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

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It has kind of been do-or-die time for a week for Xavier, but now it really is. They can’t win anything with this game, but they can sure lose a lot.

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Xavier
I hope the whole game is just Myles Tate trapped in a corner.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the best month of the year, and it’s going off at the world’s most famous arena. For the first time since 2017, Xavier will be playing on the first day of games, having missed the byes available to the top five teams in the league by virtue of not finishing in the top five.

That year, Xavier beat DePaul in the opening round before scratching out a tough win over second seed Butler to vault from the bubble to a six seed. They’ll need something similarly magical this year to merit consideration for an at-large bid. Or they could just go ahead and win the auto bid.

Butler needs to win out and take the auto bid. They have no hope of winning an at-large bid and are dead in the water if they accomplish anything less.

Team fingerprint

Butler has a top-ten offense in the league, which isn’t impressive in the context of their being just eleven teams in the Big East. They shoot a ton of threes and are seventh in the league in 3P%, but they’re also 8th in the league in 2P%, so there’s really no good shots for them. They also don’t rebound well at all on the offensive glass. They don’t turn the ball over much and get to the line - where they shoot just 64% as a team - well. They also get a ton of shots blocked. They’re not a good offensive club.

On defense, they’re marginally better. They’re 3rd in the league in 3P% defense, but 11th - again, out of 11 teams - in 2P%. They do seal off the defensive glass fairly well, but they’ll put opponents at the line a ton and don’t force a lot of turnovers. Looking at their numbers, it’s remarkable they’ve won at all. They’re also not too dissimilar to Xavier’s numbers, which is a fact I’m ignoring for the sake of my optimism this week.

Players

Starters

For what it’s worth, I’ve included Jason Carter because Coach Steele said he’s trying to battle through his ankle injury and I can’t imagine he’ll start CJ Wilcher across from Bryce Nze if he can avoid it. Of course, no guarantee Nze can go. Consider the below written in pencil.

Starting matchups
Myles Tate Point Guard Dwon Odom
Freshman Class Freshman
6'0", 160 Measurements 6'1", 180
7.1/2.7/2.3 Game line 6.2/2.5/3.1
33.8/25.3/72.9 Shooting line 46.5/16.7/60.7
Tate has been in and out of the starting lineup this year, but he has stepped up in since Aaron Thompson went down. He has had a couple of miserable games against Xavier, including going 0-10 from deep and coming up with but 1 steal. He's generally an active defender and solid from the free throw line. He's getting more run than he was planned to as a freshman, and it kind of shows.
Chuck Harris Shooting Guard Paul Scruggs
Freshman Class Senior
6'2", 190 Measurements 6'4", 196
12.8/2.9/2.4 Game line 14.2/4.1/5.8
40.3/39.3/83.6 Shooting line 46.1/31.6/83.6
Speaking of freshmen, albeit those not in over their heads, Harris has been really good this year. He's a shooter first, second, and third; he's not going to do too much at the rim or in the mid-range. He's a volume guy, ranking sixth in the conference in shots rate, but he's doing it at an incredibly efficient rate. If you leave him, he'll stick a bunch of shots and bury you. He's also great from the line.
Jair Bolden Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Freshman
6'3", 210 Measurements 6'5", 195
11.1/3.5/0.8 Game line 7.1/1.3/1.7
35.9/35.2/73 Shooting line 40.2/26.6/88.9
Also a shooter, but not on the level of Harris. While Harris hunts shots, Bolden just hucks whenever the ball comes his way. He's a decent defender and rebounder, but he's mostly out there to catch the ball and then shoot it. He rarely turns it over or ventures inside the arc; just 3 of his 237 shots on the year have come at the rim.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
6'7", 230 Measurements 6'8", 227
10.6/8/2 Game line 5.4/6/1.5
47.3/37.5/45.6 Shooting line 38.8/14.6/55.3
Nze was out for Xavier's trip to Hinkle, but he has been back for three games now. He has gone for 29 points and 28 boards in those three games, and that includes getting just 11 minutes in the Bulldogs' 20-point loss to Creighton. He rolled an ankle in that game and is considered questionable for tonight's game. I don't want to wish poor fortune on another human being, so I'll just leave that there.
Bryce Golden Center Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Sophomore
6'9", 260 Measurements 6'9", 225
10/4.5/0.9 Game line 16.3/9/1.3
45.3/19.4/77.4 Shooting line 51/32/59.7
Golden lives on the offensive glass and around the rim. He's not got a ton of range, and he's not scoring very efficiently in the lane. He's only shooting 51% from inside the arc, which is less than ideal. His and Nze's combined ineffectiveness near the rim has been a real detriment for Butler this year.

