Toughness- the quality of being strong and determined: the quality of being not easily defeated or made weaker: (The Cambridge Dictionary)
The Crosstown Shootout is a game defined by being tough. Whether it was the pantomime toughness of the Bob Huggins era Bearcats or Xavier’s tough guys on the court, neither program has ever shied away from letting a bit of nails sneak into their game. This season, as it has been for quite some time, it was the Xavier Musketeers who demonstrated they have it when it matters.
A lot of Xavier’s hype coming into the game centered on the idea that Xavier would continue to “run this city.” That comes with the idea of dominance, of bending others to your will. Jarron Cumberland, UC’s slightly doughy leading scorer, came in with his toughness being touted as he suffered through flare ups of both his left hip injury and his apathy. He faced up against Naji Marshall who told the Twitter world “GOMD” when his toughness was questioned last year.
It was Marshall who rose to, and then past, the occasion this year. Cumberland wilted in the face of consistent pressure and the din of a frothing Cintas crowd. Matched up against Marshall, Cincinnati’s erstwhile star was devoured whole by a defense that hounded him every time he touched the ball. Like so many wannabe tough guys actually made of marshmallow before him, he visibly shrank away from the situation, alternately pouting, sulking, or sullenly watching fitter men race past him.
On Xavier’s end their star swaggered and strutted as the game got bigger. Naji Marshall backed away from absolutely nothing. In watching him one had the sense that there was nothing he wouldn’t have taken on. If this was to be his last Shootout, he crowned it with a performance worthy of the occasion. It wasn’t just the 31/8/3, it was that when his team desperately needed him, he scored 11 straight. When he jarred a three pointer early in the second half he chewed on Cumberland the entire way back down the floor, letting him know he’d need more help to have a prayer of stopping Naji.
Marshall’s toughness rubbed off. Zach Freemantle looked like he has all year: tough on defense, completely uncowed by any situation. Naji talks to the freshman all the time and he clearly feeds off it. Quentin Goodin was on a different level as well. His defense was almost a physical presence of its own on the court. UC couldn’t get into offense, if they have one, because of the snarling presence they ran into at the top of the key each time. Tough? The Bearcats couldn’t find anyone even willing to dribble the ball without looking frightened. Chris McNeal added to the mystery of his transfer to a mid-major by turning the ball over twice. His replacement Mika Adams-Jones added two of his own. Both of them will likely check the closet for Q before turning out the lights tonight.
It goes on and on from there. Tyrique Jones was, when not getting nickel and dimed, way too much for Chris Vogt to handle. Jason Carter tipped passes, slapped at dribbles, and was second on the team in offensive rebounds. No Xavier player stepped onto the court without a hint of a smile, Jarron Cumberland made sure to display a wince any time a camera was pointed his way. In the biggest game UC will play this year, they followed the example of their quailing leader as surely as Xavier followed that of their fearless one.
This game won’t be the story of Xavier’s season, but it may be end up being a microcosm of it. The shooting wasn’t perfect and the offense sputtered at times, but the team were dogs when they needed to be. Since the year I was born Xavier has gone 23-16 in the Shootout. UC fans will call their grandparents to talk about their time of national relevance. For those of us living in the now, it’s the toughest team in Cincinnati that runs the city.