Butler vs. Xavier: Beyond the box score

Bryce Nze finishes a layup in Butler’s 68-55 loss to Xavier at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 30. Nze led the Bulldogs with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Photo by Zach Bolinger.

DREW SANDIFER | SPORTS EDITOR | dsandife@butler.edu 

Butler shot 34 percent from the field. Xavier shot 51 percent from the field. In essence, that was the difference in Saturday’s game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler fell into a 20-point hole in the first half and it took all they had to get back into the game, but the Bulldogs could only get within four points before the Musketeers regained their hold on the game. Bo Hodges recorded 11 points and six rebounds in his Butler debut.

While Hodges did not start, the transfer guard was the first man off of the bench and his impact was immediately evident. A ball of energy, Hodges spun and hopped his way to the basket in what was many of Butler fans’ first time watching him play. He is not a shooter, which is something that would be extremely valuable to this team right now, but his energy and experience will make Butler a tough out the rest of the season. 

Coming off of a 20-day pause, Xavier looked sharp. After a two-game winning streak, Butler has now dropped back-to-back games with a road game against Marquette looming on Feb. 2. Let’s go beyond the box score in a game that both had so much hope and so much frustration.

1. Butler’s 3-point defense apparently has not turned a corner

Xavier exposed much-improved Butler’s 3-point defense like an old, embarrassing secret. Way back when the Bulldogs were coming off of their pause for COVID-19, their 3-point defense was abysmal, allowing multiple teams in a row to make over half of their treys. However, since the start of conference play, the group’s perimeter defense has improved greatly, but that was not the case tonight. The Musketeers hit 10-of-20 3-pointers on the night compared to the 5-of-25 night for the Bulldogs. Too many times, known shooters like Adam Kunkel and Nate Johnson were left with wide open looks. The two combined for 7-of-9 shooting from behind the arc. In fact, outside of Paul Scruggs, Kunkel and Johnson, the Bulldogs didn’t play terrible defense. Zach Freemantle, Xavier’s leading scorer, shot 3-of-10 from the floor and Dwon Odom shot 0-of-6. 

Butler’s inability to guard those three was ultimately the deciding factor in the game. Sans Scruggs, Kunkel and Johnson, Butler held Xavier to 6-of-22 from the field and 1-of-9 from three. Yes, take away any team’s three best scorers and statistical anomalies will be made present, but those numbers are astounding. Whether it be a lack of communication on the floor or defensive rotation reps in practice, it is discouraging nonetheless to continue to see an opponent get to its strengths when it wants to against Butler. Hodges gives Butler some much-needed defensive versatility at the guard spot.

On a different note, it was refreshing to see Butler’s bigs dominate an opponent for a change. While Xavier doesn’t really have the shot-blocking, rim-protecting presence like they did Tyrique Jones, Butler doesn’t really, either. The Bulldogs recorded 13 offensive rebounds, albeit because of more missed shots, but couldn’t cash them in. Looking ahead, more of the same physicality will have to continue from Butler’s forwards. Theo John of Marquette will make anyone feel small. Bryce Nze should be up to the task, as he recorded another double-digit rebounding game tonight with 11.

2. Paul Scruggs

Is it something about the Indianapolis-area kid that comes back and torches his hometown team? Three years ago, it was Trevon Blueitt who broke the hearts of fans at Hinkle who used to watch his games at Park Tudor. Fast forward to now, it’s former Southport standout Paul Scruggs who has taken on the role. Scruggs scored a team-high 24 points on just 13 shots, getting to the rim with ease while proving he can shoot from outside by knocking down both of his attempts. When Scruggs was forced out in the middle of the second half due to foul trouble, that was when Butler went on their run. That was short-lived, however, as the senior guard single-handedly willed the Musketeers to victory. One play where Scruggs rips a rebound away from John-Michael Mulloy comes to mind for what a senior leader does for his team. 

The coaching staff threw multiple different players at Scruggs, but it all ended the same way. Bo Hodges on him, too slow. Chuck Harris on him, too small. In the end, Butler could not find an answer to Xavier’s star guard. 

3. The fight is encouraging, but the holes Butler finds itself in is not.

It would have been really easy for Butler to call off the dogs and lick their wounds down 47-37 with 15 minutes to go. At that point, ESPN gave Xavier a 98.6% chance of finishing off the victory. Similarly to what we’ve seen earlier this season, Butler didn’t quit as they pulled the deficit to within four after an Nze layup with over six minutes remaining. While encouraging, it would be nice to see Butler not dig themselves in such a huge hole. In games against Southern Illinois, Seton Hall and UConn, the Bulldogs have played so poorly in the “second quarter” that it makes nearly a miraculous performance to come back and win. This team is not equipped with the 3-point barrage tactic to storm back in games. Putting themselves in first half holes puts entirely too much pressure on Butler to play perfectly.

In the end, Butler showed some true promise for what the rest of this season and next year could look like. It must be frustrating for Butler fans, though, when it feels like they are watching the same script game after game.

Final Thought

For the preview for this game, I wrote that Butler had the defensive versatility at guard to contain Paul Scruggs, but Zach Freemantle would be the key for Xavier to win. It’s a good thing I write about the sports and not prepare the teams for game action. All is not lost, and as much as it pains me, Xavier is a good basketball team and should be expected to participate in the NCAA Tournament.

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