Here it is, the best rivalry game in college basketball ready to be renewed on the first weekend in December of what has been the weirdest year in memory from both a sporting and overall sense. Both teams enter undefeated, although Xavier has played five games to UC’s one, and both harbor ambitions of picking up a first signature win which could hold immense value by the time March rolls around given the ever changing landscape of this season.
Cincinnati got their season under way earlier this week just before Xavier tipped off their fifth game. The Bearcats struggled for much of the game to put away a Lipscomb team that had just lost to Tulane before starting a 17-2 run with eight minutes left that would prevent the upset. Outside of that spurt, they looked very pedestrian on Wednesday night, although every team looks bad apart from the times they are good.
John Brannen took the helm from the departing Mick Cronin last season after having led Northern Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament twice in his four year stint there.
On offense UC didn’t play particularly quickly or shoot many threes last season, possibly owing to the fact they sucked at them, and they turned the ball over a preposterous amount for a team that played so slowly. What they could do was rebound the ball the get to the line. Their game plan seems to be to try to get a decent look from inside the arc and see what happens, knowing almost a third of their misses come back to them.
Defensively, they played a lot like a Cronin team in that they were incredibly stingy inside the arc, blocked a lot of shots, and were mediocre on the glass. It should be noted that their only defensive rebounder of any note was Tre Scott who exhausted his eligibility last season, leaving a hole they they hope that dude from Colgate can fill.
Chris Vogt is back and had a solid showing against Lipscomb on limited usage. His rebounding is far from elite but will need to be checked offensively. Keith Williams was the opposite against Lipscomb, he used they ball a lot and sucked with it. Mika Adams-Woods is the teams current leading scorer and he doesn't turn the ball over much. Colgate transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas is a very solid rebounder and has picked his spots on offense at UC. David Dejulius is a good outside shooter who takes good care of the ball but doesn't spend a lot of time on it.
Zach Harvey had a good showing against Lipscomb after barely playing last season and is shooting 50% on the year. Jeremiah Davenport also came off the bench and continued his theme from last season of throwing the ball away whenever possible. Mamadou Diarra didn't get much burn against Lipscomb but cleaned up on the defensive glass. Tari Eason, Mike Saunders Jr., and Gabe Madsen have all played very limited time.
How much of a role do Kunkel, Wilcher, and Jones play? Xavier got a triple dose of good news on Saturday as Adam Kunkel, CJ Wilcher, and Colby Jones were all cleared to play. Kunkel is a veteran player who started 32 D1 games last year and has been practicing with the team, so he figures to be the easiest to plug in right away. Wilcher will hope his shooting ability plays from day one and get him on the court enough to play catch up. Jones will likely have the hardest time as his calling card is the ability to guard 1-4 and an incredible motor, both things that will probably take some time to come back as he gets his legs under him.
Will anyone notice that the arena is mostly empty? I mean, it is not like they packed the place out pre-pandemic. In all honesty, the last time an away team won in this rivalry was The Dee Davis Game, so Xavier will have to buck the recent trend to get the win here. If they do so, UC fans will for sure act like a lack of fans in the arena matters, but I don’t recall a fan scoring a single point in any previous matchups.
Has UC figured anything out? Xavier has spent five games running through various lineups, employing different defenses, and trying all sorts of offensive looks, with varying levels of success. UC had 40 minutes against a bad Lipscomb team that hung with them for 30 minutes. Brannen has had a lot of practice time and scrimmages to see what he has,but precious little actual in game data to work off of with a team that lost three if their four highest usage players from last season.
Keep Vogt off the glass- Chris Vogt plays 70% of the available minutes and has basically one purpose on offense: corral misses and put them back in. With Xavier struggling to keep even people who are not good at that from doing it, it is of utmost importance that they keep UC’s 7-footer from profiting from offensive rebounds.
Don’t let Vogt keep us off the glass- For all of his merits as an offensive rebounder, Vogt is steamed garbage at getting defensive rebounds. Last season, despite being taller than almost any opponent he played, he had a 12% defensive rebound rate. For reference, so did Leighton Schrand. Xavier has to capitalize on the fact that there will be misses to clean up on the offensive end.
Keep the tempo low- Anyone who watched the EKU game, which I am assuming includes the UC coaching staff, knows that Xavier can be sped up and turned over. When Xaiver gets into a half court offense, they have looked relatively good this season, and adding shooters like Kunkel and Wilcher to that equation makes them a scarier proposition. The thing is, though, that running a half court offense requires the game to not be played at the frantic pace of the EKU game, which would suit UC much more than it would Xavier.