You don’t need me to tell you what this game means. There are rivalries in sports, and then there is this one. This isn’t Steelers-Ravens, or Yankees-Red Sox, or even the Red River Shootout, this is a game that has ended after less than 40 minutes because the teams fought, that in 2009 was a 50 minute rolling testament to genuine dislike, a game that had to be moved off campus for a time because of the potential for sectarian violence as if Cincinnati were, briefly, Belfast in the 1970s. This game has given us the grace of Pete Gillen being tested, Bob Huggins solidifying his snarling reputation, and a sniveling Mick Cronin ascending to the heights of misplaced sanctimony.
This year is the first time in the last several that UC comes into the game on par or even slightly ahead of Xavier when the ball is tipped. In a rivalry game that may not matter much, indeed, one of these teams has a habit of beating the other when it is ranked #1, but it’s a bit of a change of pace for Xavier fans who have become used to having the superior team. Take the AP poll with more salt than your doctor would dream of, but there Xavier is 24th to UC’s 19th. KenPom has the Bearcats at 20th and Xavier slowly sliding all the way down to 28th. There’s not really much of an argument that, while it is close, the Musketeers are entering this game as the underdog.
That’s not because of conference wins. The AAC is, to put it bluntly, hot garbage. For a conference that had designs on cracking basketball’s top five, it has instead had to been comfortable slotting in next to the stripped out Atlantic 10. Well, that’s this year, as recently as two years ago, the AAC was laboring below even the WCC in terms of conference ranking. UC, though, grabbed good wins out of conference, beating a decent Penn St squad and a good Iowa St on the road. The two chances that the Bearcats have had for good wins in conference (Houston and SMU) they have taken.
The last of those was three games ago, though. Cincinnati enters this game on the back of three straight wins over East Carolina (208th), Temple (101st), and most recently Tulane (268th). The best of those wins is essentially beating St. John’s, the other two have come against teams notably worse than DePaul. Speaking of worse than the Blue Demons, UC has played a staggering eight games against teams ranked beneath DePaul in the KenPom. Four more games against teams sitting below St. John’s (UConn and Tulsa) also remain.
So, as much as Xavier needs this game to get that big road win, UC needs it as well. There are no more games left where they are getting a big boost to their rankings. Once again, this is the game that the Bearcats need to set themselves for a good seed come March. After this, there is nowhere for the computer numbers to go but down. Any loss, with the exception of SMU, is coming to an inferior team, any win is to be expected. It’s Xavier that’s having the worse season to this point, but this game looms large for both squads for reasons that aren’t just related to despising one another.