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

The Muskies are off of covid pause and back into action at one of the top barns in the midwest.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Our long* national** nightmare is over.

*Depending on your attention span, I guess
**Distinctly regional

For the first time in over a fortnight, Xavier will be kitting up and taking the floor. Back in December, Xavier ended their game against Nova down just a bucket. The Wildcats insisted on playing another 4 minutes to make it an even 40; Xavier’s participation was nominal at best, the Nova ended up winning by 13. Despite being fully healthy since then, Xavier lost games to covid pauses in the Connecticut and Georgetown programs and passive rescheduling practices of the league. X is still 15th in WAB, 22nd in the AP poll, and in a solid position in the league table. Momentum is tough to quantify; after 17 days off, it might also be tough to recapture.

Butler has been earning that “World’s Okayest Basketball Program” mug they got for Christmas this year. They’ve played in 5 Q1 games and been uncompetitive in 4 of them, losing that quartet by an aggregate total of 83 points. Their 5th Q1 game was at Oklahoma, where they somehow won by 4. Beyond that, they’ve picked up 6 of their other 7 wins in Q4 or lower. Yes, lower; 2 of their wins are against teams outside of D1. At 139th in the NET, they’re a Q3 game even on the road right now.

Team fingerprint

Butler likes to play slowly. They’re the 346th-fastest team in the nation both offensively and in overall tempo; only a dozen teams play slower. If I were in charge of a team getting as little out of a given possession as Butler is, I’d try to limit the number of possession in a game as much as I could. LaVall Jordan has always played slowly, but he’s plumbing new depths this year.

Perhaps relatedly, Butler’s offense has been poor this year. They have combined horrible ball security with very poor shooting to land at 180th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom. Butler is shooting just 48% inside the arc and 32% beyond it; both of those marks are well below average. They’re being crippled by their performance in the mid-range, where the shoot just 31.5%, 318th in the country per Bart Torvik. They’re average on the offensive glass and a tick above in getting to the line, though their 66.7% mark from the stripe is 280th in the country. This offense is not good right now.

The defense is actually fairly solid, sitting 66th in the nation. They don’t foul much, but where they really excel is in forcing turnovers and defending the glass. They’re hanging just inside the top 100 in both of those categories, so they’re not exactly lighting the world on fire, but they do well enough to stay above water. They also defend the arc well, holding opponents to just 30% from deep. Unfortunately (from their perspective), they allow teams to shoot 52% from inside the arc - including 63.4% at the rim (296th in the nation) - which lets down their entire defensive scheme.

Players

Butler has been hit hard by the injury bug. They’ve played 13 games this year and have only had 3 guys (Jair Bolden, Jayden Taylor, Bryce Golden) play in all of them. Everybody else has missed some time. Butler brought back almost their entire roster from last year, but they’ve not been able to capitalize on that continuity.

Starters

Starting matchups
Aaron Thompson Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'2", 190 Measurements 6'5", 198
6.9/3.1/4.6 Game line 10.4/4.5/4.2
41.3/33.3/46.9 Shooting line 38.4/31.1/73.5
Thompson's game is built primarily on distribution and defense. He's an okay scorer around the rim, but his range isn't meaningfully more than his wingspan. He'll spend a lot of the game with the ball in his hands, and Butler relies on him to initiate. He's a pesky and productive defender both on and off the ball. In late game situations he can be a liability; he shoots just 56% from the line on his career.
Jayden Taylor Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Freshman Class Senior
6'4", 190 Measurements 6'4", 192
10.5/2.9/1.5 Game line 13.2/3.4/1.2
41.2/26.7/80 Shooting line 48.3/45.8/70.4
Taylor is 21-37 at the rim this year and 12-46 on threes and mid-range twos. He is productive as a slasher but can be fairly limited if he doesn't get all the way to the basket. As befits a slasher, he gets to the line frequently and converts well once he's there. He's not putting up big defensive numbers, but he has been vital for Butler in large part just because he has been heathly and semi-productive on a consistent basis.
Jair Bolden Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'3", 220 Measurements 6'6", 207
9.5/2.3/1 Game line 11.5/8.2/2.6
37.3/36.4/87.5 Shooting line 51.1/34.6/71.4
After bouncing through a couple of schools early in his career, Bolden is in his second year on the same campus for the first time. At Butler, he's a career 35.2% shooter inside the arc in 105 attempts and a 34.3% shooter in 236 three-point attempts. He's much more of a threat beyond the arc than he is once he creeps closer to the bucket. He doesn't board much or offer much on offense beyond catching and shooting from deep.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
6'7", 235 Measurements 6'8", 210
7.3/5.3/2.3 Game line 5.8/5.2/1.3
38.1/23.5/57.1 Shooting line 28.6/18.4/76
Nze is a voracious rebounder on both ends when healthy, which he hasn't been for much of the year. He went down on November 17 against Michigan State and didn't get back onto the floor until December 29 versus DePaul. After being unstoppable in the paint his first three seasons, he's shooting below 50% on twos over the past two years. Butler needs him to rediscover his form from the post, because he's too valuable on the glass for them to write him off. He's also a very good defender, if not a flashy rim protector.
Bryce Golden Center Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 245 Measurements 6'9", 220
9.7/4.2/0.6 Game line 10.4/4.5/4.2
61.7/35/65.5 Shooting line 38.4/31.1/73.5
If you take away Golden's 10-15 from the mid-range, the rest of the Butler team is shooting just 24-93 (25.8%). He's far and away the team's most efficient shooter; nobody else on the team getting real minutes is close to his 64% EFG%. Unfortunately, he doesn't distribute, turns the ball over a ton, shoots poorly from the line, and is prone to foul trouble. If he can be chased from the game, Butler's offense goes from poor to close to hopeless.

