Ten games into the season, Xavier sits at a superficially acceptable 7-3. While anyone who has passed third-grade math can figure the this puts X on pace for 20+ wins, the road has not been so smooth as to necessarily portend great things for the future. After screaming to a 5-0 start, the Muskies have won just two of their last five, and both of those were nail-biting wins over opponents that should not be challenging a team with tournament aspirations. It's a Xavier squad with something to prove that heads to a neutral site to this year's Crosstown Shootout.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati has begun the season by tearing through a lineup of cupcakes like some rejected character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In one four-game stretch in November, UC ripped through Appalachian State, Campbell, UMass Lowell, and Kennesaw State, outscoring them by 105 points on aggregate. Though they have picked up a couple of decent wins along the way, UC has only played one team ranked above Xavier by Ken Pomeroy, and they lost. UC has also only played one game away from home this year, and it was also that loss. The Bearcats may not have quite as much to prove as Xavier, but they certainly are not the unstoppable dreadnought their statistical profile makes them look like at first blush.
On offense, it's all about second chances for Cincinnati. They are a bad shooting team; their 2P% is 210th in the nation and, while their 3P% of 35.2% is above average, only 26% of their shots come from deep. They're committed to getting the ball inside and then missing. On the offensive glass, however, they grab a stunning 43.4% of their own misses (4th in the country). The little things also break their way: they don't turn the ball over frequently, they rarely have their shots blocked, and their free throw percentage of 72.5% as a team is 83rd in the country.
Cinci's defense is 15th in the country in adjusted efficiency, but there is one bit of good news for opponents. If you can get the ball on the glass, UC is an awful defensive rebounding team. Other than that, it's pretty grim. Teams shoot well below average both inside and outside the arc against the Bearcats, owing in part to UC's 16.8% block% (12th). They are also 7th in the country in steal% and 3 in overall TO%. There are second chance looks to be had against this defense, but they don't allow very good first chances, and they're one of the best in the country at ending your possessions without having given you a chance at all.
Like Xavier, UC is tall (effective height of +1.1", 104th) and deep (38.8% of minutes off the bench, 37th). UC doesn't try to force the tempo on offense, but they do try to speed teams up with pressure on the defensive end. Cincinnati's minutes-weighted experience is a little bit above average, while Xavier grades out as a very young squad in that department. Take from that what you will.
The player: 6'2", 185-pound junior guard Ge'Lawn Guyn
The numbers: 6.4/1.9/1.1 on .386/.304/.588 shooting
More numbers: 18.6 minutes/game
The words: Ge'Lawn Guyn, as you might recall, is very good at starting fights. Beyond that, his skill set is such that he doesn't even play half of the team's minutes despite having started all eight games. Guyn is a respectable on-ball defender, but beyond that, he's not a hugely important cog in the Bearcat machine.
The player: 6'4", 210-pound senior guard Sean Kilpatrick
The numbers: 19.6/3.9/3.1 on .490/.444/.892 shooting
More numbers: ORtg 140.4, usage rate 25.4%, steal% 3.3%
The words: Kilpatrick is likely to be Xavier's biggest problem defensively. He has grown into one of the nation's most efficient offensive players, and he has the ability to pour home buckets from just about anywhere. While he is an above-average scorer at the rim, only 28% of his shots come from that position; more than half of his FGA are from beyond the arc. Kilpatrick is the only Bearcat getting significant touches whose EFG% is above the national average; UC's offensive attack is predicated on his being able to score.
The player: 6'7", 220-pound senior forward Titus Rubles
The numbers: 10.3/6.3/1.3 on .483/.000/.703 shooting
More numbers: 11.9% OReb%, 5.4 fouls drawn/40 minutes, 5-28 on two-point jumpers
The words: I only bring up Rubles's number on two-point jumpers in the context of his being 28-58 from the floor at large. Twenty-three of his made baskets have been at the rim, and he hasn't even attempted a three. If he can get and offensive board or good inside position, he's an effective scorer. If he can be kept out of the area in front of the rim, he's borderline worthless in terms of putting points on the board.
The player: 6'8", 230-pound senior forward Justin Jackson
The numbers: 10.6/6.6/1.3 on .486/.000/.565 shooting
More numbers: 25.2% usage rate, 14.8% OReb%, 15.4% block%
The words: On offense, Jackson is slightly more effective than Rubles on jumpers and slightly less effective at the rim (and exactly as averse to shooting from deep). Jackson shines on the glass at both ends, leading the team with 25 offensive boards and 11 stickbacks, but defense is where he really comes into his own. His block% and steal% are both in the top 250 in the nation, which is an uncommon combination. All that defensive activity (3.3 blocks per game, 1.3 steals per game) comes at a cost, though, as he collects 4.7 personal fouls for every 40 minutes he plays.
