Of all the non-conference games Xavier plays this year, none will engender as much pathos from the Musketeer faithful as the December 10th contest against Cincinnati. With the non-conference schedule winding down and the season as a whole heating up, the Crosstown Shootout serves as an early milepost for Xavier fans to measure their expectations of the team for the rest of the season. Every cliché used to hype contrived rivalries on ESPN8 applies to this game: the teams really do seem to find each other distasteful, you really can throw out the records when these two teams meet, and the players really are going all out. Throw in a raucous home crowd no matter where the game is set, pray for Bobby Knight rather than Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale behind the mic, and buckle up for the best non-conference game all season.
Mick Cronin came onto the Cincinnati scene in for the 2006-2007 season after a relatively successful tenure at Murray State. Cronin, a Cincinnati native and author of the acclaimed children's book Hello, Bearcat!, took over after Andy Kennedy led UC to the NIT in his only season at the helm. Besides perhaps proving that it's better to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced Bob Huggins, Cronin has amassed a 87-77 record for the Bearcats. His UC team is the only major college program whose record has improved every year for the last five years, though one might point out that the 11 win season from which he set out improving is kind of cheating in that regard.
Natural attrition took its toll on UC this offseason, with six members of the team seeing their eligibility expire. Despite the loss of depth that the team will naturally incur, they'll bring back 66% of their scoring, 60% of their rebounding, and 70% of their assists. The best of the departing seniors was Rashad Bishop, an effective (.372) three-point shooter who posted 8.4/3.5/1.7 per game and led the team with 47 steals. Ibrahima Thomas also leaves, taking his 5.7/5.3/0.6 on .497/.107/.600 with him. The 6'11" Senegali never really cracked the potential he showed while averaging 6 PPG as a freshman at Oklahoma State.
Further down the totem pole, Larry Davis provided backup guard play to the tune of 4.5/1.0/0.9 on .373/.337/.727 shooting last season. Reserve forward Darnell Wilks basically did the same thing, just closer to the bucket. His 3.6/2.6/1.1 on .432/.314/.635 will frankly not be that difficult for the Bearcats to replace. I'm sure both of those guys worked really hard in practice to help their teammates get better. UC was 49th in the nation with almost 37% of their minutes coming off the pine last year; that number will drop this year, but the team's production isn't likely to suffer too much for it.
Coming back for UC is enigmatic big man Yancy Gates, whose flashes of talent have often only served to make his seeming lack of passion all the more frustrating to Bearcats fans. In addition to having the game of his life against X last year, Gates posted 11.9/6.9/1.2 on .511/.286/.579 shooting. He also led the team with 43 blocked shots; much of the success or failure of this season for Cinci will be determined by Gates' output. Fellow rising senior Dion Dixon was second on the team in scoring and assists in posting 11.6/2.9/1.9 on .415/.356/.762 shooting last season. His 48 3PM were first on the team last year, leading rising sophomore Sean Kilpatrick by two. Kilpatrick flashed scary potential as a freshman, posting 9.7/3.2/1.5 on a handsome .437/.377/.722 shooting line. He got those numbers in just 20.6 MPG while having the team’s highest usage rate; look for him to step up as the primary perimeter scorer this year. Ball distributor Cashmere Wright rounds out the meaningful returnees; his 8.9 PPG pair nicely with a team-leading 3.9 APG. His A:TO just a tick under one and his shooting line of .415/.352/.743 demonstrate his ability to avoid wasting possessions.
With a decimated bench but four returnees who should start, UC needs consistency more than brilliance out of their newcomers. According to scouting reports, that's the exact opposite of what they can expect from 6'6", 185 lb wing Shaquille Thomas. Thomas is long and athletic with good ball skills and a reliable shot all the way out to the arc. Unfortunately (for him) word is that his basketball IQ is low and that his effort and assertiveness are sometimes questionable at best. While nobody questions the effort of 6'2", 180 PG Ge'Lawn Guyn, it's that same motor that sometimes gets him into trouble. Guyn is constantly playing in attack mode, but his game doesn't translate well into the half court setting. Left-handed wing Jermaine Sanders - 6'4", 190 - is a shooter with good range who is strong through contact closer to the rim. His troubles lie at the other end, where he's too slow to defend the 2 and too small to defend the 3.
Combo guard Jeremiah Davis stands 6'3", 195, and can distribute the ball as well as scoring it on his own. He has good feel for the game and good ball skills, but his shooting needs work, his athleticism is average, and there's some question as to how much more output he can wring out of his talent. He does have 5 pounds on 6'8" PF Octavius Ellis, who plays a Euro-style big with the ability to score from a wing position. Ellis is a good help side shot blocker, but he needs to add strength if he wants to avoid getting bullied in the paint. Joining the five freshmen is JuCo transfer Cheikh Mbodj, who averaged 15 and 7 with 2 BPG at Grayson County College in Texas. Mbodj - also a native of Senegal - figures to have the first crack at filling Thomas' role in the middle alongside Gates.
UC returns with the same look they sported last year in many ways. Gates needs to get it done inside, Dixon will be a big part of the perimeter game, and Cashmere Wright will be running the offensive show. Sean Kilpatrick seems to have plenty of talent to grow into, so look for him to take over the primary perimeter scoring role as his minutes increase. Cronin's style of basketball demands a lot of energy for 40 whole minutes, so effective play from the six new players on the team will be integral to UC's success. If Cronin can get the freshman up to speed early and keep Gates interested for the entire season, UC should be playing well into March. If the half-dozen new players don't integrate well or the returnees don't like losing court time, the Bearcats will snap their semi-impressive streak of improvement. Either way, the Muskies will have their work cut out for them when UC rolls across town this December.