Xavier needs to handle Butler to shore up tourney outlook

NCAA Basketball

Two consecutive Big East Conference losses haven’t yet put Xavier on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, according to experts.

A third consecutive loss might do the trick.

When the Musketeers host Butler on Sunday night in Cincinnati in another Big East contest, they’ll be aiming to stop their skid and start a late-season run that will assure them of avoiding the three-letter tournament.

Xavier’s 93-84 defeat Tuesday night at surging St. John’s was a fail cake made primarily with poor defense. In falling to 11-4 overall and 4-4 in the conference, the Musketeers permitted the Red Storm to can 51.5 percent of their field goals and 11 of 29 3-pointers.

“I want to see our defense progress,” said Xavier coach Travis Steele. “It can’t get any worse than it was against St. John’s. We’ve got to get a lot better at that end. Our guys have an understanding of the system and know what they have to do. They just have to do it.

“They know we have to do it in order to have the success we want to have as a team. But we don’t have weeks to figure it out. We have days to figure it out.”

Zach Freemantle continues to be the Musketeers’ top weapon. Coming off a 22-point, 10-rebound effort at St. John’s, he’s averaging a team-high 16.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Paul Scruggs chips in 14.2 points and 6.4 assists.

Meanwhile, Butler (7-12, 6-10) is struggling through an unusually poor season, undone by a toxic mix of inexperience and key injuries. The latest insults and injuries occurred Wednesday night in Indianapolis when sub-.500 Marquette took the Bulldogs apart 73-57.

Already without the services of senior leader Bryce Nze (groin), who averages 10.7 points per game and 7.7 rebounds, Butler saw East Tennessee State transfer Bo Hodges (calf strain) go down just three minutes into the second half against Marquette.

Hodges is averaging 9.8 points and 7.2 boards in his first six games with the Bulldogs. They have four players in double figures, led by freshman Chuck Harris (11.3 ppg), but are scoring just 63.4 points per game and making only 41.1 percent from the field.

The teams met on Jan. 30 in Indianapolis, with Scruggs pouring in 24 points to lead Xavier to a 68-55 decision.

–Field Level Media

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