The Butler Bulldogs have been, perhaps, the most up-and-down team in the Big East so far through the four conference games. After a loss at Villanova on the road, they stormed back and took down then-ranked St. John's on the road. Following that performance, they took a rare home loss to the Providence Friars. In a way, Saturday against Xavier was a must-win game for the Bulldogs. And they were able to deliver. How did they pull off the victory? Let's take a closer look.
What Went Well
Before the game, in our 5-on-5 preview, I said for the Bulldogs to be successful they were going to need to have someone other than Kellen Dunham score points. Dunham is a great scorer, but he can't do it all on his own. He is not Doug McDermott. I don't know if the Bulldogs read the preview, but they sure took my advice. Everyone in Butler's starting five (Alex Barlow, Dunham, Roosevelt Jones, Andrew Chrabascz, Kameron Woods) scored in double figures, with Dunham having only 10. If Butler can figure out how to do that regularly, they're going to be a very scary team. That, however, is a big "if".
Butler also displayed something that was also present in their victory against St. John's: Incredible second-half efficiency. Butler's PPP (Points Per Possession) in the second half was 1.5. Anything over 1 is considered above-average, so second half scoring and putting this game away was a big thing for the Bulldogs.
What Went Poorly
I don't want to have a cop-out here, but Butler really didn't do anything poorly on the offensive end. I mean, KAMERON WOODS had 13 points. When you get that sort of production, it's hard to pick anything bad. Really. They shot 48% as a team, distributed the ball well, grabbed offensive rebounds, and had scoring depth. They missed ten free throws... but also made 32. Yup. 32-42 from the free throw line.
What Went Well
In a surprise twist, it really was Butler's offensive explosion that earned them the win for this go around, but their defense was still as impressive as always. According to espn.com, Xavier boasts one of the most potent offensive attacks in the nation, averaging 79.0 points per game for the 19th-highest mark in the country. The Bulldogs held them to 76 points, and while that is the most the Musketeers have scored in Big East play, keep in mind that Xavier was hitting their two-point attempts at a crazy 55.3 percent clip. I'll go more into that statistic in a little bit, but for now, let's talk about how the Bulldogs slowed down this Xavier offense.
Butler's been terrific at pressuring shooters on the perimeter all season, and they did it again against the Musketeers, holding their opponent to just 27.8 percent from three-point territory. Xavier's Trevon Bluiett and Dee Davis are both shooting between 32 and 37 percent from deep on the season, but made just a combined two of ten attempts behind the arc against the Bulldogs. Overall, the Musketeers are a very capable team from range, averaging 37.5 percent from three on the season, but they weren't able to get it going with such tight ball pressure and help defense.
For some stretches, Xavier's behemoth center Matt Stainbrook looked unstoppable, but credit to Chris Holtmann for fighting fire with fire in the second half by throwing freshman Tyler Wideman at him down low, even when he was in foul trouble. These kind of adjustments can swing games, and it's no coincidence that the Bulldogs pulled away just as Stainbrook started to go quiet in the final minutes.
What Went Poorly
As I stated above, the Musketeers dominated from two-point territory, and Stainbrook's performance was a big part of that. Stainbrook finished with a game-high 21 points on 8-12 shooting, and before Wideman quietly took care of him near the end of the game, the Bulldogs didn't seem to have an answer for him beyond just fouling on the way to the rim. Alex Barlow, Kameron Woods, Andrew Chrabascz and Wideman each had four fouls by the end of the game, with the latter three each taking on Stainbrook at some point during the game. Their offense bailed them out, but this is now a few games in a row that Butler has struggled to take care of the rim after doing it so well during non-conference play.
The Bulldogs allowed four opposing players to finish in double digit scoring, although a lot of this - and especially with Xavier's Remy Abell - was due to their success at the free throw line. It wasn't a pretty defensive performance, but it really was big to see Holtmann make the proper adjustments down the stretch. For a team with tournament hopes, this was a promising performance against one of the Big East's best offenses.
P.S. It also probably didn't hurt for the Bulldogs to hold Bluiett, an Indianapolis native who considered Butler before committing to Xavier, to just nine points. Bluiett came out to a sea of boo's during player introductions, and the crowd went crazy any time their home squad kept the freshman stud in check. Bluiett is going to be great player, which will add to the already fun rivalry between these two squads.