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Xavier v. Cincinnati: Preview

If you need me to tell you how big tomorrow's matchup against Cincinnati is, you probably haven't been watching Xavier basketball very long. While conference rivals Dayton are considered equally loathsome by most Xavier fans, 78 out-of-conference matchups - not to mention the schools' proximity to one another - has given these two programs a contempt for one another that only familiarity can breed. The games range from high-strung to downright ill-tempered, and the occasional technical foul is par for the course between these two squads.

Last year's game was a 66-46 disaster for the Muskies on the heels of winning the prior three Crosstown Shootouts. Xavier came out of the blocks hot, but Yancy Gates had the shooting game of his life and X couldn't keep pace. Jamel McLean wasn't intimidated in the paint, leading the team in scoring and rebounding and shooting 6-7 from the floor, but Tu Holloway was held to single digits. The game was very physical, and Hollwoay absorbed a lot of contact near the bucket that was not rewarded with trips to the line. By the time the game ended, tempers flared, nerves were frayed, and technical fouls were assessed. Xavier won 16 of their next 17 games after the dissolution at UC.

The UC team was 14-0 when they played Xavier; this year's iteration of the Bearcats has been slightly less successful in the early portion of the season. Owing to the earlier matchup, UC has played seven games this year, going 5-2. Marshall knocked off UC at home, and you may have heard that they lost to the Blue Hose of Presbyterian. The Bearcats most impressive win is also their most recent, a six-point road victory over the Georgia Bulldogs on December 2nd.

Everything about this year's Bearcats squad points to the fact that they like a game that more resembles a brawl than anything Dr Naismith had in mind when he tacked the peach baskets to the balcony. The first thing that speaks to that fact is the glacial pace at which Cincinnati plays the game. Their adjusted tempo is just south of 64 possessions per game; only 29 division one teams play slower. A little rough math demonstrates that UC likes each possession to average right around 20 seconds. If that doesn't seem like a long time, consider the fact that the tempo number includes everything an opposing team might do to speed up the game, like fast breaks, pressing, et c. One five-second fast break skews the number to the point at which a team has to burn the whole shot clock to balance it out. Make no mistake, UC feels better when all ten guys on the court are within 25 feet or so of the attacking baseline, preferably running into each other.

The Bearcats impose their pace on the game primarily on the defensive end, where they prefer a man defense. They're good at forcing turnovers - 94th in the nation - but their defense is more built to force difficult shots. They do that very well; teams are shooting .413/.278/.663 against UC, and their effective field goal percentage allowed is .414, 15th best in the entire country. They do this by getting up into shooters' chests around the arc and funneling the play to their big men inside. It's working well to this point; Yancy Gates and Justin Jackson are combining to block more than three shots per game, and UC is blocking 15.5% of opponents' two-point shot attempts (22nd in the nation).

UC also comtrols the boards very well. They're 40th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing almost 38% of their own misses. They also hold opponents to 31.2% OR%, which is a tick above average. Despite their commitment to the glass, defense, and half-court play, UC somehow manages to avoid sending opponents to the line (12th best in the nation in opponent FTA/FGA) and getting to the line themselves (259th best nationally in the same stat on the offensive end). This benefits the Bearcats greatly; while Xavier's FT% has skyrocketed to 63.3%, UC is shooting an abysmal 57.5% from the line. Sean Kilpatrick is 15-17 (.882); nobody else on the team who has shot more than four free throws is making more than two-thirds of them. UC is also bad from inside the arc, only hitting 46% of their two-point shots.

Speaking of Kilpatrick, he is not only Cinci's leading offensive player, but he also think he's better than Tu Holloway. We'll leave that last part alone, but suffice it to say the Kilpatrick's 15.0/5.1/1.3 on an impressive .481/.457/.882 is a huge asset for UC. He is big enough at 6'4", 215, that he'd be a tough matchup for Cheek or Tu; it will be interesting to see how Coach Mack decides to play Kilpatrick in the early going. Kilpatrick can be flustered and forced into bad plays with the ball; he turns it over on more than 20% of the possessions he uses. When he keeps hold of the ball, though, he is hands down Cincinnati's most dangerous and efficient scorer.

Senior Yancy Gates and his absurd football body - he stands 6'9", weighs 260, and is pretty cut up - have been more productive this season than in years past for UC. The book on him has long been that he will produce when his desire matches his talent, and he has improved on that front since about mid-way through last year. The Cincinnati native is posting 12.9/9.1/1.1 on a shooting line of .444/.667/.444 and adding 1.3 blocks per game to the mix. He's joined inside by 6'8" senior Justin Jackson, who is nothing special on the offensive end but averages 6.1 boards and 2.0 blocks per game.

