For 35 minutes, Saturday's game between Butler and Xavier felt like a heavyweight slugfest. In the final five minutes, the Musketeers gave the game away as the Bulldogs pulled away for an 88-79 win at the Cintas Center.
Starting at the four-minute mark of the second half with Xavier trailing 74-72, the Musketeers committed a live ball turnover near the top of the key on four out of five possessions, allowing the Bulldogs to go on an 8-2 run to take control. They finished on a 19-8 run over the final 5:25.
Turnovers have inexplicably been a fatal flaw for this Xavier team all year. With no Myles Davis and no Edmond Sumner, some of the miscues are now more easily explained, but they're not only a product of having a freshman point guard. During that costly string of turnovers late in the game on Saturday, the Musketeers saw four different players cough the ball up - Trevon Bluiett, Malcolm Bernard, JP Macura, and Quentin Goodin. Also, turnovers have been an issue since well before Sumner's injury.
That rash of turnovers wasn't necessarily the difference in the game. The Bulldogs made tough shot after tough shot in the second half and seemed like they might be too much for the Musketeers to overcome regardless. The turnovers just made it so XU never even gave itself a chance to make a winning play on its home court.
A loss to 22nd-ranked Butler, a team that just won at Villanova earlier in the week and is currently slotted for a three seed in the NCAA tournament, isn't damaging at all in itself. However, as part of a five-game losing streak, it carries a little bit more weight. Add that to the fact that it was a home game and Bluiett's second game back from his ankle injury, and it's a game that XU really, really wanted to win.
The last time Xavier lost five consecutive games was during the 1981-82 season under the direction of head coach Bob Staak.
The Musketeers won't fall down seed lines because of this loss, but they missed a huge opportunity to change their narrative and legitimize themselves as a team deserving of an at-large bid heading down the stretch toward Selection Sunday.
There were some bright spots in the loss. After really struggling to find offense over the last four games, the Musketeers scored 79 points while shooting 48.2 percent from the field and averaging 1.16 points per possession against the Bulldogs. Bluiett and Macura were both efficient on offense and hit some big shots. Bernard was more aggressive than we've ever seen him on offense and he scored a season-high 13 points to go with four rebounds and three steals as a result. With Butler having zero rim protection on defense, Goodin took his time and finished off a few strong drives. He was 4-for-8 from 2-point range with 11 points, seven assists, six boards, and six turnovers. Sean O'Mara also continued his recent stretch of solid play by scoring seven points (3-5 FG) and grabbing five rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
All of those things are positives. It'd bode well if the Musketeers were able to carry any or all of them over into their final two regular season games this week against Marquette on Wednesday night and at DePaul on Saturday afternoon to secure their at-large bid in the NCAA tournament and avoid the play-in game in the first round of the Big East tournament. The Musketeers are currently in a four-way tie with Seton Hall, Marquette, and Providence for fourth in the conference standings.