“I don’t think it’s about downplaying it like it’s another game, because it isn’t.”
That’s what Sean Miller had to say about preparing his team - and especially the guys who had never played in a Crosstown Shootout - during the pregame press conference. Nobody who has been watching this rivalry for any amount of time needs convincing of that. Legitimate bad blood exists between these programs and their fanbases; this is the best rivalry game in all of college basketball.
Cincinnati comes into the game riding high. They thumped a hapless Louisville to salvage their trip to Maui and fed it to low majors NJIT and Bryant at Fifth Third to establish a modest three-game winning streak. Their best win is that neutral site game over Louisville; they haven’t beaten anyone of note aside from that and got worked over pretty well against OSU and Arizona. By NET right now, this is a Q3 game for Xavier. For a full recap on how that came to be, click through below.
Per KenPom, UC has played the 237th toughest schedule so far. Xavier has played the 52nd. Though both teams sit at 6-3, it’s Xavier’s road that has the fanbase drawing positive conclusions from negative results. The Muskies have fought hard and partially short-handed in their three losses, all of which have come against top-tier competition. Now presumably healthy and rested, X will play a Q3 game at Cinci and a Q4 game at home against Southern before taking on the Big East. There’s no space left in the resume for non-conference losses, especially not of that caliber.
That’s all context; when the ball goes up at 3pm on Saturday, all that will matter is what the 10 guys on the court can put together over the course of 40 minutes.
This is not your dad's Cincinnati team. The defense is not a juggernaut; they're actually fairly permeable at 96th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Their greatest weakness is turnovers, in that they just don't force them at all. They're about national average in defensive EFG% and free throw rate, which doesn't seem awful until you consider that that average is calculated using every team in D1, even the horrible ones. If you sort out the low majors, UC slides near the bottom. They're just inside the national top 100 in defensive rebounding, which represents a strong point for the team. They do a good job chasing opponents off the arc, for what that's worth.
The offense is just off the top 50. It starts with their ball security; their team TO rate is just 16%. They get after the offensive glass well, ranking 64th in the country in OReb%. They don't exactly overwhelm teams with all those extra possessions though; they land just a tick above average in two-point and three-point percentage. More than 40% of their shots come from behind the arc, which doesn't even put them in the top 100.
|Mika Adams-Woods||Point Guard||Souley Boum|
|6'3", 180||Measurements||6'3", 175|
|More than 90% of Adams-Woods's shots are either threes or at the rim; he doesn't shoot mid-range at all. He's a pretty good finisher and an excellent free throw shooter. He isn't a great distributor but is a solid option on the ball. UC doesn't rely on him to use a lot of possessions, just keep things ticking over.|
|David DeJulius||Shooting Guard||Adam Kunkel|
|6'0", 200||Measurements||6'4", 185|
|DeJulius is probably the team's most dangerous all-around player. He can score at all three levels, shoots almost 50% from the mid-range, and isn't afraid to pull from deep off the dribble. He moves the ball well and doesn't turn it over much. If he has a weakness - other than being a bit of a flat track bully - it's that he doesn't get to the line very much at all. He's a good player.|
|Jeremiah Davenport||Small Forward||Colby Jones|
|6'7", 215||Measurements||6'6", 205|
|Davenport had a good sophomore season that looked like it was the setup for a breakout, but that never came. He has turned into a bit of a lingery perimeter shooter rather than a more comprehensive threat, and his shooting has been pretty poor this year. He has played 238 minutes this year and turned the ball over 3 times, which is a sneaky valuable aspect of his game.|
|Landers Nolley II||Power Forward||Zach Freemantle|
|6'7", 220||Measurements||6'9", 225|
|A transfer from some the perennially underachieving Memphis program, Nolley has been as advertised so far for the Bearcats. He scores from all three levels and has been shooting it really well from deep. He doesn't rebound very much and can be a bit of a ball stopper, but he's here to score and he's doing it. He's a solid defender at the four spot.|
|Viktor Lakhin||Center||Jack Nunge|
|6'11", 240||Measurements||7'0" 245|
|After really earning that "World's Okayest Big Man" mug last year, Lakhin is off to an excellent start this season. He's crushing the glass on both ends and finishing at a high level. He's been a good rim protector, but he is a little foul prone. He's also drawing a ton of fouls, though he's letting himself down a little bit by being garbage from the line. It will be important for Nunge to be able to pull him out from under the rim.|
A lot, but not a lot of production. Like Xavier, UC starts their top five scorers and sees a big drop off as soon as they look down the bench. Unlike Xavier, that drop off hasn't stopped them from running the reserves out there.
