Xavier v. Cincinnati: Preview

Ugh. - Rob Carr

Much like Christmas, Easter, or a Browns win, the Crosstown Shootout comes but once a year. Winning this game isn't a replacement for other triumphs like winning the conference or making the Sweet 16, but knocking off a ranked and favored UC team is a visceral thrill that can't be replicated without controlled substances.

If you need to be told why this is a big game, I can't help you.

Cincinnati is coming in undefeated and ranked 11th in the country. They started their season with home wins against Tennessee Martin, Mississippi Valley State, North Carolina A&T, and Campbell. All of those names are from real schools with real NCAA Division One basketball programs (I promise), and none of those teams are currently ranked in the KenPom.com top 250. Leaping from that less than challenging run of games to start the season, the Bearcats then prevailed over Iowa State and Oregon at neutral sites and Alabama back in Cinci.

UC's last three games have been against noted powerhouses Arkansas Little Rock, Maryland Eastern Shore, and Marshall. All three of those games were contested at home, and all of them resulted in fairly easy wins. Cincinnati has only played three teams away from home and no true road games; it won't be until the final day of 2012 that Cinci plays in their opponent's home gym. Cincinnati is undefeated and ranked 11th in the country.

Team fingerprint:
Cincinnati has built its success primarily on the back of an elite defense. They force turnovers on nearly a quarter of opponents' possessions. When teams do retain the ball, the only shoot 36.2% from inside the arc and 30.6% from outside it against UC. The Bearcats also block a staggering 17% of opponents' two-point shots, a mark that is good for tenth in the nation. They hold opponents to an OReb% of 29.6%, which is merely very good.

At the other end of the court, the team makes hay on the offensive glass, ripping down 42.6% of their own misses. Misses aren't that easy to come by, as the team shoots 51.2% from inside the arc and 37% from outside it. Turnovers aren't a problem for the Bearcats, as they protect the ball at a rate that sneaks them into the top 100. Free throw shooting is a huge Achilles' Heel for UC; they only hit 61.7% of their attempts from the line.

Cinci plays an up-tempo style this year, averaging just a tick under 70 possessions per game. They are also both deep (40.2% of minutes off the bench, 20th in the nation) and experienced (2.05 years of average experience, 74th). With an effective height of +2.3", it's not hard to see why they have so much success on the glass. One grain of salt to take this all with is the fact that these numbers have been put up against the 332nd toughest schedule in the nation.

Starters:
The player: 6'0", 178 pound senior PG Cashmere Wright
The numbers: 14.9/1.9/3.5, .477/.475/.778 shooting
More numbers: 2.2 SPG, 24.6% assist rate, 21.2% TO rate
The words: Wright is the creative hub of the Bearcats' high-powered attack. Though he has struggled with injuries throughout his career, his numbers this year have been exactly what coach Mick Cronin has been hoping for out of him. Wright can score from inside and out (29-61 from deep) and runs the team with veteran savvy, even if his TOs still occasionally get the better of him.

The player: 6'3", 198 pound senior G JaQuon Parker
The numbers: 10.7/4.4/2.0, .415/.414/.515 shooting
More numbers: 9.7% TO rate, 20.7% usage rate
The words: Parker is the third option in the Bearcats' offense, but he's by no means shabby when it comes to putting the biscuit in the basket. Like Wright, he can score from all over, making him a tough matchup for a team's third-best defender. Parker doesn't have very many dribbling responsibilities, as reflected by his depressed TO rate, but he is a player who can warm up and change a game.

The player: 6'4", 221 pound junior G/F Sean Kilpatrick
The numbers: 19.3/6.2/2.3, .486/.385/.694 shooting
More numbers: 25.9% usage rate (leads team), played 75.5% of possible minutes (leads team), .9 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: Kilpatrick - the player who last year was goaded into saying that Tu Holloway wouldn't start for UC - is the undisputed first option for this team on offense. He is built like a brick wall and goes at the rim with power. He can also stick it from deep, shooting 25-65 from beyond the arc this year. He was not good enough to keep UC in the Shootout last year, and he will be looking to make amends this time around. Stopping Cinci will start with stopping him for Xavier.

The player: 6'8", 213 pound junior forward Justin Jackson
The numbers: 5.2/5.7/2.0, .479/.125/.417 shooting
More numbers: 9.6% OReb%, 19% DReb%, 7.4% block%, 4.4% steal%
The words: Jackson only plays 20 minutes per game, so his raw numbers are not as impressive as they otherwise might be. The percentages listed above still lead to 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, though, which isn't shabby. Jackson is long and athletic and makes things difficult for his opponents on the glass and on defense.

