No. 6 Xavier had a rough go of it in its Big East opener on New Year’s Eve. The Musketeers not only lost by 31 points to one of the league’s other favorites, No. 16 Villanova, but they also lost their starting point guard Edmond Sumner to a scary head/neck injury.
Without Sumner in the lineup against a really strong No. 9 Butler team on Saturday, coach Chris Mack had some questions about how to go about replacing one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball this season.
The answer, at least for Saturday against the Bulldogs, was by going big.
Host Xavier used its size advantage inside to thump Butler 88-69 to get back to even in the race for the Big East title. Instead of replacing Sumner with a guard like J.P Macura or Larry Austin, Mack started both James Farr and Jalen Reynolds and let them control the inside of the paint. Butler shot 36 percent inside the 3-point arc, and the two big men combined for 21 points and 18 rebounds.
Offensively, Remy Abell was the leader for Xavier, scoring 21 points and dishing out four assists on 7-of-8 shooting from the field.
Butler coach Chris Holtmann also shook things up in his starting lineup following the Bulldogs’ loss in their Big East opener, although his was more of a voluntary measure. He replaced Tyler Lewis, Kellen Dunham and Andrew Chrabascz with Jordan Gathers, Kelan Martin and Austin Etherington in an attempt to get his group going. The move did get Dunham going a bit more from behind the arc, as he went 3-for-5 from downtown after coming in on a streak of 23 consecutive missed. However, the move did not spur on the Bulldogs’ now-154th ranked defense, as they allowed Xavier to shoot 56 percent and put up 88 points.
“You can’t get driven like we’re getting driven,” Holtmann said after the game about his team’s perimeter defense, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Without an improvement defensively, Butler (11-3, 0-2 Big East) is not going to be able to compete for the Big East title like it thought it could coming into conference play. There are too many gaps in their coverage right now, and the Bulldogs don’t have enough size inside to cover up for teams that can blow by them at will on the perimeter.
However, Xavier (13-1, 1-1) does seem poised to factor into the Big East title race despite its loss to Villanova. The Musketeers are a complete team that can beat you offensively and also wear you down defensively inside. Plus, the Sumner injury does not seem to be one that will theaten his season, as he is currently listed as day-to-day while he goes through concussion protocol.
Overall, this was a nice bounce-back win for Xavier under less than ideal circumstances. But even with their point guard out, it did it over a team that seems to have some pretty significant holes to take care of at the moment.