Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Cincinnati

Sean Kilpatrick will look to lead UC past Xavier this year. - Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

If there's one game to circle in red on your copy of Xavier's schedule, this is the one. The "these two teams just don't like each other" cliche reaching a boiling point last year, and the schools are making a lot of noise about not hating one another this time around. Instead, they'll be playing in arena packed with fans from both sides. It should be interesting, but then, it always is.

To say that a lot has changed since we discussed UC as a non-conference opponent would be a massive understatement. In that article, we noted - among other things - that Ge'Lawn Guyn had a history of incidents that called into question his decision-making skills. I'm not sure how you could have missed it, but that came into play in last year's game. Guyn took exception to Tu Holloway's declaration that he was "cut from a different cloth" than the UC players and let Holloway know. One thing led to another, and the game took on an ending that was more Sons of Anarchy than Hoosiers.

Now we're back to look at UC again. The Crosstown Shootout is now the Crosstown Classic. The alternating home court advantage has been ditched for a neutral (comparatively speaking) site. Most of the players involved in the fight - including every major participant from Xavier's side - has moved on. What's left is a mountain's worth of stories that ESPN will drag out in the pre-game that will - temporarily - threaten to drown out the most hotly-contested rivalry game in the NCAA.

When: 7pm on Wednesday, 12/19
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio
TV: ESPN2

Coach/style:
Last year, I had this to say about Mick Cronin's approach:

The statistical foundations of Cronin's teams are defense and offensive rebounding, both of which are largely tied in to effort. The worst offensive rebounding team he has coached was his 2003 Murray St squad, whose OR% of 35.3% was 102nd in the nation. His last three Bearcat teams have 40, 38, and 38 percent of their misses, good for 10th, 23rd, and 10th in the country. These guys get to the glass. Combining that with an increased focus on ball security, a mediocre shooting Bearcats club managed to be a top-50 offense last season. Their defense was even better: 110th in the nation in defending the glass, 55th in forcing turnovers, and 31st in opponents' eFG%. Add to all of this a team tempo that is consistently in the slowest 100 in the nation, and Cronin coaches ugly but effective basketball.

Last season's Bearcats team bore that out. They played slowly and attacked the offensive glass. They fell to 99th in the nation in forcing turnovers despite being in the top 20 in steal percentage, but they were in the top 10 in avoiding sending opponents to the line. Expect more slow, brutal basketball from UC this season.

Departures:
The biggest player (literally and colloquially) UC lost was 6'9" center Yancy Gates. When not sucker punching Kenny Frease, Gates put up 12.2/8.9/0.7 with almost a block per game on a shooting line of .474/.400/.604. While not as efficient a scorer as Bearcat fans had hoped he would develop into, Gates was a dominant rebounder and a fairly efficient defensive presence. Also not returning is Dion Dixon, who was anything but efficient. He put up 13.0/3.4/2.1 with 1.6 steals per game, but it took him 429 shots to score his 481 points thanks to a shooting line of .371/.261/.699. Dixon further undermined his effectiveness with 1.8 turnovers per game.

Returnees:
Rising junior Sean Kilpatrick leads the way here. Last year, he put up 14.3/4.6/2.1 on .428/.376.750 shooting. At 6'4", 221 he's going to cause matchup problems for X this year. Point guard Cashmere Wright is also coming back, for his final year with UC. Injuries have kept Wright from reaching his potential, but he has developed into a reliable ball distributor, putting up 10.9/3.8/4.6 last year with an A:TO of better than 2:1. JaQuon Parker also returns in the back court for UC, bringing his averages of 9.4/5.6/1.3 on .416/.371/.679 with him. Behind these three players, perimeter play figures to be a strength for the Bearcats this season.

Incoming players:
To bolster the front court, Cronin and his staff brought in a pair of junior transfers who will be eligible to play right away. Six-foot-seven junior Titus Rubles joins from the JuCo ranks, where he spent the last two years at Blinn College. Rubles added over 30 pounds of muscle in his two years at Blinn, where he averaged 14.5/9.8/2.2 last year on .497/.250/.717 shooting. He is an athletic power forward who attacks the boards at both ends and will fit well into UC's floor-spreading system. Former West Virginia recruit David Nyarsuk - most recently of the NAIA's Mountain State - will also join UC this year. He is a legit seven-footer who put up 10 and 8 with 2.9 blocks per game last season. Though he's fairly thin (230 pounds), Nyarsuk has the strength to more than hold his own in the paint. His scoring game is predicated more on running the court and getting stick backs than it is a set of back-to-the-basket moves in the post.

Outlook:

This could be another fairly solid year for the Bearcats, who are coming off back to back six seeds in the NCAA tournament. UC has experience and talent in the back court and some intriguing players coming in to play inside. They really found their stride after Gates' suspension last year forced Cronin to adopt a four-out, one-in approach on the offensive end. With the strength of the team being outside, look for more of the same this year. Xavier is going to have their hands full with this squad; if X can pilfer this game off of the Bearcats on a neutral court, they will have shocked the world indeed.

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