When the "Catholic 7" broke away from the Big East and took the Big East name with them, I was excited. When Creighton, Butler, and Xavier joined up, I thought we were looking at one of the most interesting Tier 1 conferences. As I've mentioned before, I prefer conferences with 10 teams (and not just conferences that have the meaningless number 10 at the end of their names - Big and Atlantic 10s, I am looking at you) because they offer true round robin play (every team plays each opponent home and away) in conference. The new Big East should be terrific and I took in my first conference game Saturday when Butler visited Xavier.
Coming into the game, I knew that the Bulldogs had strength on the wing in players like Khyle Marshall and shooter Kellen Dunham. Xavier had what might the best player in the game in guard Semoj Christon to go along with some paint power in Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook. I figured that the game would be well contested and excellently coached, and - for once - I was not completely wrong. In the non-conference, the Musketeers had beaten Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Wake Forest, but lost to Iowa, Tennessee, and USC (all at neutral sites). Perhaps not the strongest resume, but no bad losses so that X should be on the bubble. Butler had lost to Oklahoma State and earlier in the week in overtime to Villanova. The Bulldogs' best win was over Princeton.
Throughout the first half, Butler was able to race out to a five-point lead twice (10-5 and at halftime 42-37), but they were hitting an unsustainable rate of their shots, including 3-pointers. With such an inflated field goal percentage (and I am sure true shooting percentage would measure the difference more accurately), the Bulldogs would have needed to build a bigger lead for me to think they had a good shot of winning. Dunham is a very good shooter who can hit a lot of tough shots. The problem is that he takes too many low percentage shots. I was really impressed by the Bulldog defense. They were undersized, but they protected the paint well. Add one Andrew Smith or Matt Howard to this team and you'd have a true sleeper on your hands. The Bulldogs also had some issues getting the ball into the post because of the long Xavier defenders.
The Musketeers weathered the hot start from Butler and pushed to a lead in the second half. The final score was padded by some late free throws and a punctuation dunk from Isaiah Philmore. Christon led the team with 20 points and eight assists, but he did his damage in the flow of the offense. Because I was watching without sound, I did not really notice Christon so I was surprised to look at the box score. Fellow guard Dee Davis hit a couple of high-arcing 3-pointers and finished with 12 points.
The star of the game to me was Stainbrook - a 6-10, 263 lb center right out of the school of Chris Kaman power basketball. Stainbrook transferred from Western Michigan prior to the season (and Kaman did his college basketball work a decade ago for the Chippewas of Central Michigan, so they have a MAC connection). He does not look like he can jump very high and was wearing sunglasses-like goggles with big bandages on his forehead. While the smaller Bulldogs did not give him many easy looks, he was able to bull his way to the basket occasionally. Stainbrook also showed off nice passing skills out of the post. The Big East is blessed with some big bodies (Georgetown's Josh Smith, Marquette's Davante Gardner), so if you like post play, it might be the place to go.