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

There’s a case to be made that this is the easiest game left on Xavier’s schedule. What they do with it may well be a reflection on how close to hitting a stride they are.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Xavier
Hot seat?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Last time Xavier lost consecutive games - as they’ve done coming into this contest - Xavier then ran off three consecutive wins. Doing the same starting here would place Xavier in a good position heading into the stretch run. The Muskies have come off a brutal run of coronavirus pauses that have left them rusty and out of rhythm, and UConn and St. John’s were the beneficiaries last week. Now, having gone a full week active for the first time in the calendar year, Xavier is looking to establish some much needed momentum.

You could hardly ask for a better place to do so, at least on paper, than at home against Butler. They’re the lowest-ranked Big East team in the KenPom, but this is still a far cry from the days of mopping up against Fordham or whomever. The Bulldogs have beaten Creighton and the St. John’s squad that just held Xavier at arm’s length in the mid-week. Both of those results were at home; the only road win they’ve claimed all year is at DePaul. The Bulldogs are 7-12 (6-10) and floundering near the bottom of the league.

Speaking of the league table, Xavier is positioned to still make something of their Big East campaign with time (and fan patience) waning. The Muskies are sitting 6th in the league with a 4-4 record; the top five in the league will grab byes in the conference tournament’s first round. Just above Xavier are St. John’s at 8-8 and UConn at 7-6. With the final seeding being determined by winning percentage, X could jump to 4th with a win in this one. That would set up a huge opportunity at Providence on Wednesday. With the disparity in league games played, the Big East is set for a bonkers ending.

Team fingerprint

Butler plays slowly on offense, which can be a recipe for boring basketball if you’re not being efficient with it. They aren’t, ranking 10th out of 11 teams in the Big East in offensive efficiency. They’re bottom of the league in offensive rebounding, free throw percentage, and block percentage, and they’re next to last in EFG%. Their ball security and free throw rate are middle of the road, but it amounts to very little in terms of offensive firepower.

Defensively, they’ve held their own thanks largely to winning the freebie war. They’re 4th in the league in forcing turnovers and second in keeping teams off the offensive glass. They need to be, because they’re 10th in EFG% and 8th in opponents’ free throw rate. They can end possessions well if teams are careless, but offenses that execute against them usually end up converting.



Starting matchups
Aaron Thompson Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'2", 195 Measurements 6'4", 196
10.4/2.5/4.7 Game line 14.2/4/6.4
51.8/20/52.7 Shooting line 46.9/35.5/82
Thompson shoots just over 30% on all jumpers, meaning his effective range is about a layup. He makes up for that by being a good distributor and having solid ball security. Remarkably, he's shooting 47.7% from the line in conference play this season. He's an okay veteran lead guard, but there's a strategic hole in his game in that he can be fouled with near impunity in late game situations.
Myles Tate Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Freshman Class Junior
6'0", 160 Measurements 6'4", 176
7/2.7/2.2 Game line 7.1/1.3/1.6
34.6/28.6/71.4 Shooting line 41.5/28.2/85.7
Tate is an opportunistic defender who has compiled a good number of steals, especially for a guy making his first lap through the Big East. He's not a good shooter at this point, mostly a slasher if he's going to be a threat. A lot of his jumpers are taken off the dribble, which isn't the best way to find your legs in a game if you're struggling with your shot, which he is.
Bo Hodges Small Forward Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 210 Measurements 6'4", 195
9.8/7.2/2.7 Game line 11.9/4.3/1.8
37.3/35.3/56.3 Shooting line 44.6/48.3/80
Having just recently gotten the green light to play from the NCAA, Hodges has gone about establishing himself as a valuable asset on the defensive end. He can defend guards and wings with aplomb, blocks shots and hunts steals, and is an absolute force on the defensive glass. He's not shooting well from anywhere on the floor right now, though he's a career 52% shooter from inside the arc.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
6'7, 230 Measurements 6'8", 227
10.7/7.7/1.9 Game line 6.3/7/1.6
46.8/42.9/46.5 Shooting line 39.8/17.1/54.3
Nze missed the last game for Butler with a groin injury, but Coach Steele and I are both preparing as though he'll play. If he can't, I suspect little-used forward Christian David will get the start. Nze is a monstrous rebounder at both ends, but he has struggled mightily inside the arc this year, shooting under 50%. He's a decent three-point shooter, but takes them fairly rarely.
Bryce Golden Center Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Sophomore
6'9", 260 Measurements 6'9", 225
9.6/4.3/0.9 Game line 16.5/8.7/1.4
42.9/19.4/76.7 Shooting line 52.3/34/57.5
Golden offers offensive rebounding, at which he is quite proficient. Other than that, he's not a strong shooter at any range, doesn't block a lot of shots, and defensive rebounds like a guard. He's second on the team in shots percentage, and every time he puts one up is a victory for the defense.


Not much, to be honest. Butler gets fewer than 30% of their minutes from the bench. John-Michael Mulloy and Christian David give some bench minutes in the frontcourt without impacting the game too much, as evidenced by their combined averages of 1.8 and 1. David doesn’t rebound and has taken 8 shots, all from deep. Mulloy turns the ball over like it has been greased.

There are two important players coming off the bench for Butler, though, and those are their top two scorers. Jair Bolden came off the bench for the first time against Marquette in Butler’s last game. He’s a 6’3” volume scoring guard who averages 10.8/3.5/0.8 on an EFG% of 47%. His efficiency is boosted by a very low turnover rate, and he is a reasonable threat from deep.

Leading scorer Chuck Harris has come off the bench for the last 9 games. He does his damage from range, averaging 11.3/2.3/1.8 and shooting 44% on three-point attempts in Big East play. He’s a good free throw shooter and a solid defender.

Three questions

-Can Xavier hit a stride? The Muskies have had their struggles coming out of covid pauses, and this one couldn’t line up any better on paper. Defending the arc has been an issue for Xavier, but Butler isn’t a threat from there. Conversely, getting the ball into the basket has been a struggle for a Xavier team that has bathed some opponents in made jumpers. Butler could hardly be a more permissive opponent. If Xavier has been putting things into place in practice, this is the time to show it.

-Can Butler win on the road? Like, at all? They’ve gotten one roadkill all season, and it wasn’t an impressive one at DePaul. On the other hand, that DePaul team just went into St. John’s and came away with a win. Butler doesn’t seem a likely candidate to repeat the trick, but I doubt the Red Storm anticipated getting chopped down by DePaul. Xavier needs to be alive to the risk.

-Is Bryan Griffin ready to go? As of the press conference, Coach Steele didn’t know. We discussed in the podcast this week and on Twitter how vital Griffin’s edge and muscle in the paint are to this team. Xavier needs a bully who can throw his weight around, and BG is maybe the only candidate.

Three keys

-Crush the glass. Butler is a miserable offensive rebounding team, though they more than hold their own on the defensive end. Xavier is statistically - and I promise you this is true - the best defensive rebounding team in the Big East. Butler is a miserable shooting team; Xavier can send a message about the changes they’ve been able to make in a week of practice if they can completely shut down the glass on Butler.

-Keep the ball moving. The Muskies struggled to get shots to fall against St. John’s, but they did well securing the ball and getting good looks. There were quibbles about shot selection when it was clear threes weren’t falling, but Coach Steele pointed out in the press conference that those were not bad looks X was getting. Players can tend to press a bit when the season is getting down to this point; good ball movement will be a sign that Xavier is still playing loose.

-Kill off the game. X was up early on UConn before falling out of the game and having to chase it the rest of the way. This is not UConn. The Muskies should be able to establish a lead, and once they do, they shouldn’t let up.