The player: 6'10", 236 pound senior center Cheikh Mbodj
The numbers: 5.6/4.8/0.1, .556/.000/.615
More numbers: 13.6% usage rate, 12.5% OReb%, 13.8% block%
The words: We all remember how Mbodj's last Shootout ended, so there's no need to re-tread that ground. Mbodj is actually a fairly efficient offensive player (124.7 ORtg), but - as his usage rate attests, he's well down the list of options on the UC offense. Instead, his role is as an eraser in the middle and a force on the glass at both ends. He fills that role quite well.

Reserves:
The bulk of UC's quality depth is at the forward positions, and that starts with JuCo transfer Titus Rubles. Rubles is a 6'7, 207 do-everything forward who gets 7.5/5.7/2.4 with 1.4 steals per game. He's struggled from the floor (.380/.067/.690 shooting) but he spackles in enough cracks all over the floor that he gets almost 20 minutes per game. David Nyarsuk is a former West Virginia recruit who landed briefly in the NAIA before ending up at UC. He's a legit seven-footer capable of controlling the glass at both ends and blocking shots in the middle. He gets 5.4 and 4.5 on .632/.000/.600 shooting. Six-foot-five guard Jermaine Sanders provides some backcourt depth off the bench and is probably the closest thing UC has to a pure scorer off the pine. Freshman Shaq Thomas gets 4.4 PPG in just 11 minutes at the forward positions, and Ge'Lawn Guyn also still exists.

Three questions:
-How does Xavier match up?
A lot of this hinges on Justin Martin's availability. If he is 100% - or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof - on Wednesday, the matchups become dependent on Coach Mack's lineup. If X goes with Davis, Christon, Martin, and two forwards, Davis will take Wright, Christon will take Parker, and Martin will match up with Kilpatrick. If X goes big and replaces Davis with a third forward - a viable possibility considering UC's frontcourt prowess - match ups become a problem. Martin has been a reliable wing defender this year, but putting him on Kilpatrick leaves Parker or Wright being guarded by a big man. On the other hand, the small lineup risks getting overrun by UC's forwards. Coach Mack has to pick his poison here.

-Can Xavier's forwards hold their own? UC has put up borderline dominant numbers in the paint, and Xavier is coming off a win over Kent State that saw them get annihilated in the middle. Cincinnati's scoring comes mostly from their perimeter players, but their ability to choke the life out of an opponent comes from being dominant from fifteen feet and in. If nobody steps up in the middle, this will be a long day for Xavier.

-Is Semaj ready for the big time? Coming into the season, anyone who follows Xavier knew that Semaj Christon was touted to be a very good player. When Christon came out and blew the normal adjustment period for a freshman out of the water, fans began recalibrating their expectations for the season around his ability to elevate the whole team. This is no doubt not lost on Cincinnati, which will be keying on Christon in the most hostile engagement of his young career. For him to be able to produce to his usual high level and give Xavier a chance at the upset would be a special Shootout debut indeed.

Three keys:
-Hold the pace.
Cincinnati wants to take the ball away from you as fast as possible and run down and dunk it at the other end. Xavier (obviously) wants to take all reasonable measures to avoid letting that happen. Over the course of the season, Cincinnati has looked worse the more they have been forced into a half-court game. Xavier has a few players with the speed to run with anyone, but it would behoove the team to keep the pace restrained.

-Lift. If there is a weakness to the Cincinnati defense, it is their combination of three-point attempt suppression and defensive rebounding. While their ability to keep other teams from shooting from deep is very good, it's not as elite as the rest of their D, and the same goes for their work on the defensive glass. In Dee Davis, Brad Redford, and Justin Martin, Xavier has three shooters who can punish the Bearcats for playing the three-point lottery. This game could be decided by how well those three convert the chances they'll get.

-Box out. Cinci is elite on the offensive glass, and they have handfuls of athletic and aggressive forwards who can jump with anyone in the nation. The Musketeers can't get drawn into a leaping contest on the boards off of UC misses, because they'll lose. Stenger, Philmore, Robinson, Taylor, and even Martin have to be disciplined to make space in the middle rather than watching and subsequently leaping for missed shots.

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