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Xavier v. Butler: preview, matchups, keys to the game

After nearly three weeks off, Xavier will finally be back in action at Butler today.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Connecticut
I'm gonna pretend he's just clapping about the fact we're playing ball.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Last time out, Xavier climbed on up out of the grave against Providence, with Colby Jones making the resurrection complete by sticking a game-winning three with a tenth of a second left of the clock. In the game before that, the Muskies used a 17-1 second-half run to turn a brewing upset against St. John's into a semi-comfortable win. Since those two games, X has been dormant for 19 20 days. Teams have done everything from meltdown after breaks to hit the ground running, so I have no idea what to expect as Xavier shakes off the rust in the rustiest building in the Big East.

Butler has done something Xavier hasn't done in that time, namely play basketball. Butler has been out four times since X last played, compiling a 2-2 record in that time. They bookended an impressive home win over Creighton and a perfunctory beating at DePaul with twelve-point losses at St. John's and UConn. With 13 games in the rearview, the Bulldogs have just 5 wins and are all but certain to need the Big East's auto bid to make the NCAA tournament.

Team fingerprint

Butler's offense has been running in sand all season. Not only are they 341st in offensive tempo, they're also getting mediocre results in the possessions they do use. Shooting has been a huge problem for them, as they're 236th in the nation in EFG% and 274th in two-point percentage. They are shooting 34.6% from behind the arc, which is just a tick above average. Their offensive rebounding and free throw rate are also in the bottom 100, and their free throw percentage is a miserable 61.6% as a team. They are in the top 100 nationally in ball security, so... good on them for that, I guess.

Their defense is 57th in the country overall. They rely on sealing off the defensive glass at an elite level (13th in the nation in DReb%) and keeping opponents off the line. While they don't give up many second shots, the first shots they allow are usually pretty solid. They are 264th in the nation in defensive EFG% and basically equally permeable inside and beyond the arc. They also don't force turnovers much at all; their entire defensive ethos centers on giving up just one shot per possession.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Aaron Thompson Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'2", 195 Measurements 6'4", 196
12.5/2.9/4 Game line 13.8/3.6/6.3
57.1/33.3/51.4 Shooting line 46.8/36.7/82.1
Ignore the three-point percentange; Thompson has made 14 threes in 103 career games. He's a good slasher and finisher, and he distributes well without turning the ball over much. He also draws a lot of fouls, though he doesn't make it pay from the line. If he beats you with jumpers, it was your day to lose.
Myles Tate Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Freshman Class Senior
6'0", 160 Measurements 6'4", 195
8.5/3.4/2.7 Game line 11.3/3.8/1.5
36.5/31.6/70.8 Shooting line 44.6/50.8/77.8
Tate likes to shoot, which is a shame, because he's not very good at it. He's posting an EFG% of 45.2%, which is bad. He leads the team in steals percentage, but he also commits a foul every ten minutes he's on the floor. He has solid ball security and distributes at a respectable rate. He did drop 15 on Creighton and 22 on Seton Hall, so he does have it in him to get hot. Now that I've bagged on him, I'm like 70% sure he's about to go Tre Campbell.
Jair Bolden Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Freshman
6'3", 210 Measurements 6'5", 195
13/3.9/1.1 Game line 6.3/3.7/3.1
38.4/39.6/67.9 Shooting line 54.8/22.2/66.7
After five games of data showed Colby Jones is the starter, we've updated our spreadsheet. Not here to jump to conclusions. He'll line up across from Jair Bolden, Butler's leading scorer. Bolden is almost strictly a jump shooter; hoop-math.com has him at 0-2 from inside the arc. He is almost purely catch-and-shoot from deep, but he'll dribble into the mid-range. He won't dribble any farther though. He's a reasonable defensive rebounder, but he doesn't do much besides that and hit jumpers.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
6'7", 230 Measurements 6'8", 227
9.2/8.2/2.2 Game line 7.5/8/1.7
42.3/36.8/42.9 Shooting line 42.3/19.4/60
Hands-down the best rebounder on Butler, Nze gets to the glass really well on both ends and is a decent rim protector besides. Unfortunately (for Butler fans), he's having a miserable year on offense. After being 73rd in the nation in EFG% as a sophomore and 24th as a junior, he has fallen off the map entirely, thanks largely to shooting 43.5% from inside the arc after shooting 63% combined in the previous two years. He's also a miserable foul shooter, which isn't a bad backup plan if he starts making shots.
Bryce Golden Center Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Sophomore
6'9", 260 Measurements 6'9", 225
10.2/4.8/1 Game line 15.8/7.9/1.5
40.9/24/71 Shooting line 53.1/37.8/61.8
Pretty much the anti-Nze. He's a good offensive rebounder who hates the defensive glass and shoots well from the line. What they do have in common is that they're not shooting well from inside the arc despite being big men. Golden is a career 69.9% free throw shooter, so knowing which Bryce to foul will be a factor for Xavier.