Six-foot-three senior Dion Dixon came into the season accustomed to leading the line for UC, but he has stepped aside a little bit to allow Sean Kilpatrick to step up. He still leads the team in usage rate, burning through almost a quarter of their possessions when he is on the floor. His shooting line of .405/.382/.656 is nothing special - though he is a threat from deep - but he still manages to get 13.4/4.9/1.3 per game. Dixon excells at the little hustle plays that help a team tick, averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He is a streak shooter capable of rattling off a handful of threes in a row if he gets hot.

Cashmere Wright runs the show for UC. The PG is fourth on the team in shot attempts but leads them with 4.7 assists per game. Turnovers have been a problem this year for the normally sure-handed Wright; he's averaging 3.3 per game and coughing it up on more than 30% of the possessions he uses. His shooting line of .448/.333/.667 is nothing special, either. Wright's biggest asset as a player is the ability to recognize where the ball needs to be and the physical tools to get it there. Knee injuries have compromised the latter of those two, leaving Wright with precious little function if he can't control the ball.

Depth is a huge issue for Cincinnati this year, much as it was for Xavier last season. UC depends on their starters for 83% of their minutes this season, putting them in an uncomfortable position if they have early foul trouble or an unfortunate injury. I suspect part of their ability to keep other teams off of the line is coached; if you know your top five players are followed by a huge drop off in utility, you're going to do whatever you can to keep those guys on the floor.

Three questions:
-How does Xavier matchup outside?
Physically, the Sean Kilpatrick matchup seems tailor made for the athletic Dezmine Wells. If Coach Mack trusts the freshman to handle the other team's best scorer (who is just a sophomore himself), that's where Wells is going. That leaves Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright to be covered by Tu and Cheek. Both of Xavier's guards are tenacious, high-effort defenders, but they both give up at least three inches to Dixon. If Coach Mack wants someone on Dixon who can challenge his shot high, he's left with the same problem against Kilpatrick. UC is a good three-point shooting team, but uses the arc judiciously (28.8% of their shot attempts are threes, 267th most in the nation). Who guards UC's big-bodied perimeter players is going to be an issue all game; look for Justin Martin to get more time off the bench than Redford and Davis for this reason.

-Who handles Yancy Gates? Gates was the difference in last year's games, hitting shots over a combination of Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean that he doesn't usually convert unguarded in his driveway. This year, Xavier has at least three guys (Frease, Walker, and Taylor) who can theoretically defend Gates inside, but the fact that he weighs 260 pounds seems to give this one to Big Kenny. Xavier doesn't need to hold Gates to 4 and 3 or anything like that; they just need to make him work for his points on offense and turn him into a one-on-one assignment on the glass. If they can contain him to that level, it will be a big chink in UC's armor.

-Which team will control the glass? Both teams are in the top 100 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage; UC is a little better on the offensive end, while Xavier can claim the same distinction on the defensive boards. Cinci's offense depends on second-chance points and good looks from kick outs off of the offensive glass, while Xavier's high-flying fast break is ignited by grabbing a defensive board and pushing the ball up the floor. The battle for supremacy on the glass - especially at UC's offensive end - will go a long way toward dictating the tempo and ultimately the outcome of the game.

Three keys:
-Get the ball up the court on offense.
A higher pace in the game will obviously benefit Xavier, and it would be in X's best interest to get the ball across the time line as quickly as possible. Even if there is nothing there on the fast break, this makes UC work harder to get back on defense to contest Xavier. XU has waves of fresh legs to run at the Bearcats while UC's bench is very thin. The more possessions Xavier can make Cincinnati run, the better off the Muskies will be.

-Don't rely on the free throw line. Tu put up 16 points on 7 shots at Butler by going 14-16 from the line in a game in which the officiating was nothing out of the ordinary and certainly not overly tight. Holloway thrives on getting his body between his man and the ball and absorbing the contact necessary to earn his points on the line, and he's not the only Muskie who can do that. At last year's Crosstown Shootout, the refs swalloed the whistles and the Bearcats swallowed Tu. For Xavier's offense to work this time out, they have to be able to get buckets even if the officials are letting the game go.

-Penetrate and dish. Xavier's guard had trouble against a sizable Vanderbilt team in large part due to Vandy's 10 blocked shots and consistent ability to contest around the rim. The Musketeer offense didn't begin clicking until Tu and Cheek got into the middle and dished off rather than running headlong into larger defenders. Cinci is just as tough to finish against as Vandyerbilt; the sooner Xavier's lead guards adjust to that, the better.

Bottom line:
This one is a legit grudge match where all the usual cliches about rivalries - throw out the record books, teams don't like each other, et cetera - apply. Twice Xavier has knocked off a top-ranked UC team, and Cincinnati has come out on top from being an underdog on the outset as well. It's unlikely that Xavier gets a lead big enough to have a chance to stomp the game out, but they can't afford to miss that opportunity if it presents itself. It's no coincidence that the Shootout is followed up by eight days off and then a home game; this one is designed for Xavier to leave it all on the floor.