What's the biggest game on the non-conference calendar for Xavier? Don't lie to me; you know the answer. Sure, Xavier will play good teams from actual major conferences, and sure, Xavier has dominated this matchup for the entire lives of your average freshman this year, but there's no denying that there's something special about the Crosstown Shootout. It may not move the needle on the KenPom, the RPI, or the polls as much as most of Xavier's games will, but there's something extra cathartic about owning the city that can't be achieved in any other game.
UC had a solid season last year by following the twin pillars of mid-major resume building: do enough work in the non-conference to make up for the lack of big win opportunities in conference play, and don't spit the bit against any of your crappy conference foes. They picked up a decent win against GW and a good win at VCU before the calendar turned and then slogged through the dregs of the AAC without taking damage. Their season ended with a play that shows up as null on the box score, as Octavius Ellis's potential game-tying dunk was still in his hands at the horn of their first-round NCAA tournament loss to Saint Joseph's.
"Style" is a generous way to describe Coach Mick Cronin's approach to basketball, so I'll sum it up in words before I give you the numbers: recruit athletic, hard-working but questionably talented players. Make the game as ugly and slow as possible. Play with barely restrained violence. Defend hard enough to win games in a way that disguises your inability to coach offense at all. That's it; that's the plan.
The numbers back it up. It has been six years since UC was outside the bottom 100 in tempo and they've never been in the top half under Cronin. On the other hand, his defenses have been in the top 50 for seven straight seasons, routinely doing well in forcing turnovers and keeping opponents from getting clean looks at the rim. About the only place Cronin's defenses have consistently had trouble is defending the glass; they've been well below average there four of the past five years.
Offense is a clown show. Cronin's UC teams have been in the top 150 in EFG% once in his tenure, and that was 143rd in '14-'15. Their only consistent strong suit has been hitting the offensive glass. They don't share the ball well, usually turn it over too much, and don't get shots they can convert. Basically, if you can get to the glass on both ends, you're into the Achilles heel of the Bearcats' plan.
The biggest miss for UC this year will be the team’s second leading scorer and best perimeter threat from last season, Farad Cobb. Cobb got 10.7/1.8/1.5, which came mostly from outside the lane. His 39% from three and 84% from the line led the team as well as his 1.4 steals per game and he buried that super clutch three to keep Xavier’s margin of victory at 10. Speaking of nights that were pretty disappointing for UC fans, the Bearcats’ season ended with the ball (still) in the hands of Octavious Ellis, who signed off his illustrious career in Clifton with and 0-4 mark against X. Ellis filled the role of lane bully/guy who is always on the brink of doing something stupid and being disqualified from further participation for UC. Ellis’s hallmarks were his shot blocking and rebounding at both ends, as well as his 54% mark from the floor, but troubles with fouls and turnovers limited his overall effectiveness on offense and he ended up with 9.8/7.5/1.2 per game as a senior.
Shaq Thomas also packed up and took his talents to, uh, somewhere else after finishing a four year career at UC that saw him blossom into practically the exact same player he was when he arrived. Thomas never developed a scoring touch, but was a tough defender and rebounder who blocked a lot of shots for his 6’7” size. Also gone is Coreantae DeBerry a 6’9” 265 mountain who at space and scored well at the rim, but did not dominate the boards like you would expect someone his size to and was almost constantly in foul trouble.
The team leader in minutes from last season, Troy Caupain, is back for his final go ‘round. Caupain got 13.0/3.8/4.8 last year, but owed much of his 109.5 efficiency rating on his ability to create and take care of the ball. Shooting wise his line of .375/.324/.788 is borderline appalling and is only made worse by the fact that the only player who shot more frequently was Cobb. A player who was efficient in his scoring exploits was forward Gary Clark, who rode his Ford Ranger-like physique to 10.8/8.8/2.1. Clark will be expected to pick up some of the load left behind by Ellis down low, being the team’s returning leader in both rebounding rates, block rate, and effective field goal percentage.
Somewhat less nerve wracking for X fans is the return of Kevin Johnson, who I guess played mostly last year so that everyone would be guarded. Johnson excelled at creating turnovers a year ago, but was somewhat of a crap shoot on offense, at one point chucking up a 4-9 performance from three and then promptly making 2 of his next 15. The best returning perimeter threat is Jacob Evans, who gradually worked his way in to more playing time as the year went on. His overall game showed flashes of potential as a freshman as he was able to take care of the ball and block shots well in addition to knocking down 33% from deep. He also was the lone returning Bearcat to shoot 80% or better from the line, although his 37% overall from the field will be a mark he will need to improve upon to make good in his potential this year.
The big one will be newly-eligible NC State transfer forward Kyle Washington. He's a 6'9" forward with good perimeter skills; he can score from inside or the mid-range and is a solid shot blocker. His range sneaks out to the three-point line occasionally. He's not a strong rebounder, but he's a good, versatile forward for UC. The other incoming big man is Nysier Brooks, a 6'9", 235-pound center from Philly. Not surprisingly, he's a really good defender both in shot-blocking and working on the glass. Super unsurprisingly, scouting reports I could find talked about his offense in such glowing terms as "lacks a scoring move," "can't impact the game on the offensive end," and that he "needs to develop an offensive game."
On the perimeter, ESPN 100 guard - and former Xavier target - Jarron Cumberland is the only new addition. He's a 6'4" scorer with a strong body who is a strong finisher at the rim. He also boasts an above-average jumper with range out a step or two behind the arc. I like bagging on UC as much as the next guy, but Cumberland is a legitimately good player... pending the coaching of Mick Cronin.
With St. Mick at the helm it is always going to be about grinding out ugly wins against a mid-major conference and hoping to take a big scalp in non-Conference. Butler and Iowa State are the only other major conference teams on the docket, so there is a decent chance that a lot of UC’s at large bid could be riding on breaking a three game skid against X. While it is hard to know how this group will shake out as a whole, they have to hope that Washington and Brooks hit the ground running, because they will once again be hanging their hat on defense.