There are non-conference games that mean more on the March resume, but there aren't any that feel bigger than the Crosstown Shootout. Cincinnati fans will love to tell you about their rich history of 1960s basketball and overall winning record in the Shootout, but there's no doubt that Xavier has been the better team and indeed the better program over the last 20 years. X went into hostile territory behind the venerable Dee Davis last year and came away with a gutty win. Now the game returns to a real basketball arena where the Muskies have a chance to make it three in a row.
You know who Mick Cronin is at this point. He's little and angry and... well, let's pause here for a moment. Cronin had an unruptured brain aneurysm that kept him out of action last season. As much as the guy does nothing for me as a coach or press conference personality, I certainly bear him no personal ill will at the level of hoping he has medical problems. Cronin now has a clean bill of health and will be back on the sidelines and posturing behind a microphone this year.
Anyway, the man simply can't coach offense, or maybe he can but has chosen not to. Unless he has a truly dynamic offensive player, his teams hang just above mediocre on that end. This largely stems from their inability to get good shots from inside or beyond the arc. They do fly to the offensive glass like you wouldn't believe though; this is what makes the difference between being okay and truly floundering on the attack.
Defense, on the other hand, is Cronin's calling card. His last five teams have been in the top 25 in defensive efficiency. Expect UC to be pretty good at forcing turnovers and closer to bad on the defensive glass. What they continue to do very well is force bad shots; teams just can't get good looks against the Bearcats, and it shows in UC's consistently great EFG% against and ultimately on the scoreboard.
It's ugly basketball, is what I'm saying.
Guard DeShaun Morman transferred to Towson. He was an ineffective scorer known mostly for his ferocious perimeter defense, but he clashed with the coaching staff from day one. A dispute over a redshirt as a freshman and limited minutes in his first year eligible led him to transfer out. Jermaine Sanders, a 6'5" wing, exhausted his eligibility in a mildly effective campaign that saw him average 4.6/3.0/0.9 on .382/.270/.564. One of the most influential players in Shootout history has moved on as Ge'Lawn Guyn headed to East Tennessee State as a grad transfer. He poured in 7 points over the course of 3 games last year.
With three fairly peripheral players gone, you would assume that UC would be bringing back some double-digit scorers. You'd be wrong.
Cinci's two most important players in big man Octavius Ellis and point guard Troy Caupain return. Ellis put up 9.9/7.2/1.3 on .557/.000/.689 shooting and had elite rebounding rates at both ends last year; he was also 74th in the nation with a block% of 7.9%. Caupain is the straw that stirs the drink; he averaged 9.6/3.6/3.6 on .444/.408/.788 shooting. He was the team's best three-point shooter, but he was a little bit turnover prone on the ball.
Guard Farad Cobb led the team in shots% with 25.5%, which is probably too much for a dude with a shooting line of .382/.333/.792. He averaged 8.5/2.5/1.4 and made up for his poor shot selection by rarely turning the ball over. The guy whose game I really like - so naturally I'm already growing to resent - is Gary Clark. He put up averages of 7.8/7.2/1.7, is a hurricane on the glass at both ends, can guard just about anyone, and single-handedly dragged UC almost all the way back into the Shootout last year. He scares me.
Kevin Johnson is a 6'2" guard who represents backcourt depth for UC. He went for 6.5/1.4/1.3 on .379/.350/.659 last year and probably represents the team's best chance at scoring in a hurry if they need to. Forward Shaq Thomas is also back, bringing his 6.4/3.1/0.6 on .457/.333/.586 with him. Finally, Coreontae DeBerry is 6'10", 270; he scored pretty well when he was on the floor last year, but he has work to do if he wants to get consistent run in Cronin's system.
The guy I really like here is guard Justin Jenifer. He's a 5'10, 185-pound PG who Xavier briefly recruited before deciding to pursue people tall enough to participate in a day out at King's Island. Jenifer is a pass-first player with really strong handle and a good basketball IQ. He can get a little turnover-prone at times and probably isn't going to light up the scoreboard on his own, but he's a hard worker and tough as nails. He probably won't blow up from the word go, but I think he'll be a good program player for UC.
Jacob Evans is a 6'6" shooting guard out of Louisiana. He's an offense-first player, which is obviously rare for a Cronin recruit. He can score the ball from all over and spurned advances from such powerhouses as Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulane to sign with UC. Rounding out the class is 6'7" SF Tre Scott. Scott is more what you expect UC to bring in: he's super athletic, aggressive to the ball, and - at 220 - has a solid frame. He's also a guy who has a lot of work to do on his offensive game from outside of about 18 inches. In other words, he'll fit right in.
The same as it always is. UC will be a tough, physical team that will try to drag games into the mud. They'll be able to have their way with lesser competition. They'll get rolled by some better teams, but that defense will always give them a puncher's chance if they can score just enough points. Having a steady hand on the ball is key against the Bearcats, as I think Dee Davis went out of his way to demonstrate last year. This is going to be a big test for the Musketeers' backcourt situation on the way into conference play.