Reserves

Not much, too be honest. Butler is 298th in the nation in bench minutes.

The shining star off the pine is freshman guard Chuck Harris, who posts a game line of 10.2/2.3/2.3 on 40.7/39.1/76.2 shooting. He’s kind of a volume scorer, but his turnover numbers are good and he is the team’s second-best three-point shooter. He started 8 games before finding a home as the sixth man of late.

Forward Myles Wilmoth is a 6’9” freshman who got pressed into extended duty when the team lose Jakobe Coles to a season-ending injury. Wilmoth goes for 2.8/3.3/0.3 on 52/42.9/66.7 shooting and is a good offensive rebounder. He limits his foul trouble and turnover issues well for a freshman.

Three questions

How will the layoff affect the team? This is the big one. Xavier has not played basketball in 20 days. There is no shape like game shape, and the Musketeers aren’t in it. Butler is, having gotten in at least three games over the previous two weeks. Xavier’s rotation has taken a further hit from at least one player being out due to Covid protocol. Coach Steele is going to have to figure out who to get his team back up to speed without straining the legs of guys who haven’t played for almost three full weeks.

More on this a bit later today.

Can Xavier get to the offensive glass? The Musketeers are not a good rebounding team. Butler is excellent at keeping teams from gathering their own misses. Xavier has lost two of the five games in which they don’t grab at least 25% on the offensive glass. Those three choppy sentences nutshell this issue pretty well. Xavier’s best offensive rebounder is Bryan Griffin. More playing time for him may be the answer to this conundrum.

Does Kyky Tandy have a place on this team? Coach Steele has raved about Tandy’s effort in practice and made special effort to single him out for praise since Xavier came back from their second hiatus. If Kyky doesn’t get significant time against Butler it’s an indication that his time as a Musketeer is reaching an end.

Three keys

Just get the game in: Please, for all of our mental stability, get this game in. Everyone wants to watch some basketball.

Make the Bryces carry Butler: Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden use the most possessions on the team, but they use them poorly. Nze has an ORtg of 88, Golden’s is just 90.6. Chuck Harris and Jair Bolden both use the ball better and shoot well from outside. Nze and Golden both have the potential for big games in them, but the balance of probabilities says they are more likely to keep shooting Butler down the offensive efficiency rankings.

Push the pace: As with most teams with bad offenses, Butler prefers to keep the pace slow, limit possessions, and try to stay within striking distance. Xavier plays much faster and has won games with 77, 83, and 92 possessions this year. A quicker tempo favors the quicker Musketeers and the chances of grabbing offensive boards increase when the defense isn’t set as well. This will be a game of drastically different styles.

*Bonus* Regain the shooting stroke: That first one wasn’t really a key so much as a plea. Xavier needs to make the shots that they get, because there likely won’t be stickbacks or second chance points to find. Against St. John’s the Musketeers ended a terrible shooting run by going an entire game without making a three. Against Providence they then shot a serviceable 34.8% behind the arc. If Nate Johnson can get hot and Adam Kunkel can break out of one of the worst shooting stretches of his career, Butler’s three point defense can be gashed.