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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Cincinnati

The Crosstown Shootout is back to campus sites, and this year Xavier is making the trip across town to visit an overhauled UC team.

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"Three points, baby!" -James Farr, loudly enough to be heard on the radio
"Three points, baby!" -James Farr, loudly enough to be heard on the radio
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

What can you say about Cincinnati? Not as many things as I would like to, as it turns out, since this is a family-friendly site. Coming off a relatively successful first campaign in the reborn Conference USA followed by a disappointingly brief visit to the NCAA tournament, the Bearcats will come into the 2014-2015 season with plenty of questions surrounding the team. Of course, nobody at Xavier will care about any of that. The Crosstown Shootout is back to home arenas, and Xavier will be heading to UC's place on February 18th ready to do battle.

Is it okay to use such violent terminology about the Shootout again? Oh well, I'm going for it.

Coach/style:
Like the stately river beside which he makes his living, children's book author and occasional basketball coach Mick Cronin is somehow both always moving and never changing. His goal perpetually seems to be bringing in a cluster of athletes and turning them into a unified force intent on turning basketball into a rock fight. His singularity of purpose and unashamed pursuit of this goal is at once both loathsome and vaguely admirable. Mostly loathsome from where I sit, though.

It starts on defense for UC, where their last five teams have been in the top 50 in efficiency and their last four have been in the top 25. Forcing turnovers isn't a consistent part of their game plan, but challenging shots certainly is. The Bearcats were 9th in the country in EFG% defense last year, including forcing teams into an appalling 43.2% on two-point attempts. They were also 8th in block%. TO% took a massive uptick for the Bearcats last year, with their 22.4% mark being 12th in the nation, but it came at the price of a huge drop off in their effectiveness on the defensive boards. It will be interesting to see how Cronin chooses to set his team up this season.

Offense, on the other hand, is not a big feather in the Bearcats' collective cap. I'm guessing this is because Cronin recruits the guys who play his kind of defense and tries to piece together the rest on the fly. Shooting is a consistent weak point for his teams, with EFG%s rarely cracking the top 200 in the nation (last year's team was 250th with an EFG% of 47.7%). If you're not very good at shooting, you have to get as many shots per possession as possible. Cronin's teams do this by avoiding turnovers and demonstrating a consistently insane level of effort on the offensive glass. That is how a team that can't shoot very well at all can find itself somewhere above serviceable in total offensive efficiency, which is where UC usually ends up.

Departures:
Brace yourselves, Bearcat fans, because this is going to sting.

Guard Sean Kilpatrick led the team in minutes, shots percentage, usage rate, true shooting percentage, and TO% in addition to scoring and assists on his way to 20.6/4.3/2.5 on .423/.348/.845 shooting last year, but he has exhausted his eligibility and now toils in the D-League. Kilpatrick was asked to carry the load on offense and maintain an high level of defense; you don't need a degree from Harvard to see that he is going to be hard to replace for UC.

The news doesn't get better as you go down the scoring charts. Forward Justin Jackson was the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, averaging 11.1/7.3/1.7 on .532/.000/.460 shooting while also leading the team in steals and blocked shots. His offensive prowess was more down to effort and putting himself in the right spots (witness his 13.6% OReb%, 41st in the nation) than outright skill, but a high motor and an appetite for garbage baskets fit nicely with what Mick Cronin needed from his big man.

Third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder Titus Rubles - who was also second in blocks and third in steals - also ran out his eligibility, removing 7.3/6.8/2.0 on .405/.000/.769 shooting from the equation for UC. Like Jackson, Rubles was a force on the glass on both ends, and his athleticism and size allowed him to guard anyone from wings to medium-sized post players.

Just between those three players, UC loses 57% of their scoring, 51% of their rebounding, 48% of their assists, and 45% of their minutes from last season. That's no easy task to replace, and it wouldn't be too surprising to see the Bearcats look like a work in progress through the early part of their schedule.

Returnees:
Who is coming back? Tops on the list is forward Shaquille Thomas. The 6'7", 205-pound rising junior averaged 6.8/2.8/0.9 on .454/.263/.662 shooting last year. He doesn't rebound or defend the rim like Rubles or Jackson did, but he is active on defense and can hold his own near the basket. Rising senior forward Jermaine Sanders was actually UC's most efficient scorer last year, earning an ORtg of 122.7 on his way to 5.7/3.1/1.0 via .419/.376/.684 shooting. His usage rate was just 13.5%, but he is the Bearcats' leading returning three-point shooter and may be asked to play a bigger role this season.

Rising sophomore Troy Caupain returns in the back court, bringing back his 5.4/2.3/2.2 on .380/.328/.784 shooting. The 6'3", 200-pound PG had a successful freshman season as a reserve, and his defense and distribution should serve him well even if his scoring is not up to taking a bigger role in starter's minutes. Also of note, antagonist/guard Ge'Lawn Guyn is back. He shot poorly (.331/.309/.538) and turned the ball over like it had been greased (TO% 21.1%) last season, so let's hope for more of the same.

Finally, rising sophomore guard Kevin Johnson is back. He only got about 10 minutes per game last year, but he shot 15-48 from three and could be poised to breakout if Cronin decides he needs a shooter on the floor.

Incoming players:
Cincinnati did very well in recruiting for this season, landing the second-best class of any school in the entire city.

Headlining the class is 6'7", 230-pound forward Gary Clark. Clark is a kind of tweener forward who is able to rebound and defend inside thanks to an above-average wingspan. Offensively, he's more comfortable shooting jumpers or driving than working in the post. He is a versatile defender, but effort has been a question mark for him in the past. Adding strength is a priority, and he has already gained 15 pounds since graduating high school.

Coming along with Clark is 6'8", 230-pound forward Quadri Moore. Where adding weight was a concern for Clark, keeping it off is Moore's focus. He has a deft touch around the basket and can step out and hit jump shots with range beyond the arc, but shot selection and consistent impact in the paint have not been strengths for him.

Cronin also added three JuCo transfers. The first is 6'9", 270-pound Coreontae DeBerry, who will add some much-needed bulk to UC's front line. DeBerry went for 11.8 and 7.1 last season at Hutchinson Community College after playing his first season at Mott Junior College, where he went after walking away from a commitment at Detroit Mercy.

Four schools since graduating high school two years ago might seem like a red flag, but DeBerry is not alone among incoming transfers in having a troubled past. Jump shooting Farad Cobb boasts an impressive stroke - he shot .511/.463/.825 and averaged 15.1 PPG at Northwest Florida Community College last year - but he is on his third college, having hit the JuCo ranks after being dismissed from UT-Chattanooga for underage drinking and disorderly conduct. If he can put that behind him and adjust to life at the D1 level, his range will be a huge asset for UC.

Finally, 6'10" Trinity Valley Community College forward Octavius Ellis transfers in. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he was suspended for six games from UC after the Crosstown Shootout fight before ultimately being dismissed from the team for participating in a brawl at a nightclub. Either Mick Cronin is convinced Ellis has turned it around or he just couldn't resist the 13 and 7 with 3 blocks that Ellis averaged last season. Either way, he's back.

Outlook:
UC is going to be UC again this year, but Cronin has broken form a little bit in that he has brought in some players whose skill sets skew towards finesse rather than raw athleticism. If it all comes together, Cincinnati will be an intimidating blend of offensive class to go with their usual defensive prowess. The risk, of course, is that the scorers can't defend and the defenders can't score, leaving UC with two half teams and a broken season to show for it.