In right about 24 hours, college basketball's best rivalry will be played out for the 78th time. UC has won 47 of the previous 77 engagements, but Xavier has won the last three, 7 of the last 10, and 10 of the last 15. Xavier is chasing a fourth consecutive Shootout win for the first time ever, which means Dante Jackson comes into the game with a chance to be the first Muskie to go 4-4 against UC. The Crosstown Shootout gives national announcers a chance to trot out the clichés about throwing out the records when these two teams face off; generally speaking, the game is always tightly contested, entertaining, and at least mildly chippy.
Cincinnati is a tough team to get a handle on. On the one hand, their 14-0 record speaks for itself. On the other, the best team that they've played to this point is probably either Dayton or Seton Hall. They mopped the floor with a Dayton team whose resume to this point (narrow win over Seton Hall, narrow loss to Old Dominion) stacks up in some ways that are troublingly similar to Xavier. That game against Dayton was played six weeks ago though, and Dayton seems to have found a different stride since then. It's unlikely that too much can be read into that result, nor should we fear that the Bearcats are going to come out and double up X like they did the Flyers.
Jerry Palm ranks UC 65th in the RPI and puts their strength of schedule at 324th out of the 345 teams he ranks. For comparison, XU's RPI is 53rd and SOS is 42nd. Cincinnati is a deep team, getting 39.5% of their minutes from bench players. Xavier continues to flag in this area, with 17.5% of the Muskies' minutes coming off the pine. Only three teams in the nation have a lower number. Five players on UC's bench play at least a eleven minutes each game, and seven-foot senior Anthony McClain adds another six or so. Cinci is deepest where Xavier is thinnest, with three guards combining for 48 minutes off the bench.
Cincinnati's depth gives them significant flexibility in the lineup; while all five of Xavier's starters average at least 26.8 minutes per game, not a single player on UC does. Cinci has a very balanced offensive attack, getting 12.7 points per game from leading scorer Dion Dixon, 11.5 from Yancy Gates, 10.1 from Sean Kilpatrick, 9.3 from Cashmere Wright, and 8 each from Rashad Bishop and Ibrahima Thomas. Gates and Thomas chip in 6.6 and 7 rebounds per game, respectively, and Wright and Dixon combine for 6 assists and 2.7 turnovers each time out. Despite their depth, UC doesn't play a particularly open game, with their tempo falling in the middle of the national pack.
The Bearcats' effective height is 49th in the nation, meaning they are slightly above average in size in terms of who actually gets the minutes. Xavier is fifth in the nation. At this point, the combination of very tall bigs and no guard depth is what accounts for Xavier's edge here. UC's lower number is a function of their depth, but it bears noting that Xavier's bigs carry a couple of extra inches over Cinci's.
UC's offense is balanced (50% of points from inside the arc, 28% from outside it, and the rest from the line), efficient (only 12 teams in the nation turn the ball over less; they hit 36% of their threes and 50% of their twos), and persistent (40% of their missed buckets result in offensive rebounds, good for 11th in the country). Their defense blocks 10.5 shots per game and forces turnovers on 25% of opposing possessions while showing mostly man-to-man. They hold teams to a dismal 29.3% shooting from behind the arc and 40.6% from closer that 20'6". About the only thing this team doesn't do well is shoot free throws: their 65.3% mark from the line is good for 263rd in the country.
Despite their gaudy numbers, it's hard to get a gauge for Cincinnati as a team. They have played two true road games, and both were contested in the state of Ohio (@ Miami, OH and @ Toledo). Their schedule has been abysmally weak; Ken Pomeroy rates their out of conference schedule as 340th in the nation. Depending on who you ask, Xavier may or not be Cinci's toughest foe to this point, but there's no doubt the Crosstown Shootout will be more hotly contested than any other game they've played so far.
Keys to the game:
-Smart guard play: UC has done well in controlling possession of the ball thus far this season. Xavier's top three guards all have a penchant for going after the ball on defense, and none of them will ever be accused of shying away from the big moment at the other end of the court. XU has to keep their guards out of foul trouble, and Lyons and Dante have to be aware enough to stop chucking if they're having an off night.
-Closing down the perimeter: Florida burnt Xavier with a handful of back-breaking threes in the second half last time out, and they're not a team that shoots particularly well from outside. UC is, and Xavier has to make sure Cinci's shooters don't give them a serious advantage.
-Defensive rotation: With X trying to stay mindful of Cinci's outside shooters, Kenny and McLean et al. are going to be asked to hold down the interior of the defense. This means not only cutting off driving guards, but making sure the defense as a whole is rotating well enough to take away interior passing and easy weak side buckets. The job Xavier did of this against Florida contributed to the death of the nation's third-longest home winning streak.
-Keeping it close early: With emotional leaders like Tu Holloway and Dante Jackson - and the never-say-die shooting of Cheek Lyons - Xavier is not a team that ever believes it's out of a game. The problem is that long early scoring droughts have put the Muskies is holes that they have trouble crawling out of. If they can avoid the early slump, the late run will be to put the game away instead to make it interesting.
UC is an untested team riding high on the confidence of a 14-0 start; the Muskies are battle-tested, but they haven't won as many of those battles as we would have hoped. The Shootout is rarely anything but tight; this game has 3 written all over it.