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

Xavier, despite their recent faults, has a chance to play themselves in with a win or two this week. It starts with Butler.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s a sense in which there’s not much to be told about this game. A month ago, it seemed almost impossible that these teams would meet in the first round of the Big East Tournament. Through a series of unfortunate events, here we are. Xavier has stumbled to 7th in the league; only their good work earlier in the year has them a win or two from clinching an at-large bid.

Butler isn’t playing for at-large consideration. Like Georgetown last year, they have played themselves out of the tournament conversation long before the bracket will actually be set. Hope springs eternal in March though, and they’ll be hoping for a magical weekend run to take them from an early offseason to a Selection Sunday participant.

Team fingerprint

Butler has earned their spot near the bottom of the Big East. They just missed having a top-ten offense in an eleven-team league. They are 8th in the league in EFG% thanks to shooting under 30% from deep and taking more than 40% of their shots from behind the arc. They back that up by being 10th in OReb%; though they miss a lot of shots, they don’t grab many offensive rebounds. They’re bad at getting to the line and absolutely horrible - 69.2% as a team - once they get there. Their ball security is pretty middle of the road, which isn’t a huge boon when you can’t score even when you have it.

Their defense is 10th in the league; hooray! They’re a fairly average three-point defense but 9th in two-point percentage defense. They don’t force turnovers much and they allow their opponents to get to (and convert from) the line at a rate well above average. Their defensive rebounding is pretty solid, which I guess isn’t nothing.

To make up for all this ugliness, Butler does a reasonable job at limiting possessions. They have the second longest offensive possessions in the league and use their defense to slow opponents down as well. Teams may not struggle to beat Butler, but they aren’t going to be able to rush it.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Aaron Thompson Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'2", 190 Measurements 6'5", 198
8.2/2.6/3.9 Game line 11.9/4.2/4
47.1/24/60 Shooting line 42.5/33/69.1
Thompson has 32 points on 14-19 shooting from inside the arc in two games against Xavier this season. He's not an athletically special player, but he has a real knack for getting to his spots on the floor despite the defense's attempts to intervene. He can't shoot from more than about 8 feet from the bucket, which makes his shooting over 75% two-point range this year against X all the more frustrating. He's an excellent defender who will be tasked with chasing whomever is hot for Xavier tonight.
Chuck Harris Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Sophomore Class Senior
6'2", 195 Measurements 6'4", 192
10.7/2.9/1.6 Game line 10.4/2.5/1
36.5/30.8/76.7 Shooting line 42.3/40.8/75.6
Harris had a heck of a freshman season, but he has really struggled this year in large part because his three-point shooting has gotten much worse. He runs hot and cold, but he rarely lets that stop him from trying to shoot himself into a game. He doesn't contribute much on the glass or in distribution or on defense; he's a scorer.
Bo Hodges Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Sophomore
6'5", 210 Measurements 6'6", 207
10.4/6.5/1.1 Game line 11/7.6/3
41.4/33.9/61.8 Shooting line 46.7/27.9/71.5
Here's a guy who definitely does contribute on defense and the boards. Hodges is a big, strong wing and possibly the best athlete on the team. He's just good enough as a shooter away from the rim to merit some attention, but his finishing at the basket has been subpar this year. He gives Butler enough on the glass to maintain having a big man who doesn't board well at all.
Bryce Nze Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Senior Class Junior
6'7", 235 Measurements 6'9" 220
8.5/6.3/1.6 Game line 9.8/5.1/1.3
45.6/28/50 Shooting line 45.6/20.5/64.4
Nze is a career 35% shooter from three, but he's only hitting 28% this year. He still has the capacity to get hot from there. He has really struggled from inside the arc in the last couple of years, and he's shooting just 58% at the rim this season. He's a big, physical defender, but he can be prone to foul trouble.
Bryce Golden Center Jack Nunge
Senior Class Junior
6'9", 245 Measurements 7'0" 245
8.9/3.5/0.7 Game line 13.1/7.5/0.9
51.7/35.5/73.2 Shooting line 52/34.1/73.2
Golden boards like a wing, which is fine because Bo Hodges boards like a center. Golden has been a scoring threat from all three levels this year, including shooting almost 70% from the post. He spends a good deal of time hunting jumpers, which works for him within the framework of Butler's offense. He is the team's most efficient offensive player by some a decent margin.

Reserves

Really just the two over the past couple of weeks. Simas Lukosius is a 6’6” freshman big wing who averages 6.3/3.1/1.2 per game. He dropped 33 on 13-21/5-11/2-2 shooting in back-to-back games against Marquette and DePaul in the middle of February. He has put up a total of 18 points in Butler’s 5 games since then. With a shooting line of 39.1/28.9/89.8, he’s Butler best free throw shooter.

Fellow freshman Jayden Taylor - a starter for 18 games before Bo Hodges came back from injury - is the other meaningful bench player. He’s a volume scorer averaging 8.5/3/1.1 per game on 38.4/30.3/75.6 shooting. He’s a 6’4” guard who can fill in 1-3 in a pinch.

That’s it. In Butler’s last four games, they’ve averaged about 6 minutes per game spread among big men Miles Wilmoth, DJ Hughes, and Ty Groce. With Jair Bolden out injured, their bench is frightfully thin.

Three questions

-What role should Zach Freemantle play? As discussed on this very website earlier this week, Xavier has been a better team with their erstwhile star forward watching from courtside. Butler loves playing with two big men - especially as they’ve tightened up the rotation - which would seem to predicate that Xavier does the same from time to time. If Xavier can’t force the matchups with a small lineup, they’re going to need something from a big man alongside Jack Nunge. Who that is remains to be seen.

-Who controls the pace? Butler does a very good job at turning games into merciless, low-possession slogs. Xavier is the third-fastest team in the league and sometimes struggles to get the biscuit in the basket (if you will) in the half court. There are easy baskets to be found on the run for the Muskies, but if Butler can choke them out, Xavier might have trouble scoring enough to win the game.

-Can Xavier win on the glass? It seems like X has been getting dominated on the boards, but they’re still the top DReb% team in the league. Neither of these teams does much on the offensive glass, but Xavier has the edge on the defensive end (obviously). In a low-possession game, second-chance points are worth their weight in gold. Xavier doesn’t necessarily need to harvest them on their own end, but they have to shut the glass off entirely for Butler.

Three keys

-Keep the ball hot. Last time out against Georgetown - in what was indisputably their best offensive showing for quite some time - Xavier had 32 assists on 35 made baskets. Butler chokes off driving lanes with significant help defense, but the upshot of that is that they can be put in rotation if players penetrate and kick. If the Muskies move the ball like they did on Senior Night, good things will happen.

-Track Bryce Golden. He’s not exactly Steph Curry, but Golden is the best deep shooter on Butler and has the ability to turn a defense inside out by starting near the rim and drifting into space. When Butler’s guards - especially Aaron Thompson - get into the middle and occupy the attention of defending big men, Golden has a tendency to find himself in advantageous positions with nobody close to contest. Xavier has to be able to keep him from getting too many clean looks, because he is capable of changing the momentum of a game.

-Play 40 minutes. Xavier has struggled with this all year, despite being a fairly veteran team. Anybody who was cheering for this program a year ago knows that a Big East Tournament game is far from over at halftime. If Xavier has a chance to push the pedal down and run away, they need to keep that going until the final horn.