The storyline for the 2014-15 Xavier basketball team didn't change Saturday afternoon.
A week after falling at DePaul, the Musketeers' road frustrations continued as they stumbled again at Hinkle Fieldhouse against the Butler Bulldogs, 88-76.
The toughness on defense, particularly on the boards, that the Musketeers showed Wednesday night in their win over No. 19 Seton Hall was nowhere to be found in the second half in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs rebounded 13 of their 27 misses (48.1%), which led to a 21-11 advantage in second-chance points. That was the difference in the game.
"They put tremendous pressure on us on the glass and I didn't like our response," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Coming into the game we felt like a huge key was 50/50 balls and our play on the backboard. That to me was the startling difference in the game. We didn't get offensive rebounds in the game until it didn't matter.
"Butler was ready to play the same way for 40 minutes, and we only challenged them for about 30."
Xavier's players have been hearing about the importance of finishing off possessions and being a tougher team relentlessly in practice for the last few weeks. The fact that Xavier owned a size advantage over the Bulldogs and was repeatedly able to exploit them in the post on the offensive end made the Musketeers' inability to secure defensive rebounds even more exasperating.
"It's very frustrating," Xavier forward James Farr said. "Me personally, that's what I take my pride in, rebounding. I didn't have a strong rebounding night. We just weren't the tougher team tonight. We pride ourselves at Xavier in being the tougher team, being the tougher rebounding team and being the team that gets 50/50 balls. We just couldn't finish our job."
Stainbrook led Xavier with 21 points, most of which came off of easy buckets in the post, to go with five rebounds and two assists. However, the Bulldogs were able to overcome his success on offense by exploiting him on the defensive end. Whether it be in ball screen situations, spacing the floor and constantly making him move to cover shooters or just throwing it into the man he's guarding and letting them try to use their quicker feet to score or draw a foul, the Bulldogs more than made up for his production on offense by attacking him on defense.
"That wasn't necessarily our focus (to attack Stainbrook)," Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. "But he's a big guy, and big guys can tire. I think our guys read the game the right way and made enough right plays. He's a great player. Xavier got him in great spots and he was a load for us as well."
As Mack said, Xavier competed at both ends in the first half. The Musketeers held the Bulldogs to just 33.3 percent shooting in the first half, but offensive rebounds helped Butler gain a 34-31 advantage by halftime as they outscored XU 10-2 in second chance points.
"We were playing with a level of energy and toughness that allowed us to be in that position," Holtmann said. "I just liked our guys' juice. I thought their approach was good. We fought through some missed shots that I thought would fall in the second half. We were right where we needed to be."
Junior guard Remy Abell did a little bit of everything for Xavier in the first half. His recent string of impressive defensive performances against the Big East's top scorers continued as he locked Butler's Kellen Dunham up. Dunham came into the game averaging 17 points per game, but was held to 0-for-5 shooting in the first half. He scored five points, all on free-throws while Abell was out of the game and Dee Davis was guarding him. Abell also hit a three to tie the game up 13-13 just inside the 11 minute mark to go with four rebounds, a steal and an assist.
Dunham finished with 10 points on 2-of-8 shooting for the game.
Andrew Chrabascz and Roosevelt Jones led the Bulldogs with eight points each in the first half. Freshman big man Tyler Wideman came off the bench and provided a lift in the paint with four points (2-2 FG) and five rebounds.
Jalen Reynolds provided some punch off the Xavier bench as he provided seven quick points (2-2 FG) and three rebounds in just nine minutes of action in the first half. He played physical and aggressive as soon as he entered the game. He finished with just 11 points and five rebounds for the game, though.
Butler had trouble matching up with Xavier's personnel without fouling early, so Holtmann made the decision to switch to a 2-3 zone near the eight minute mark and ended up staying with it until halftime. The zone re-emerged some in the second half.
"The zone allowed us to stay out of foul trouble and keep them off the foul line a little bit," Holtmann said. "We got good bench support and the zone kept the game from getting away from us without getting anyone else in foul trouble."
The second half didn't start well for the Musketeers when Chrabascz nailed a three on the Bulldogs' first possession to extend their lead to 37-31. However, Dee Davis answered with a three of his own, and XU settled in for a strong opening four minute war. James Farr nailed a transition three off an assist from Davis just before the first media timeout of the half to put Xavier ahead 45-43.After only playing nine minutes and scoring two points with one rebound in the first half due to foul trouble, Butler senior forward Kameron Woods emerged in the second half to finish with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Woods' and-one tip dunk off a miss by Jones put the Bulldogs up 50-47 with 12:28 to play in the game and ignited the fans in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler never relinquished the lead.
Down the stretch, coming up with a stop seemed to be an impossibility for the Musketeers. In addition to letting the Bulldogs' shoot 64 percent from the field, they were also able to grab seven of their nine missed shots in the second half.
Despite giving up size to Xavier, Butler was fundamentally sound and tough, sprinting back on defense and stopping the ball to completely eliminate the Musketeers' transition offense and boxing out to ensure they didn't get any second chance points of their own.
"I think our toughness had a lot to do with it," Holtmann said. "We had some relentless type plays today that you have to have in league play, because they tip the scales in some cases. The putbacks, the tip-ins, those are huge momentum plays."
Outside of Reynolds, Xavier didn't receive a single point from its bench. Myles Davis came into the game averaging 23.7 minutes per game, but only played 13 and finished 0-for-2 from the field. He's now 6-for-22 from the field in his last four games, including a 1-for-6 performance against Seton hall.
Butler outscored XU 15-11 in bench points for the game.
With Xavier heading to Villanova on Wednesday, picking up a conference road win isn't going to get any easier in the near future.
"Our team has to grow up in many ways, and that's not a dig at our freshman because we have some older guys that need to grow up. The only way I know is to go to practice and continue to emphasize it through drills, show our kids on film where we're coming up short, maybe play different guys. But if we're going to win in this league, especially on the road, we're just going to have to grow up and get tougher."
"We're not the only team in college basketball that struggles to win road games. We've got to battle. We've got to fight in order to win games like this. Butler is good. If we want to be able to beat them at their house, then we have to exhibit the same will that we did for the first 25 minutes of the game for 40 minutes."