INDIANAPOLIS – After Tuesday’s lopsided loss at No. 3 Villanova, Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard was heartened by the Musketeers’ resilience at ensuing practices.
There was more energy, Bernard said. Everyone was “ready to go” as they prepared for No. 12 Butler.
That sentiment carried over to the first half of Saturday’s showdown at Hinkle Fieldhouse – and then the Bulldogs erupted for 58 second-half points, locking up an 83-78 defeat of No. 15 Xavier before a sellout crowd of 9,166.
Xavier (13-4, 3-2 Big East) led by as many as nine points but fumbled to a 0-for-4 start in the second half while absorbing three fouls and two turnovers. Although guard J.P. Macura restored XU’s lead with 15:26 left, Kelan Martin answered with a lay-up and the Bulldogs (15-3, 4-2) never surrendered control.
Butler scored 21 points off turnovers throughout and dismantled the Musketeers’ defense after halftime.
“I think Butler just came out and punched us in the mouth,” Bernard said. “They set the tone that they were going to get to the rim and it was just lay-up or free throws, lay-up or free throws. We didn’t guard the ball well. That’s what happens when you don’t guard. Fifty-eight points.”
It was in many ways an odd game, addled by 56 combined fouls (six in the last 19 seconds alone). Xavier point guard Edmond Sumner went scoreless in the first half and amassed his team-high 22 points in the last 12:08.
Sumner also sustained an injury on the Musketeers’ final possession. Macura fired a long pass to Sumner and the speedy Kamar Baldwin, who finished with a career-high 21 points, blazed by for a steal. He collided with Sumner’s left shoulder in the process. It was the same shoulder Sumner hurt at Villanova.
Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz escorted the ailing Sumner to Xavier’s bench, and then he retreated to the locker room with trainer David Fluker as the clock struck zero.
“Honestly, he’s in some pain but I think he’ll be fine,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I asked Fluker and he said it’s not ‘out’ or anything like that. He’s in some pain, but that’s about all I have.”
Xavier had four double-figure scorers, including a career night from Bernard (10 points, a team-high eight rebounds) but lost the rebounding battle to a Butler team that’s now 10-0 when controlling the glass.
A vexing riddle
Xavier has allowed 103 points combined in its last two second halves. What could have been an anomaly at Villanova – ranked No. 1 in the country until Butler upset it at Hinkle Fieldhouse Jan. 4 –returned against another elite-level opponent.
A microcosm of the Musketeers’ struggles played out late in Saturday’s game. Mack called a timeout to implement a trap. He very specifically outlined the defensive plan and instructed players not to foul.
Xavier fouled the next three times up the court.
Mack shouldered the blame, saying he was the one communicating the message and the leader of the team, but Bernard begged to differ. It was the players’ responsibility to execute, he said.
“It’s not his fault. It’s ours. They give us the right game plan so we have to find it as players and get it down,” Bernard said.
Bernard said recent lapses have “something to do with leadership” within the player ranks, but also with each individual’s need to “buckle down” and “get stops.”
The outing was a tough one for Trevon Bluiett, who missed eight of his 10 field goal attempts and fouled out with 3:18 to play. Bluiett has struggled with efficiency since his 0-for-10 performance at Georgetown. He’s gone 8-for-40 (20 percent) in the last four games, including a 5-for-25 skid from the perimeter.
Mack said the team needs Bluiett, Xavier’s season scoring leader and a third-year player.
“That doesn’t mean I’m putting the onus on Trevon. I’m not calling him out in the media," Mack said. "You need your better players to play well, and quite simply Edmond was missing in the first half and J.P. had seven turnovers. Tre had three turnovers. Those two combined for more turnovers than Butler. And they’ve won us a lot of games and they’ve played in some big games, but they’re also big boys now and they need to take ownership of our team a little bit more. We do need them to consistently play a little bit higher level than maybe they’ve played here recently."
“But I have all the faith that those guys are going to deliver. We’re not playing chopped liver. We’re playing damn good teams, teams that we have a lot of respect for. It’s hard to win on the road in college basketball.”
Where does the loss leave Xavier?
The Musketeers led the Big East with a spotless league record on Monday. Six days later they’re tied for fourth place with Marquette.
While there’s no shame in losing on the road in back-to-back outings to Top 12 teams, Xavier’s chances to nab quality road wins are dwindling. Their best true road victory is at Georgetown, ranked 89th in the NCAA’s RPI.
Victories at No. 22 Cincinnati (17th in the RPI) and No. 8 Creighton (5th) would be strong resume builders. A win at Seton Hall (38th) would be respectable.
There’s little time to dwell on road games right now, though, as Creighton (17-1, 4-1) comes to Cintas Center for a 2 p.m. game Monday as part of the Big East Marathon. It’s an immensely quick turn-around for both clubs, but perhaps even more so for Xavier considering the quality of opponent it faced Saturday.
The Bluejays feasted on Division II Truman State in their Saturday game.
Villanova, Butler and Creighton form the most difficult three-game stretch in Xavier history based on rankings. There’s a razor thin margin of error for XU right now, and a Jekyll-and-Hyde defensive performance could prove disastrous against the Bluejays.
Creighton boasts a potent back court in Marcus Foster (18.2 ppg) and Maurice Watson Jr. (13.4) as well as a high-performing center in freshman Justin Patton (14 ppg, 6.4 rebounds per game).
“Until I watch the film, it’s really had to pinpoint the problem,” Mack said of the defensive disparity from the first half to second at Butler.
“I can tell you the result was Butler just playing downhill. I mean, I don’t know how many lay-ups that we gave up right down the lane. They do a good job of dribble-flipping, trying to get you into switches. You’ve got to be able to communicate, and I thought we did that much better in the first half. I thought Butler ran their dribble weave and their flip and their brush screens a little bit faster in the second half. We didn’t offer enough resistance.”