If you watched Xavier beat Baylor relatively handily on Tuesday night, you could be forgiven for wondering where that team was last Friday. The Musketeers played excellent defense, rebounded, and shot well enough to approximate a team that deserved a top 15 ranking. This after spending the end of last week looking very much like a team was, well, really bad.
Of course, the opponents were vastly different. Baylor slows the game down and dares you to find a way to score over their fleet of long armed and athletic forwards. Arizona State goads you into trying to score as quickly as their lightning fast cadre of deadeye guards can. In one game, Xavier excelled, in the other, they were humiliated. In neither of those games, though, were the stakes as high as they are on Saturday.
Come Saturday X will be playing the most important non-conference game of the year. There’s all the emotional impact of the Shootout and all that it entails, but there’s also the fact that Ken Pomeroy has UC ranked as the eighth best team in the nation this year. Xavier has just played two other to 50 teams back to back. Is there some clue in either of those games as to what might happen in this, one that greatly overshadows both of them?
Yes, there is. Firstly, UC hasn’t seen anyone anything close to Xavier yet this year. They beat #77 Wyoming by 25 on a neutral court after stirring wins over Buffalo and Richmond. That three game stretch represents the entirety of opponents UC has faced that are ranked over 285th. In short, their non-conference schedule has been a complete joke to this point.
That shouldn’t distract from the fact that good teams are supposed to beat bad ones, and UC has been crushing them. The way they’ve been doing resembles no Xavier opponent so much as it does Baylor. In fact, in terms of three point offense and defense, the teams are very similar. UC will shoot the three pointer about 5% more often, but they prefer to work the ball inside. Like Baylor, they’ll also step off the line a bit on defense, confident that you won’t make many of them, and that they will stifle you in the lane.
On offense, UC makes 40.3% of their three pointers, a concerningly high number and one that calls to mind ASU’s 43%. While they are solid in the paint, they are far more Baylor there, falling far short of ASU’s 62.6% mark. (This just in, the Sun Devils can really shoot it). Defensively, UC challenges every shot and seals off the glass. Frankly, there is no comp for them in Xavier’s opponents. This will be the best defense that X has seen thus far and likely the best they see all year.
What then, to expect at first blush? A contrast in styles. UC still wants the rock fight. They have some offensive talent this year, but it isn’t in Mick Cronin’s nature to do anything attractive on the basketball court. The Bearcats are ploddingly slow, focused on defense, and ferocious on the glass. Meanwhile, Xavier wants to run, shoot, pack the defense in, and dare you to shoot them out of it. X has the bigger team, UC goes deeper. Once again, the differences in the Crosstown rivals are myriad. Xavier fans are just left to hope that a team built more like Baylor doesn’t run into an Arizona State kind of shooting day.