Xavier's Travis Taylor dunks as Kellen Dunham watches (US Presswire)When Butler jettisoned Chrishawn Hopkins in September as a result of an accumulation of team rules violations, it was easy to assume the Bulldogs could absorb the loss of a guard who averaged a modest 9.1 points per game last season.
What stands out most after watching Butler's alarming 62-47 loss at Xavier on Tuesday is how wrong that assumption may have been.
One reason the Bulldogs shot 36.5 percent from the field and sank just 4 of 18 3-pointers was because they missed Hopkins' ability to create off the dribble. Yes, Hopkins was turnover prone and more of a combo guard than a true point guard, but the jet-quick 6-foot-1 junior at least had the ability to beat any opposing defender off the dribble, get into the lane and attack the rim.
No other player is as adept at that as Hopkins, so the Bulldogs struggled terribly when Xavier extended its defense beyond the arc and dared Butler's guards to either sink heavily contested 3-pointers or make plays off the dribble. It turned out Butler could do neither consistently.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham, the two players expected to fix Butler's long-range shooting woes from a year ago, missed 8 of 10 attempts from beyond the arc because they seldom could get off a clean look. Neither Clarke nor any of Butler's other perimeter players had any luck beating the quicker, physical Xavier guards off the dribble either.
The result was a one-sided loss to a Xavier team projected ninth in the Atlantic 10 before the start of the season. Perhaps the Musketeers will exceed those predictions in spite of the loss of Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, Dez Wells and several others from last season, but this certainly is not a Xavier team with the talent, depth or experience of past versions.
That Butler failed to remain competitive with the Musketeers raises questions about how well the Bulldogs are equipped to handle the transition from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 this winter. Xavier executed its defensive game plan brilliantly Tuesday, but it certainly isn't the only team on Butler's schedule with quick, physical perimeter players.
Butler coach Brad Stevens is a tactical master, but there aren't any obvious ways for him to free up his shooters.
Maybe he can play inside-out through big men Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall, but both were pushed around in the paint Tuesday and don't appear capable of consistently scoring enough 1-on-1 to demand double teams. Maybe he can play point guard Jackson Aldridge more minutes in hopes he can create for his teammates off the dribble, but the Aussie sophomore had nearly twice as many turnovers as assists last season and has played sparingly in two games this year. Maybe he runs his shooters off a series of off-ball screens to free them up or use one shooter to set a ball screen for another, but that's not an ideal way to get good perimeter looks over the course of a game.
It's too soon for Butler to panic since plenty of time remains to correct the problem, yet the Bulldogs have challenges ahead schedule-wise. The Marquette team Butler faces to open the Maui Invitational next week is every bit as quick and physical on the perimeter as Xavier is, as are a handful of future Atlantic 10 opponents.
It's up to Stevens to find a solution because Clarke has proven he can be one of the premier outside shooters in college basketball and Dunham isn't far behind. But if neither one can get any space to shoot, their perimeter prowess won't be any help to the Bulldogs.