Reserves

Probably going to start with leading scorer Chuck Harris, who started six games before sliding to the bench. The 6’2” sophomore guard is averaging 10.6/3.5/2.2 on .339/.317/.750 shooting this season. He shot 40% from deep last year and it seems likely that stroke is still in there somewhere. He can also distribute a little bit, but he’s at his best when he’s scoring the ball.

EMU transfer big man Ty Groce averages 6.8/3.7/0.8 per game off the bench. He takes more threes than twos and has hit 35% of his shots from deep. At 6’8”, 220, he’s a solid defensive rebounder. Freshman wing Simas Lukosius stands 6’6” and averages 4.6/3.3/1.4 per game. He started the first three games of the year and gets about 20 minutes per game off the bench. He can be just enough of a threat that he can’t be entirely left unattended from deep.

Myles Wilmoth and DJ Hughes are both solid offensive rebounders who provide deep bench cover in the paint. Wilmoth has the capacity to get hot from beyond the arc. There is functionally no guard cover. When healthy, Thompson, Harris, and Taylor will rotate through the guard positions. Beyond the three of them there isn’t much.

For what it’s worth, Travis Steele said he expects wing Bo Hodges to make his season debut in this game. If he does, he gives Butler a guy who defends really well from the wing, but he was a less-than-marginal offensive player last year.

Three questions

-Will the time off spoil Xavier’s momentum? Aside from the Nova disaster - which was more of an ill-timed four-minute break than a game-long capitulation - Xavier had been playing well before missing more than two weeks despite being completely healthy. It’s hard to maintain game sharpness without playing games, and Xavier is right back into the fire with a conference road game. The time to find there feet will be measured in minutes; if they can’t get sorted quickly, Butler won’t give them many opportunities to get back into the game.

-Will the time off get Xavier right? Dwon Odom missed a week of practice while the Muskies weren’t playing; it’s not clear that would have translated to missing a week of game action or if he would have just had to nurse a nagging problem. Instead, he was able to rest and is, per Coach Steele, 100%. Zach Freemantle has gotten another couple of weeks to build fitness and find his form, and the team was able to work on things they need to improve before beginning Big East play in earnest. Maybe what ended up being an in-season training camp of sorts will pay dividends for X.

-Who controls the tempo? Xavier is deep and likes to play fast; neither of those two things are true of Butler. The Bulldogs run a super slow offense and get back on defense to avoid runout baskets. There’s not much nuance to this one, really; Xavier can really help themselves by controlling the defensive glass and getting out in transition from Butler misses.

Three keys

-Force the paint. Butler is one of the worst interior defenses in the nation; Xavier has Zach Freemantle (78%), Jack Nunge (74%), and Dwon Odom (73%) shooting over 70% from at the rim in solid samples, and Dieonte Miles is 8-11 in short minutes. Xavier shoots 65% at the rim as a team, which is 40th in the country. There’s a clear weakness and a means to exploit it here, and if Bryce Golden gets into foul trouble because of it so much the better.

-Isolate Aaron Thompson. There isn’t really anyone else on Butler who can distribute like Thompson does; he thanks them for their support by being a pretty incapable scorer in his own right. Their next best option for initiating the offense is Chuck Harris; his three best games by assist rate are three losses and a win over KenPom #355 IUPUI. If Xavier can force Thompson to hunt shots or use someone like Dwon Odom to hound him up and down the floor, they can cut the legs out from under the Butler offense.

-Execute for 40 minutes. The last time out, Xavier played 36 minutes of basically even ball against Villanova; you’ll recall a standard NCAA basketball game is 40 minutes long, and Villanova - as the hosts - insisted on complying with that directive. After more than two weeks off, Xavier faces the additional hurdle of trying to shake off the rust on the road in a league game. A slow start could put Xavier behind the 8 ball against a team that isn’t going to allow them too many possessions to get back in. A faulty finish could leave Hinkle’s water fountains once again in tatters. Just around the corner, Villanova looms. The Muskies have 40 minutes to see what progress they’ve made since the last time they took on the Wildcats.