CINCINNATI - It’s that time of year again. The smell of pine, the presence of mistletoe and the Crosstown Shootout, er, Classic.
That’s still taking some getting used to.
The Xavier Musketeers and University of Cincinnati Bearcats could not be coming into this year’s Queen City rivalry game in more different positions than they were last year.
In 2011, XU had the explosive backcourt; that belongs to UC now. Last year, the Muskies were the favorite to the upstart Bearcats who had stumbled through their first dozen games of the season; this year No. 11 UC is the favorite at an undefeated 10-0 and Xavier has bumbled their way to a 7-2 record, winning games by more than seven points only twice. In 2011, the teams played on a college campus; this year they move to a “neutral” site in U.S. Bank Arena downtown.
With all the changes, Musketeer fans certainly aren’t expecting much at this year’s annual Skyline-sponsored meeting, but all is not lost at a chance to “upset” the Bearcats. (Note: There is no such thing as an “upset” when these two teams play. Look back through history, Xavier teams that only won five games all season won this matchup, and similarly very bad UC teams have taken down competitive Xavier teams. Don’t let those ESPN analysts tell you different, emotion alone evens these two squads, despite talent level.)
And even as the season has progressed, XU has had their bright moments, but their inability to put teams away has shocked their fan base time and time again.
Thus, this year’s Shootout, er, Classic, has a few shocking stats that will dictate the flow of play, and ultimately determine who wins this one.
Shocking Stat #1: Xavier University is 10th in the nation in field goal percentage. Let that sink in for a minute.
The reason why XU hasn’t found their way to an undefeated start on the back of that 49.9 shooting percentage? First keep in mind that number is mostly reflected off of the season-opener against Fairleigh Dickinson when the Muskies shot a once-in-a-decade 70 percent from the field, but even without that, Xavier is at a very respectable 47.5 percent, just about a full point higher than UC’s 46.6 percent (45th in the nation).
The real reason XU hasn’t performed better even with that high-percentage shooting is this year’s Muskies style of play. They slow down the game by going inside to their big men, they take up shot clock, they run long plays and they rarely take 3-pointers early in possessions.
That style of play creates good opportunities, but not necessarily plentiful amounts of those opportunities (XU is 114th in the country in points per game at 71), which is one reason why Xavier hasn’t pulled away from their opponents in many cases. With a high-octane team like the Bearcats, it could be their undoing if XU can’t control the pace of the game.
Shocking Stat #2: On the other side of the court, UC is a decent 45th in the nation in field goal percentage, but 6th in the nation in points scored per game with 83.0.
That ranking is a product of their guards’ prolific offensive skills and fast pace of operation on breaks, usually coming from one of the 11 steals the team averages per game.
The Bearcats’ guards have also excelled in the points department thanks to their hot 3-point shooting early in the season. Between Cashmere Wright (47.5 percent from 3-point range), JaQuon Parker (41.4 percent from beyond the arc) and Sean Kilpatrick (38.5 percent from 3-point), they have made 66 of 155 3-point shots so far this season and recorded a very solid 42.58 3-point shooting percentage between the three of them.
The Musketeers’ top three-point shooters, Dee Davis (47.6 percent from 3), Brad Redford (47.4 percent from outside) and Justin Martin (46.4 percent from downtown), have a great combined percentage at 47.13 percent, but they’ve thrown up 47 less three point attempts than the Bearcats’ top three 3-point shooters, and as a result made less (just 51).
That’s a lot of references to threes.
Here’s one more, in the form of Shocking Stat #3: UC is 1st in the nation in rebounds per game with 46.1.
Despite 6-foot-10 senior Jeff Robinson, the long arms of Travis Taylor and the big body of Isaiah Philmore, rebounding has been Xavier’s Achilles heel, and the major contributor to their inability to put teams away: The Muskies are ranked 304th in the country with just 31.6 rebounds per matchup.
For those who don’t feel like doing the math, that’s almost 15 less rebounds per game. That’s 15 more chances the Bearcats will get than the Musketeers, should the stats hold true.
If that is not rectified, there’s no chance the blue beats the red in this one.
Xavier has an obvious size disadvantage when David Nyarsuk (7-foot-1) is in the game off the bench, but it hasn’t been UC’s size that has gotten them all their boards. Kilpatrick (6-foot-4) is the team’s leader in rebounds per game with 6.2 and Titus Rubles (6-foot-7) and Justin Jackson (6-foot-8) are tied for second on the team with 5.7 rpg.
mind, these two teams match up fairly evenly in size, and it’s going to have to be a team effort off the glass for XU to cut down that number of extra chances from 15.
Shocking Stat #4: As the stats have shown so far, it’s very possible for UC to steal the show Wednesday night, quite literally. They sit tied for 9th best in the nation in steals per game on defense (10.5).