Reserves

Aaron Thompson is out with a shoulder injury. Bo Hodges - a 6’5” wing who crushes the defensive glass, averages 9.4/6.7/2.4 on 37.5/38.1/45.5 shooting, and can defend 1-4 effectively - rode a stationary bike on the sideline all game against Creighton trying to loosen his calf; he never got in. As discussed above, Bryce Nze is hurt and may not play. It’s not great for depth.

So the bench is Myles Wilmouth, a 6’9” freshman averaging 1.9/2.7/0.2 in 15 minutes of play, Christian David, a 6’6” senior who is 1-2 from inside the arc this year, and John-Michael Mulloy, who is 6’10”, can’t board, and is 2-4 from the floor. There’s not much coming off the pine for Butler.

Three questions

-Who will play? For Xavier, Jason Carter has been battling an ankle injury and may not be able to go. Bryce Nze and Bo Hodges are distinctly questionable for Butler. Additionally, Aaron Thompson, Nate Johnson, and Ben Stanley are all starter-level players who have already been ruled out for the season. We probably won’t know until the ball goes up - and maybe even not then - who is going to factor in the game’s outcome. We’re at the pointy end of the season and both teams are carrying so many injury problems that they’re legitimately shells of the teams they should be.

-Can either team play away from home? Xavier’s best road win is at Butler. Butler’s best road win is at DePaul. Butler has one game at a neutral site, and it’s a loss to Indiana. Neither team has done anything to prove that they’re capable of putting together an effort worth praising away from the confines of their home court. Nobody will be playing at home from here on out; somebody is going to have to step up today.

-Which coach will have a new wrinkle? Both teams have seen pretty much everything the other has to offer at this point. There are no mysteries in a double round robin conference schedule. Now these teams will be facing each other for the third time in six weeks. There’s no shame in leaning into what you’re already good at, but someone who comes out with something unseen will have a little advantage. In a game like this one, being a possession or two ahead of your opponent might be the difference between moving on and going home.

Three keys

-Bring someone other than Paul Scruggs out of the locker room. In Xavier’s last four games against teams that aren’t Butler, the team has come out running in wet sand. From tip to U12 media timeout in those four games, Xavier has scored 35 points in about as many minutes, and 21 of those points have come from Paul Scruggs. This team does not have the firepower to consistently come back. They need to score more than a point a minute during the opening phases of the game, and they need to have someone help Paul Scruggs get the game underway.

-Own the paint. Xavier is the best defensive rebounding team in the league, and Butler is the worst two-point defense. There isn’t any reason Xavier should make a habit of settling for long jump shots tonight. Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle are the obvious candidates to live in the paint, but Adam Kunkel has a really nice arsenal of manic dribble moves and pull-up jumpers from the mid-range. If everyone is working downhill, Xavier’s offense should be able to feast. The glass is just a matter of effort from 1-5; there’s no excuse for Xavier to be giving up second chances.

-Control the pace. Butler wants to plod, especially now that they’re so decimated by injuries. If Hodges and Nze can go, they’ll not be at full fitness. Xavier has the athletes to get out and go, and especially Zach Freemantle has an athletic advantage against his direct matchup. The Muskies haven’t proven recently that they can score against five defenders who are back and set, but they’ve had better success in transition. They should be looking for chances to run, which begins with grabbing defensive rebounds off of Butler misses.