Well friends, here it is. The game Sean Miller calls "the most meaningful game we play" has arrived, and the Musketeers are carrying less than zero momentum into it. After starting the season at 4-2 without really embarrassing themselves in a loss, the Muskies have lost three straight, two of which were buy games. The best performance came against the toughest team, a hard fought 66-60 loss to Houston. X flat out capitulated in the two buy games bracketing that, leaving Quincy Olivari - who you could argue did his part by dropping 17 on Houston and 34 on Delaware - to declare postgame that the team was leaderless. Not good.
Coming into Cintas are the red hot Cincinnati Bearcats. They've won seven in a row, and by the kind of margins that have allowed them to jump from 53rd in the KenPom to start the season to 27th right now. Not a soul on their team has described it as lacking a leader in a single press conference that I'm aware of. They've made light work of 6 home games and won their lone roadie, an OT victory at Howard.
If you're a senior at UC, you probably weren't born yet when the Bearcats last won at Xavier. Unless you're a senior citizen, you don't remember a time when UC dominated this matchup. Nobody on the court tonight will have seen UC have a winning record in the Shootout in their lifetime, and it's not even particularly close.
Some games just mean more; this one means the most.
The offense and defense are both 31st in the nation in adjusted efficiency. That's not a particularly meaningful stat, just a little fun fact.
The offense excels in the freebie war; they're top 10 in TO rate and top 20 in OReb%. They do an excellent job of getting as many shots as possible per trip down the floor. They're also doing well in getting quality shots. UC's EFG% of 55.8% in the nation is good for 29th, and they're top 50 in both 2P% and 3P%. They're bad at both getting to the line and converting from there, shooting 69.2% on free throws as a team.
Defensively, they crush the glass. They're 3rd in the country with a DReb% of over 80%. They're also elite in keeping opponents off of the line. They don't force a ton of turnovers and they're only a tick above average at both blocking shots and defensive 2P%, which is a bit surprising considering they start two monster centers. They don't force many turnovers, but neither did Delaware and X found a way to cough the ball up on about a quarter of their possessions in that game.
|Day Day Thomas
|Thomas is a JuCo guy, having done two years at Kilgore College, but he has slotted right in and hit the ground running at UC. He's an okay finisher and not much of a shooter, but he has a solid assist rate and excellent ball security numbers. He's also a good defender, posting a 5.3% steal percentage this year. He's only getting about 23 minutes per game, but when he's out there he's not bashful about getting his shots up.
|Fredrick is a UK transfer who started his career at Iowa. He's shooting the eyes out of the ball right now and is a career 42.5% shooter from beyond the arc. He's a catch-and-shoot guy, just like Cavan Reilly, who completely gashed Xavier last time out. Hooray! He doesn't do much besides score from beyond the arc, but he's really good at that.
|John Newman III
|This is Newman's 6th year in college; he turned 24 this summer. He has always been a hair shy of solid as a shooter, but his numbers have taken a big step up this season. He gets after it on the defensive glass and has some ability to stay in front of guys as a perimeter defender. He's very efficient in low usage on offense.
|Bandaogo spent two years at Akron before transferring to Utah Valley, where he was immediately eligible. He then transferred to UC, where he was also (eventually) ruled immediately eligible. Beyond whatever you make of that, he's a really good rebounder and blocks a decent amount of shots without fouling much. He's got a pretty low usage rate as he works his way into the offense, but he allows UC to start 13'11" of post players, which is fairly formidable.
|Lakhin has been dominant on the glass at both ends this season, posting the best rebounding rates of his career. He's also shooting really well, especially from beyond the arc. He's not like a super mobile big, but his ability to step out at his size makes him a tough assignment. A quarter of his made baskets at the rim come on putbacks; he has to be kept off the boards.
Cincinnati gets 37.9% of their minutes off the bench, good for 49th in the country. Some of that is likely attributable to the fact that they haven't played many close games, but they do seem to have good depth.
Their leader in bench minutes is 6'6" wing Dan Skillings, Jr. He's a sophomore averaging 11.9/7.6/1.7 per game on a solid 108.3 ORtg. He has big usage numbers and does well on the glass at both ends. He's 8-37 on shots not taken at the rim, but he's an effective slasher who rarely turns the ball over.
Guard Edgerrin James, Jr. is the son of that Edgerrin James and goes by Jizzle. He's a 6'1" freshman guard averaging 9.0/2.6/2.7 on 46.8/28.6/83.3 shooting. He has an effective mid-range game and gets to the line really well. He also has the teams highest assist rate and solid defensive numbers.
The loathsome Simas Lukosius is averaging 8.7/2.5/3.7 on 40.8/34.5/100 shooting. He's basically doing all the same things he did at Butler except distributing the ball a little better.
Nearer the bucket, big man depth comes through Ody Oguama (5.4/4.3/0.6) and Josh Reed (2.8/3/0.8). Both of them eat glass at both ends, with the 6'9" Oguama doing a little bit better on the defensive end and the 6'7" Reed having the edge on the offensive. Oguama has a little bit of range, but they're both at their best right at the rim.
-How deep is UC, really? The Bearcats have five guys getting decent minutes off the bench, but they haven't been in that many games to test what their actual depth is. In the OT win at Howard, Josh Reed got 0 minutes and Ody Oguama got just 11. It's easy for the coach to trust a lot of guys when the team is trouncing lightweight opponents; the circle of trust has a tendency to shrink as the leverage increases. We'll see what that does to the UC rotation tonight.
-What does it mean to be untested? The Bearcats have played the 320th most difficult schedule in the country according to KenPom while Xavier's is 84th. The counterpoint to that is, of course, that tall hurdles are only impressive if you clear them. X has spent more time tripping over their own anatomy than you'd prefer to see over the course of an entire season and it's still not even Christmas. Can X make it matter that UC hasn't played a single top-100 opponent yet?
-Where will the whistles go? Rivalry games are always interesting case studies in officiating and this one should be no different. Further exacerbating that is that UC has been horrible at drawing fouls this year while X has been pretty solid at it. Couple that with home court advantage and what figures to be a fairly raucous and partisan crowd and you've got a recipe for the kind of foul disparity that leaves losing teams feeling aggrieved. Whether the 271st-best FT% team in the nation can make that matter is another issue altogether.
-Pace. UC plays without it, especially on defense. These aren't quite Mick Cronin numbers, but they're more than happy to drag the game into the mud and turn it into a rock fight. When they get their defense back with guards chasing opponents off the arc and rebounders in place down low, they're tough to score on. Converting at speed will be a priority for the Muskies.
-Gang rebounding. Xavier simply can't afford to get sonned on the glass tonight, and UC will do just that if given the chance. It's all hands on deck for Xavier when the ball comes off the rim.
-Abou Ousmane. I don't think there's any way around it: Xavier needs the former North Texas big man to have a good game. I have no doubt that Sasa Ciani and Lazar Djokovic will do their best against Viktor Lakhin and Aziz Bandaogo, but only Ousmane has the size and power to truly take the game to them. His ability to stay out of foul trouble and anchor the paint for Xavier may be the differentiating factor in the outcome of this game.