TGHT - "The Game Honors Toughness". This has been one of the core tenets of Brad Stevens' program at Butler University, and was referenced frequently as the Bulldogs progressed through the NCAA tournament field in March of 2010. Throughout the past few years, the post-game comments of opposing coaches often have focused on the physical nature and toughness of the Butler defense. However, Butler has never held a patent on toughness.
Located just over one hundred miles to the southeast of Butler, Xavier University has established a similar reputation for toughness. The Musketeers visited Butler Wednesday night with a 6-0 record, and a #8 national ranking. While blessed with a roster of skilled players, Xavier's lofty ranking is more a product of their collective toughness than of the number of McDonald's All-Americans on their roster.
These two schools were charter members in 1979 of the Midwestern City Conference, which after a couple of name changes became the Horizon League. Xavier dominated the MCC through the latter half of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s, then bolted the league in 1995, and has been the most consistent power in the Atlantic 10 conference ever since. During Xavier's time in the MCC, Butler was at its best a middle-of-the-pack team, and at its worst was the league doormat. Butler rise to prominence in the conference correlated almost exactly with the timing of Xavier's departure.
Because of this history, many long-time Xavier fans continue to view Butler as inferior. That reputation increased further when Xavier reached the Elite Eight in 2004, doing so under the direction of Thad Matta, a graduate and former coach of Butler. A second Elite Eight appearance in 2008 solidified Xavier as a basketball powerhouse. Meanwhile, Butler was beginning to strengthen its own reputation, culminating with back-to-back championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011, which in no small part was launched by this sequence of events that began to suggest that Gordon Hayward indeed had been taught toughness.
With all of this as background, the environment at old Hinkle Fieldhouse predictably was electric for this Butler-Xavier matchup. With the young Butler team off to a 4-4 start to the season, the hometown fans felt some pessimism, but that was offset by excitement for the potential to defeat this longtime rival and knock them out of the Top 10. For Xavier, and the hundreds of vocal fans who made the short trip to support their team, this was a much-savored opportunity to kick the Bulldogs while they are down.
After a fantastic rendition of the national anthem by Stan Howard, father of recent Butler hero Matt, the game began, as expected, with fairly aggressive defense from both teams. Xavier missed two early three-point attempts, and Butler overcome three early turnovers and a couple of missed layups to take a 6-4 lead at the first TV timeout. An encouraging start for the home team, but everyone recognized that there were a number of missed opportunities in those early minutes.
For the next six minutes of action, Xavier dominated action on both ends of the court, and did so with superior toughness. By forcing the pace on offense, by challenging nearly every pass, and by contesting every shot, Xavier used a 17-0 run to seemingly put the game out of reach by the halfway mark of the first half. The young Butler team needed to respond quickly with some of its own toughness, or risk being embarrassed on their home floor. In fact, the Bulldogs did respond, taking advantage of a flurry of foul calls to cut the lead to eleven. However, an end-of-half sequence of a loose ball, a questionable foul called on Andrew Smith, a wildly irate (for Hinkle) crowd, a rare technical foul on Stevens, and some confusion on defense yielded a five-point possession for Xavier, and the Musketeers headed to the locker room with a 39-23 lead.
The crowd was very subdued during the halftime break, and the performances of the Butler dance team and drumline were barely noticed. I found myself distracted by realizing that the scoreboard and game clock lights appeared to be burned out through nearly the entire intermission. Butler-Xavier, Clock Malfunction Part II. How fitting!
By the time play resumed, the scoreboard and game clock were restored to working order, but the scorer's horn was replaced by a wretched sounding substitute. Butler fought back again to begin the second half, with an inspired stretch started by a pair of three-pointers from Chase Stigall, and maintained by the tremendous all-around play of freshman Roosevelt Jones, whose jump shot eventually cut the Xavier lead to 45-41. The once-listless home crowd was in a frenzy, and you could see the young Butler team beginning to show some toughness of its own. Xavier then responded by attacking the basket, getting a string of dunks, layups and free throws to stretch the lead back to double digits. Butler began to answer back, and had a chance to cut the lead to six, when the 6'4" Jones grabbed his fourth offensive rebound of the half, and then fell to the floor as if he'd been shot in the leg. Those severe leg cramps ended his night, and Xavier began their own parade to the foul line to put the game away, to the great delight of its many fans in attendance.
On this night, Butler found itself overwhelmed by the toughness of a strong, veteran Xavier team during a six-minute stretch that cost them a realistic chance of winning the game. However, they responded with some toughness of their own, led largely by the efforts of Jones and his fellow freshman Kameron Woods and Jackson Aldridge. A difficult stretch of games (Ball State, Purdue, Gonzaga, and Stanford - all away from home) awaits this young team, so we'll soon find out if they are going to be able to learn lessons from this loss. Meanwhile, the victorious Musketeers will strive to fight their way back to Elite Eight, and perhaps get a chance to match or exceed the recent tournament success of their old rival.
XAVIER 73, at BUTLER 61 12/07/2011
XAVIER 7-0 (0-0) -- T. Holloway 1-7 14-16 16; T. Taylor 3-7 3-4 9; D. Wells 5-9 2-5 13; M. Lyons 4-10 8-8 16; K. Frease 3-8 1-2 7; J. Martin 2-6 0-0 5; A. Walker 2-2 0-0 4; J. Robinson 1-2 0-0 2; B. Redford 0-2 0-0 0; D. Davis 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 21-53 29-37 73. BUTLER 4-5 (0-1) -- K. Woods 3-7 3-7 9; R. Nored 2-6 1-1 5; C. Stigall 3-11 2-2 10; R. Jones 4-8 2-3 10; A. Smith 3-10 2-2 8; K. Marshall 2-8 3-4 7; J. Aldridge 0-2 5-6 5; C. Hopkins 1-3 0-0 2; E. Fromm 1-7 3-3 5; A. Smeathers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-62 21-28 61.
Three-point goals: XU 2-12 (T. Holloway 0-2; M. Lyons 0-3; B. Redford 0-2; J. Martin 1-3; D. Wells 1-2), BUTL 2-21 (C. Stigall 2-10; A. Smith 0-2; E. Fromm 0-4; C. Hopkins 0-1; K. Marshall 0-1; K. Woods 0-3); Rebounds: XU 36 (T. Taylor 8), BUTL 39 (R. Jones 11); Assists: XU 9 (T. Holloway 3), BUTL 9 (R. Nored 5); Total Fouls -- XU 22, BUTL 26; Fouled Out: XU-None; BUTL-C. Stigall.