshman
6'7", 235 Measurements 6'9", 225
9.7/6.7/1.3 Game line 6.8/5.2/1.5
63.1/33.3/61.8 Shooting line 39.1/23.9/73.8
Nze is very effective around the rim and on the glass. His mildly intrguing three point shooting number comes on just three attempts. He's the prototype for solid power forwards.
Bryce Golden Center Tyrique Jones
Sophomore Class Senior
6'9", 245 Measurements 6'9", 239
8.5/3.8/1.3 Game line 13.5/11.1/1.5
51.2/27.8/65.9 Shooting line 54.4/0/58.6
Golden is decent around the rim but shoots more threes than his numbers indicate he should. He's tough on the offensive glass and is also a fair bet to land himself in foul trouble.

Reserves

First off the bench is wing Jordan Tucker. Tucker is a 6-7 shooter who is good behind the arc and at the line and dreadful everywhere else. He’ll crash the defensive glass hard. Henry Baddley comes in for the guards and basically just keeps the thing ticking over. He’s not a shooter, but he’s safe with the ball and more than willing to get in passing lanes and force turnovers. Khalif Battle is a freshman guard with an alarming 82 offensive rating and exactly zero offensive rebounds on the year. What he does well is undetectable by any statistical measure. Finally, seven footer Derrik Smits rounds out the Butler bench players who will see appreciable time. Smits is decent from the floor, good from the line, and really gets on the offensive glass. He also commits far more than his share of fouls.

Three questions

-Who does Naji guard? Xavier's best defender is capable of guarding any of Butler's offensive threats, but the question is where X gets the most bang for its buck. Leading scorer and volume shooter Kamar Baldwin is an obvious answer, but it's also worth noting that senior wing Sean McDermott is the second most efficient player in the entire country. Baldwin has gravity all game, but McDermott can ruin your evening in the span of a handful of possessions. X could also run Naj at PG Aaron Thompson to try to throw sand in the Butler offense's gears, but I'd suspect he'll mostly shadow Baldwin and Q or Bryce Moore will spell him when he changes assignments or gets a breather.

-Can Tyrique destroy another front line? Aside from Bryce Golden, Butler isn't particularly tall, but Bryce Nze is built like a brick outhouse and the whole team coordinates to smother the lane and attack the glass. It has been a long time since we've seen a Xavier big in as rich a vein of form as Ty is in right now, but he has his work cut out for him against the entire Butler roster. X's revival has tracked with his uptick in productivity; the Muskies need him to be big again.

-Which defense creates some turnovers? The defenses are 8th and 9th in the league in forcing turnovers, but the offenses are 7th and 8th in avoiding them. Something has to give. With war being waged on the glass at both ends, the free possessions to be had will be in ball security. Whoever can take advantage might find themselves with a decisive leg up in the contest.

Three keys

-Keep the ball moving. We all loved the fact that Tre could cash out an 18-foot jumper late in the shot clock for two points, but that skill set is almost entirely absent from this team. What isn't absent is the ability to use teammates to find open shots, and the Muskies are second in the league in assist rate. Butler's defense will pack in and be content to watch you futz around all day; X has to be quick with the ball to get the Bulldogs into rotation and create gaps for drivers.

-Keep a cool head. Hinkle can be a bit of a zoo - which is ironic, because it's an actual barn - and Butler is a veteran squad that knows how crowd energy works. There will probably come a time when the place is rocking and threatening to literally fall apart; Xavier has to bunker down and play good basketball then. We talked on the podcast - you listen to our podcast, right? - about how some of the stupid mistakes from early in the year have been absent of late. That trend needs to continue for Xavier to punch with a top-25 team on the road.

-Shoot smart. If Naji connects on 1 of his next 2 attempts, he'll be at 33% from deep in conference. Kyky leads the team with 18 made Big East threes and is hitting at a 41% clip. Paul Scruggs is 14-35 (40%). Heck, Q is 7-16 since his return and Zach Freemantle is at 37.5% in a limited sample. This team has guys who can take advantage of Butler's lax perimeter defense, but it can't be Plan A on offense. If the Muskies take the threes that come to them on good rotations and kick-outs, they can do enough to open Butler's defensive shell. Getting the right looks from deep may well be the difference in this game.

That podcast Joel mentioned above is right here. We talk about this game, why Xavier looks so good recently, and what has to be done to make them an NCAA tournament lock.