Once more on the opposite spectrum of the NCAA, Xavier is tied for 336th with 4.44 steals per game. Again, for the folks without the time for math, that’s six more chances per game for UC (add that to the rebound totals and it gives the Bearcats 21 more chances to shoot than XU based on steals and rebounds alone).
The good news for Muskie fans is Xavier’s collectively conservative and often zone-style of defense this year has had its share of success in keeping opponents’ field goal percentages low, so that number may not tell as poor of a story as it suggests.
The very team-oriented defensive scheme for Chris Mack’s squad this year has been focused on limiting shot selection instead of creating turnovers and rotating on screens to stay in between the basket and eliminate the easy stuff. That style has come back to haunt them against hot 3-point shooting teams, which UC can be at times, but holding opponents to an overall 42.27 percent from the field thus far this season is a way to win ball games.
The bad news for Musketeer supporters is that UC knows how to move the ball around, at 27th in the country with 16.5 assists per game. Those numbers will be closely tied to whether or not Xavier’s defensive scheme is working or not.
But It’s Not A Game Played On Paper
Though the statsheets seem to tip in UC’s favor, that age-old fact of sports (and specifically the Crosstown Shootout, er, Classic) remains: It’s a game played by the players, not the numbers.
One harsh reality for XU is that one of their players will likely not be 100 percent.
Justin Martin suffered a mild concussion on Dec. 6 in the Musketeers’ loss to Vanderbilt, and it forced him to sit out Dec. 9’s Kent State game. Fortunately, the 10 days of rest built into the XU schedule will have helped Martin recuperate, but his strength for any substantial amount of time on the court is yet to be seen.
Without Martin, Xavier’s offense wavered, their rebounding efforts suffered and their defense got a lot smaller. Landen Amos can alleviate some of that lost size on the defensive side of the ball and on the glass, but his offensive contributions will be minimal, and it takes away from any depth the Muskies have at the guard/small forward positions.
For Cincinnati, they have a multitude of options off the bench when it comes time for their starters to get needed rest in order to be fresh for what will likely be a close game throughout. Coming into Wednesday’s game, UC has 11 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Martin excluded, Xavier has seven players with 10 or more minutes per game, and if Semaj Christon ends up with cramps toward the end of the game as he has several times this year, or any one of the Musketeers’ starters gets into foul trouble early, this one may be over sooner rather than later.
A Tale of Two Styles
This Shootout, er, Classic, will truly be a clash of different approaches, with the team who can assert its style of play on their opponent coming out on top.
Xavier has a lot of work to do just to make sure they’re up to their normal numbers without Martin, and it may be too much against a very aggressive UC team.
On the UC side, they may come out lethargic. Having only truly been tested once this year against an OK Alabama team, the Bearcats haven’t had to adjust their game plan on the fly very much this season by the nature of their mediocre opponents (save for a decent Oregon team that is just outside the Top 25). If it takes them too long to overcome or adjust to Xavier’s stiff, slow style of play, it may be anyone’s game with just a few minutes to play in the second half. If that happens, it will come down to free throws, and that deserves its own header.
Throwing A Charity Ball?
As the Crosstown Shootout, er, Classic, games usually go, each team will be within reach of the other by the time the clock starts winding down. In that very familiar case, the game’s deciding factor will likely end up on the free throw line.
For Xavier, it’s been night and day. They Muskies have had great games where they’ve shot 86 percent on 21 attempts (Fairleigh Dickinson) and 89 percent on 18 attempts (Drexel), and then they’ve had terrible days at the line, shooting 41 percent and 53 percent on 17 attempts (Pacific and Vanderbilt). Overall, Xavier stands collectively at 72.7 percent, which falls in the top third of the country and isn’t half bad. The trouble is knowing which free-throw shooting team will show up.
UC on the other hand has been rather predictable. At just 61.7 percent from the line for the year, they’ve got issues when their shots don’t fall from the field.
If it comes down to the free throw line late in this game, the outcome is in XU’s favor, especially if they’re able to get the ball to who they want with the lead down the stretch.
The Tipping Point: The Inbounds Play
But beware hopeful Musketeers, if Wednesday night’s contest does come down to late-game fouls, you better hope Chris Mack worked on an inbounds play or two in the past 10 days the team has had off in order to get the ball to someone who is reliable at the free-throw line.
Xavier has had extreme difficulty inbounding all season, especially when pressed full court. With a very aggressive, speedy and turnover-savvy Bearcat squad, one bad pass or panicked step in the wrong direction could be the determining factor in a win or a loss in a close game in the final minutes.
That in mind, it’s tough to see XU overcome a lot of the obstacles to dictate the style of play on both sides of the ball. Prediction: UC 71-XU 65
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. on ESPN 2.
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