COVID pauses are something relatively novel to College Basketball, and yet the data supports the common conclusion that they are, in fact, bad. In the case of Xavier, no one in their own program tested positive, so they had their full allotment of healthy players for this game, but a 17 day break in action in the middle of the season would figure to disrupt the rhythms and momentum of a team that had started 11-2. Good thing, then, that their first game back was to a truly horrendous Butler team who, as an added bonus, are content to play at a glacial pace, so as to not wear out their opposition.
This game felt like it could be a trap of sorts: coming off a long pause after a frustrating loss and having not actually won a basketball game in 20 days, Xavier could have been in for a rough time tonight if shots weren’t falling and Butler’s slightly worse than terrible defense forced them into sloppy plays. Instead, Xavier turned the ball over a season low 6 times, shot 10-22 from three, and, apart from a burst to cut it 6 in the second half, dominated Butler in their own gym to move to 12-2 and set themselves up for another showdown with Nova.
The story of this game for Xavier was Adam Kunkel who, after a tepid performance against Marquette and a decent showing at Villanova, showed once again that he is a difference maker off the bench in Big East play. His first three was a harbinger of Xavier’s 12-2 run that would take them out to a 12 point lead in the first half, and his bucket to end the half meant Xavier would go to the locker room up 11. It was in the second half that he would make his greatest contribution, as he would be instrumental in answering every Butler run. When Butler whittled the lead down to 6 with 16 minutes left, it was a pair of Paul Scruggs free throws and a bloodless three by Kunkel that pushed it back to 11. After Jair Bolden’s heave cut it back to 8, Kunkel punished the overplaying defense with a nice over the top feed to Jack Nunge. After the teams went back and forth shooting free throws, Kunkel buried another three to extend and 8 point lead to 11. He hit a jumper in the lane between a pair of Aaron Thompson runners and then ran down an offensive rebound to keep alive a possession that would end with another three, this one preposterous range. After Butler cut the lead to single digits nearing the final media timeout, Kunkel got back his own miss and split a pair of free throws before intercepting a Thompson pass on the ensuing possession and finishing the fast break himself to push the lead back out to 12. Tonight figured to be all about who could get himself into a rhythm after not playing for a while, and Kunkel answered the bell, finishing with 25/3/1 in 26 marvelous bench minutes.
That is not to say Kunkel was the only Musketeer to show up tonight. Any other night Paul Scruggs 16/7/6 would be the headline act as he cashed out 9-9 from the line and was influential in passing lanes all night. Jerome Hunter’s 12/0/1 perhaps undersold the quality of minutes he gave Xavier as he efficiently took what the defense game him and kept Butler’s pick and roll from being effective as he took to his defensive assignments with his usual tidiness. Zach Freemantle chipped in 10/2/1, all of his scoring coming in the first half, but struggled when put in pick and roll situations on defense. Jack Nunge and Nate Johnson, both of whom have starred for Xavier this season, were efficient in secondary roles, contributing 8 and 7 respectively with usage rates below their season averages and Dwon Odom spectacularly sent a couple of Butler efforts at the rim and gave Xavier 2/2/3 without turning the ball over.
Getting a win would have been enough for most Xavier fans tonight after 17 days off, but this Xavier team came out and dictated the game in a (semi) hostile venue and walked away with a 15 point victory they fully deserved. Xavier basketball is back, and this team served us a reminder tonight of just how fun they can be to watch.