Dan Skillings is a 6'6" freshman wing averaging 5.6/4.4/0.8. He gets after the defensive glass and isn't afraid to shoot despite not being very good at it. He has a bit of a turnover problem. Fellow freshman Josh Reed is an inch taller and averages 4.8/3.2/0.6. He's only shot 11 times in his 5 games played, but he's 5-6 from deep.
Forward depth comes in the form of senior Ody Oguama - formerly of Wake - and freshman Kalu Ezikpe. Oguama averages 2.8/3.9/0.6, stays present on the offensive glass, and fouls too much to be an effective rim protector. Ezikpe fouls even more - 7.4 times per 40 - but still blocks a ton of shots and averages 2.5/2.1/0.1.
Jarret Hensley - a 6'8" UNC Greensboro transfer averaging 3.7/1.3/0.7 - merits mention for being efficient in limited minutes. Rob Phinisee - a 6'1" Indiana transfer averaging 1.9/2.3/2.4 - merits mention for being abject in extended minutes. He's shooting 5-22 against D1 opponents and 8 of his 19 assists on the year came against Chaminade. Whoof.
-How does Xavier adjust to the road? The Muskies have been away from Cintas for their trip to Portland this year, but this will be their first true road game, and what an environment to do it in. Kam Craft and Des Claude have never set foot in a truly hostile arena in college play, and Cincinnati's fans should do a better job at making the arena loud than they do at guarding their statues. This is a veteran Muskie team; they should rise to the challenge.
-Are Xavier's turnover woes behind them? The Muskies have posted 12.1%, 18.6%, and 21.1% turnover rates in the last three games, and that last one is against West Virginia, who usually force a ton of turnovers. Ball security has been an issue for Xavier at times this season, but they've tightened things down of late. Nothing gets the people going like a run at home in a rivalry game, and getting the other team to cough the ball up is a great way to spur that. If X has squared away their previously profligate offense, they'll have cut off an important route into the game for UC.
-Can Xavier defend the arc? Cincinnati gets a lot of shots up from three, and they're not entirely without threat from there. They kept themselves in an otherwise hopeless game against Arizona by hitting 17-34 from deep, including 9-14 from Nolley. If he gets hot again, that will force Xavier to adjust defensively to chase him off the arc, which likely means sacrificing Zach Freemantle for a spell. Xavier is 339th in 3P% defense; they're gonna need hands in faces today.
- Don’t give them a reason to believe: You read 1031 words before you hit the start of this sentence. All of them should lead you to the conclusion that UC is not as good as Xavier at basketball so far this year. That’s not a talking point, or a thing with which to start debate, it just is. That, however, is not how they determine who wins and loses basketball games. Xavier may have been the better team so far, but if UC is in this thing with 10 to play, it’s anyone’s game. The Musketeers need to punch down hard and put this thing away before the crowd starts to feel hope.
- Don’t let Landers Nolley beat you: Nolley is UC’s leading scorer. He’s their best three point shooter. He’s their best free throw shooter. He’s their best player. Viktor Lahkin is good but limits himself with fouls and being trash at the line. David DeJulius who, no word of a lie, has been playing college ball since before the last time UC beat Xavier, is good but not great. Nolley is great. He can go for 33 and drag his team into games it has no business being in. That’s what happened against Arizona. Xavier needs to make someone else shoulder the load.
- Get bench production: Last game it was Jerome Hunter who bolstered the top five. It’s doesn’t have to be him again, but it does have to be someone. UC is deep at least in terms of minutes played and Xavier is going to have find some way of staying at least a little fresh. There will be minutes available for whoever comes off the bench and can stay in front of Nolley or Davenport for just a brief stretch. Could that be Kam Craft?