There was a time in this rivalry when it was UC who were the bullies on the block. Teams built around the likes of Bobby Brannen, Danny Fortson, Ruben Patterson, and Kenyon Martin battered arguably more skilled Xavier teams who tried to play basketball amidst what resembled either a swirling street fight or a YMCA game. Bob Huggins' teams of probationary all-stars seemed to relish their roles as the meaner team, ready to drag a game into the mud rather than just play. Last night, with one incredible hammer of a dunk from a point guard, the tone finished what has been a decade long change. As Octavious Ellis cringed away from Xavier's baby-faced and springloaded freshman it was clear: the Musketeers long played the better basketball, they are now unquestionably the swaggering owners of this city.
This game started how Shootouts should start, with elbows flying. With only a modicum of respect to Michigan-OSU, and Duke-North Carolina, this is what a real rivalry looks like. There is no "we really respect them" pandering, only two teams and programs that share a genuine hate for each other. When the aforementioned Ellis deposited Myles Davis (17/3/3) on the ground with an elbow to the chest, he was trying to set a tone that his team couldn't hope to keep. Davis went sliding away, but it was the Musketeers that seized the game by the throat after that, ripping out to 16-6 lead before seven minutes were gone.
Before the lead stretched to 12, Saint Mick Cronin picked up a technical foul. If there is an heir to Jim Boeheim's flop-sweating, wheedling throne, it's the spineless whiner from across town. With his team already down, and him already being outcoached, Cronin reached deep into his bag of tricks and screamed the f word at an official. Whether that is what earned him his tech or not is debatable, but it certainly shows that while UC may have lost their ability to win as thugs, they still manage to exhibit a startling lack of class.
The game seesawed a bit after that. Xavier was rolling thanks to 10 first half points from an effervescent Myles Davis. Davis has begun to slot in alongside players like Kevin Frey, Stanley Burrell, and Dante Jackson as guys who clearly understand what these games mean to the fans. Myles didn't disappoint last night, going 3-4 from behind the arc and leading almost every celebration. He needed to step to the fore because, much as everyone had feared, Jalen Reynolds (8/6/0) was in early foul trouble. It's clear that Reynolds' reputation proceeds him, but it's also clear he puts himself in places where he can be called for soft fouls. The fact that he managed such a solid line for the game is a tribute to Coach Mack and also to Jalen's ability to rein himself back in.
Thanks to a casually drained 30 footer from Myles to close the half, Xavier went to the locker room with a 16 point lead. Remy Abell (9/2/3) broke out of his shooting funk with two early threes and Xavier's offense was clicking on every available cylinder. At 42-26, it looked like another blowout might be in the cards. Unfortunately, that was exactly the mindset of the Musketeers as they came back onto the floor. The first five possessions of the half featured four jumpers and a turnover. In their haste to make the lead 30, Xavier forgot some of the basic tenets of the game and found themselves only up six.
And it was here where the differing directions of the programs became evident. Coach Mack called a timeout, calmed his team, and sent them back out. Buckets from Edmond Sumner (11/2/5) and Abell pushed the lead back to nine. UC made another little run and Myles answered with five straight of his own. Aside from just the players reacting with no panic, it was the coaching that stood out. While Cronin screamed, sweated, flapped his arms, and whined, Coach Mack adjusted to the 1-3-1. With the Bearcats apparently unable to watch or interpret game tape, their offense flew back out of sync. The lead dropped to five, and there it hung, waiting for the game's defining moment.
Sometimes you can see things coming when the camera is at a wide angle better than anyone in the gym can. This was one of those times. After Reynolds scored he grabbed a quick steal on the other end and threw an outlet on the left side to Myles Davis. As Myles crossed the time line, the Bearcats swarmed him. With a quick back spin out of danger, Xavier's leader was free to pick his pass. At that point Ed Sumner was approaching the three point line at the top of the key and building momentum. Myles found him with the pass, Ed dribbled once, stepped twice, and launched himself at the rim.
Waiting for him there was 6'10" Octavious Ellis, he of the 7% block rating, easily in the top 100 of the nation, he who had tossed Myles aside early in the game, he who is the closest thing UC has to their snarling bullies of the past. Edmond and Ellis both rose toward the rim and then the freshman just kept going. Once Sumner loaded the right arm back, Ellis knew that he was about to be destroyed on national television. Sumner slammed the ball through so hard the cameras picked up the sound of the rim snapping back just before the roar of the crowd hit. Ellis landed looking as though he was pleading for deliverance that would not come. As Edmond went the other way screaming, the game was over as a contest. Xavier was better in basketball and, definitively, they were the harder team as well. Like that of the hammer and the nail, this rivalry goes on with the outcome less in doubt each time.
-Can Xavier score inside? Xavier shot 51.2% (sadly, an improvement) inside the arc and got 19 out of Reynolds, James Farr (9/6/1), and Sean O'Mara (2/0/0). They didn't dominate inside, but they did more than enough for Xavier's bevy of shooters to get good looks and knock down 40% from deep. Xavier outscored the Bearcats by 10 in the paint on the game.
-Who controls the glass? The teams were dead even on the gross rebounding numbers, but UC turned their 11 offensive boards into only eight second chance points, while Xavier got 14 points out of their 10. In tightly contested games on the glass, the ability to turn second chances into points is vital. Xavier was tough enough to, UC was not.
-How does Xavier defend? Coach Mack said afterwards that the 1-3-1 changed the game, and he was exactly right. Mick Cronin seemed surprised by it, his players never adjusted, and it was a steal out of the zone that sent Sumner on his way to his meeting with Ellis. Still, Trevon Bluiett (2/6/1) deserves some special credit here for the job he did on Gary Clark in the man to man. Tre will never be known as an elite defender, but he gave all of his effort on that end in this game and trusted his teammates to handle the scoring. They did, and he kept Clark from garnering even a single point. As much as Myles was a virtuoso offensively, Trevon was on the other end.