No. 19 Xavier Knocks Off Butler on Senior Day
Andy Mac Williams,
Xavier closed out a highly successful regular season Saturday night at Cintas with a solid no nonsense 78-66 win over nemesis Butler. Muskies head to NYC and BIG EAST Tournament next week at 23-8, 15-5 solo 2nd in BE and 15-2 at home- the only blemishes at Cintas a two point November loss to Indiana and a one point February "L" to Villanova. XU is #2 Seed and will open BET play Thursday in Quarter Finals after a Wednesday bye playing the winner of 7 Seed Seton Hall vs 10 Seed DePaul(7 PM-FS1). X played almost a clinical 1st half vs Butler-leading 37-27 at the break-manhandling BU on the glass 22-13-shooting 52% FG-limiting Bulldogs 11 FGs and 37% shooting. There were 1st half flaws which kept BU in hailing distance(6 turnovers-2 for 7 3 point shooting and just 5-9 FTs).
Xavier followed a familiar pattern though starting slowly in 2nd half. Butler scored easy inside buckets on their 1st 4 2nd half trips and started eating away at the Muskie lead. Eight minutes in they'd outscored XU 23-11 and taken a 50-48 lead. Media time-out and some aggressive Sean Miller counseling.
X ran great action and Jack Nunge banged in a corner "3" followed by a Colby Jones steal and dunk-followed by a Jerome Hunter drawing a foul on a drive to the hoop. Foul 4 on Butler BIG Jalen Thomas. Simas Lukoscus labeled Nunge with a stray elbow on the same sequence inside and was tagged with a Flagrant 1 foul. X made just 1 of 4 FTs to put X up 54-50 but Thomas had to sit.
The Muskies exploited Frosh BIG Connor Turnbull inside. Manny Bates DNP 2nd half with a sore shoulder and Xavier soon got into the early FT bonus with all the Butler fouling. Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones combined for 8 straight FTs.
X handled the BU press and patiently milked the clock for the win. Adam Kunkel celebrated his Senior Night with 18 points-4 rebounds and 4 assists.
Colby Jones continued his strong play with 20 points on 8-10 FG-8 rebounds and 4 assists. Colby has totaled 68 points the last 3 games(wins over Seton Hall, Providence and Butler) with uncommon efficiency (23-31 shooting for 74% and his usual large helpings of rebounds-assists and defensive stops.
The three Seniors honored Kunkel, PG Souley Boum and Jack Nunge received silver swords suitable for a swash buckling Musketeer- a novel change from the traditional framer player picture. Another innovative touch from the Sean Miller 2.0 regime.
Miller was pleased with his team overall but frustrated by those slow 2nd half starts:
"The first 4 minutes of the second half, we just weren't ready. It's happened several times. Hopefully, we've finally learned our lesson. If that happens again in March, it's going to be over. We've seen this movie too many times before. Among the great things about this team, our second half starts aren't one of them. We have to come out of halftime with real intent. Not always winning that segment but not going down like 10-0. It's something we're going to work on real hard."
Miller also addressed injured Zach Freemantle's availability. He has not practiced nor played in 5 weeks. Sean expects more clarity early next week before BET begins in NYC. XU is 6-3 without BIG Zach. Muskie head to BET with nice mojo (3 straight wins and 4 "Ws" in last 5 games) with a rising NET(19).
This is XU's 1st Opening Round BET bye since 2019 (play-in game losses to DePaul (2020) and Butler(2021 and 2022). Xavier is an NCAA Tournament lock for the 1st time since 2018. Right now they are projected as a #5 NCAA Seed. A win or two in NYC could improve on that.
One HUGE surprise on the final day of BIG EAST regular season. Providence lost badly at home to Seton Hall 82-58 dropping PC into 4-5 Quarterfinal vs red hot UConn Thursday(2:30-FS1). UConn won handily at Villanova 71-59. Creighton climbed into #3 Seed winning 84-70 at DePaul. BE Champ Marquette(17-3) clipped St Johns 96-94 in Milwaukee.
#1 Seed MU plays 8-9 winner(Butler or DePaul) Thursday at Noon(FS1). It's UConn-PC at 2:30 Thursday(FS1). Xavier meets either DePaul or Seton Hall at 7 Thursday(FS1). Creighton takes on Georgetown or Villanova Thursday 9:30(FS1).
March Madness is upon us!! Muskies will be in the 68 team Field announced next Sunday on CBS. So far very good! Thanks- Players-staff and Sean Miller!! How far can this group go? The post season starts Thursday!!