In Saturday’s 74-57 win over Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Xavier was back to looking like the team that’s been touted as a national title contender.
The Musketeers scored 43 points in the first half, and shot 57 percent from the field for the game, including 9-of-18 from 3-point range. Four players finished in double figures, led by JP Macura’s 13 points. Edmond Sumner added 12 points, Remy Abell had 12, and Trevon Bluiett had 11. Xavier averaged 1.07 points per possession, while limiting Butler to 0.81 PPP.
Saturday’s performance marked the first time since the DePaul game on January 30 that the Musketeers overwhelmed an opponent on both ends of the court and went on a dominant run to pull away.
It was a positive sign for a team that had trudged its way through wins over St. John’s and Marquette and then a loss at Creighton over its last three games. The Musketeers didn’t play poorly during that stretch, but they had some match-up issues and some of their weaknesses were exploited, plus they forgot how to make a shot in Omaha.
St. John’s played great against the Musketeers, particularly guards Durand Johnson and Felix Balamou, who presented match-up problems with their ability to create offense with penetration. Also, freshman big man Kassoum Yakwe’s athleticism and rim-protecting ability went a long way towards negating Xavier’s size advantage in the frontcourt.
X didn’t have a great defensive answer for 6-foot-11, 245-pound skilled freshman forward and future NBA lottery pick Henry Ellenson in the Marquette game, and Duane Wilson and Haanif Cheatham made jumpers.
Then, at Creighton, the Musketeers went 1-for-21 from 3-point range.
The growing concern seemed to be that Chris Mack's players might be losing their edge, or that they were coming down to earth after playing above their level for 20-plus straight games.
But there they were on Saturday, splashing threes on offense and forcing extended droughts on the defensive end to create game-changing runs – the biggest being a 30-8 run over the final 11-plus minutes of the first half to give them a 43-29 halftime lead over the Bulldogs. Xavier played 62 percent man-to-man, and mixed it up with the 1-3-1 zone more intermittently than in recent games.
In terms of individual talents and athletic ability, this Xavier team isn’t necessarily elite. What puts it in the conversation with the nation’s best programs is the high level of skill and amount of weapons on the offensive end that allows the Musketeers to outscore opponents so consistently. On the defensive end, they’re versatile and understand how to play well enough to get important stops against tough match-ups, while being able to really lock up against the teams they match-up well against, like Butler. They're susceptible to giving up a big night to an indivual offensive talent, especially athletic guards who like to penetrate, but most of the time they're able to outscore the opponent to make up for it. And on the occasions that they literally miss every jump shot they shoot except for one, then they'll likely lose (just like every other team in the country).
The past week was a big stretch for XU with games at Creighton and Butler. Both opponents were desperate to pick up a huge resume-building win to solidify their NCAA tournament chances, and the Musketeers escaped with a 1-1 record. They’ll drop in the polls on Monday, but likely only a few spots, as some of the teams ranked immediately below them – Virginia, Michigan State and North Carolina – also suffered losses in the last week. Sixth-ranked Kansas will definitely hurdle Xavier after picking up wins over No. 10 West Virginia and at No. 3 Oklahoma, but other than the Jayhawks it’s tough to make a clear-cut argument for other teams to jump the Musketeers. The loss also slid them down from a borderline No. 1 seed to a solid No. 2 seed, according to most bracketologists at this point.