The player: 6'7", 205-pound sophomore forward Shaquille Thomas
The numbers: 6.0/3.3/1.5 on .452/.333/.750 shooting
More numbers: 3.8% steal%, 46.4% EFG%, 2.3 fouls/40 minutes
The words: Thomas is not one of the more active offensive players for UC, likely due to his underwhelming shooting performance. He is only 1-3 from behind the arc on the year, so don't worry that his 3P% indicates he's a stretch four-type player. Instead, his job is to disrupt the opponent's offense, and he does a very good job using his size to do that. Once the ball has been secured, his job is to get it to someone else - probably Kilpatrick - and get down the floor.
Freshman guard Troy Caupain goes for 7.5/2.4/2.0 per game on .405/.400/.867 as UC's most prominent reserve in terms of both scoring and usage rate. Fellow freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence stands 6'9" and has an OReb% of 10.1% fueling his 4.8 and 4.0, though his effectiveness is undermined by his 43.2% mark from the floor and 42.9% mark from the line. Junior wing Jermaine Sanders has an OReb% of 10.2% and rarely turns the ball over on his way to 5.3/3.4/0.8 on .359/.350/.778 shooting. Freshman guard Kevin Johnson fills in for 13 nondescript minutes per game. Senior center David Nyarsuk is largely a footnote despite standing over seven feet tall, and Jeremiah Davis III quit the team, perhaps (but not likely) because of that.
-Can we get a whole game of Super JMart? I know the JMart questions are getting redundant, but the guy who was wearing his uniform down the stretch against Bowling Green almost single-handedly put that game away for Xavier. His biggest contributions then were on the defensive end, and that's exactly where X needs him now. He is perhaps the Muskie whose length and athleticism are best-suited for matching up with Sean Kilpatrick. I'm not incredibly invested in Martin's offensive output this game; what I really, really hope to see out of him is 40 minutes of making life on the offensive end difficult for Kilpatrick and the rest of the Bearcats.
-Will Coach Mack go big? It's the obvious response to a team that thrives on interior efficacy, but it's one frought with peril for Xavier. Isaiah Philmore has been significantly less that Isaiah Philmore was last year. Erik Stenger is still a massive question mark because of his health problems. Jalen Reynolds fouls with a passion normally reserved for only the most coveted things in life. James Farr and Matt Stainbrook have been reliable contributors on the front line so far; beyond them, everyone on the roster over 6'3" comes with some questions.
-Can Xavier handle the little things? Turnovers and free throw shooting have been sticking points for Xavier this year. The Bearcats are incredibly proficient at forcing turnovers, so it is obviously going to be a huge point of emphasis for Xavier to control the ball. The Muskies have recently been improving on their still-brutal 60.7% mark from the line, but points left behind at the stripe are going to be a big deal in this game. If X can keep control of the ball and not wet the bed from the line, the game is there for the taking.
-Win on the glass. Cincinnati is not an exceptional shooting team, but they make up for it by flooding the offensive glass with bodies. No matter how good Xavier's defense is, they're not going to be effective if they can't finish stops with defensive rebounds. Xavier was out-rebounded by Bowling Green, but that was a function of how low the Muskies's shooting percentage was and how well BG shot the ball. UC won't shoot it that well, so it will be incumbent on Xavier to clean up on the boards.
-Pack the middle. Cincinnati shoots 24.4% on two-point jumpers (compared to the national average of 35.7%) and 35.2% from beyond the arc. If you remove Kilpatrick - the only Bearcat averaging more than one made three per game - the rest of the team is only shooting 28.4% from deep. UC is above the national average in both shots and shooting percentage at the rim. It will be incumbent on Xavier to stuff bodies into the area around the basket, because Cinci's offense is made or broken by their ability to get first and second chance buckets in that area.
-Play like the big boys. It's hard to judge how good this UC team is. They've beaten almost everyone put in front of them, but that's not exactly been an impressive array of foes. When the Bearcats took a step up to play New Mexico, they came back to Ohio with their first loss of the year. The rigors of the season have yet to fully reveal if Xavier has more in common with the kind of team that beats UC or the kind of team that UC has been feeding it to all season, but if X wants to be taken seriously come March, they need to play like the mean it on this particular December Saturday.