There's a sense in which Xavier's first nine games could scarcely have gone better. The Musketeers have avoided both injuries and losses, climbing from a position at which they were a mere afterthought in the polls to their current ranking of 12th. The polls are more of a taking of the press's pulse than an indicator of a team's actual skill level, but Xavier is playing really well and people in both the media and on opposing benches have noticed. You have to go back to Tu Holloway's senior year to find a Xavier team coming into the Shootout with this much momentum.
If history has taught us anything, it's that just about none of that will matter when the ball goes up against UC. The Bearcats are hard to get a read on; they've torn through an early schedule that would make Jim Boeheim blush, but three games against mediocre-to-good teams have yielded two close wins and a loss to Butler at home. The Bearcats found their feet again after that by thrashing a hapless Morgan State team, and they come into the Shootout riding an 8-1 record and some national buzz of their own.
Cincinnati self-identifies as a defense-first team, as well they should: their defensive efficiency is 15th in the nation, only one spot behind Xavier. They have actually been susceptible to the three-ball this year in terms of both attempts allowed and success rate. They've locked down the paint though, allowing just a 36.5% shooting percentage on two-point field goals and posting a block rate of 16.5%, 11th in the country. They also do well in forcing turnovers and are a good but not elite defensive rebounding team. All this comes without doing much in the way of fouling; only four teams in the nation are better at not sending opponents to the line.
Their offense has been pretty solid, too. They've valued the ball in terms of both avoiding turnovers very well and getting to the offensive glass at an elite rate. Their EFG% is 54.1% (53rd in the nation) thanks to above-average shooting both inside the arc (53.6%) and beyond it (36.6%). They share the ball well and do a decent job of getting to the line, but they are an exactly average free throw shooting team. Depth isn't an issue: almost 40% of their minutes have come from non-starters.
|TROY CAUPAIN||POINT GUARD||EDMOND SUMNER|
|6'4", 205||Measurements||6'6", 185|
|Caupain is shooting more and making less than he ever has, but he's good distributing the ball and he doesn't turn it over much. He'll get up on ballhandlers on defense, and do it without fouling.|
|Farad Cobb||SHOOTING GUARD||MYLES DAVIS|
|6'1", 175||Measurements||6'2", 188|
|Cobb is almost the opposite of his backcourt mate; he's shooting more and making more than he ever has. He'll get up ten shots and more than half of them will come from deep. Xavier would do well not to lose him in the half court.|
|Shaq Thomas||SMALL FORWARD||REMY ABELL|
|6'7", 210||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|Thomas lingers outside just a little bit more than Clark does, but he still doesn't represent a dream matchup for Abell. Remy is going to have to dig deep to keep Thomas away from the glass. It's going to a matchup of quickness against strength.|
|Gary Clark||POWER FORWARD||TREVON BLUIETT|
|6'7", 235||Measurements||6'6", 215|
|The 60% that Clark shoots from deep is a mirage, but the massive number down low isn't. Clark is a max effort guy who can be baited into fouls. He and Ellis are an absolute force on the glass together.|
|Octavious Ellis||CENTER||JALEN REYNOLDS|
|6'10", 235||Measurements||6'10", 238|
|This matchup will be an absolute war. Both players foul a lot, both get fouled a lot, both hammer the glass incessantly. If you are looking for the double technical that will be called this year, it will be right here.|
Cinci has basically three relax bench players, probably the best of whom is 6'9", 265-pound man mountain Coreontae DeBerry. The senior is a bully on the glass at both ends and an efficient scorer, posting an EFG% of 55% on his way to 7.3 and 5.2 per game.
Kevin Johnson fancies himself a bench scorer but he's more of a raw gunner, firing his way to 7.8/2.0/2.2 on .368/.318/.667 shooting. He's a good defender who can also distribute a little bit. Justin Jenifer is a 5'10" pass-first PG off the bench. He can shoot it when left open, but he mostly sets up his teammates. He has some TO troubles but is tough as nails.
-Can Xavier score inside? Despite having solid post men and an array of slashing perimeter players, Xavier is barely above the national average in two-point field goal percentage. To add to that, Cincinnati has one of the meanest interior defense in the nation right now. Will Good Jalen show up and take it to the UC defense? If he doesn't, is it worth attacking the middle at all for Xavier when they have the shooters to stress a distinctly pedestrian Bearcats perimeter?
-Who controls the glass? Xavier is the better rebounding team, but Cincinnati is not that far behind the Muskies. The most interesting battle will be when UC shots come off the rim, as Xavier has the second-best DReb% in the country but UC runs at the glass like those dudes who chase the wheel of cheese down the hill in England. The Bearcats offensive depends on second chances the same way that Xavier's defense depends on not allowing them; something has to give there, and it might decide the game.
-How does Xavier defend? Gary Clark is kind of a problem. He's too strong and aggressive for Trevon to handle, but he might be too quick for Jalen and James. He an Octavius Ellis are a tough combination inside, and Farad Cobb will be looking for his shot on the perimeter. I think shutting down the paint will be a bigger priority for Xavier; I'd expect to see a healthy dose of that 1-3-1.
-Attack the rim. Even in light of everything I just said about scoring inside, I think this is the way to go for Xavier. No officiating crew wants to be the one to let another Shootout end in a fracas, so I'd expect whistles to be a little tight. X has the depth to absorb a lot of foul calls, the whistle usually favors the home team (sorry, it's an ugly truth), and the Muskies are really good from the line right now. There are a lot of moving parts to a successful offensive effort against a good defense, but getting the ball into the middle and making things happen would be a great start for Xavier.
-Be patient. Cincinnati is in the top 10 in the nation in forcing offensive possessions to run long. They do a good job of not giving up easy shots early in the shot clock and then locking down when opponents' throats start to get tight. Xavier has the fire power to get up good shots if they commit to moving the ball instead of worrying about the clock running down. There's no reason you should be seeing Xavier forcing things early in possessions tomorrow.
-Control the emotion. Someone is going to get a technical foul; it's basically guaranteed. When that happens, we're all obviously better served if it lands on a Cincinnati player. Jalen kind of has a reputation as a hot head (for whatever reason), and JP strikes me as the kind of guy who might threaten to take his opponent's mother out to a nice seafood dinner and then never call her again. With the game being played at Cintas and Xavier being favored, there should be plenty of energy in the building. It will be incumbent on X to channel that into something productive.