In case you live under a large rock or a blob (seriously, what kind of mascot is a blue blob?), the Crosstown Shootout is tomorrow. That means the city of Cincinnati will be buzzing with anticipation, so we at Down the Drive are doing our part. We begrudgingly reached across the aisle to work with the unfortunate souls who must cover (and possibly root for) Xavier at Banners on the Parkway and Big East Coast Bias to learn more about Xavier, other than the fact that it is terrible.
Xavier is one of only a handful of undefeated teams left this season and there seems to be a ground swell forming around the Musketeers as a legit national title contender. How realistic do you think those expectations are?
Caleb Childers (Banners on the Parkway): I do not think we’re a national title contender. I wish we were one, but I do not think we’re one of the top four teams in the country. At the same time though this team is ridiculously good. We’re #12 in the AP poll and we’ve been on a tear ever since the Michigan game. Realistically, there is a good chance that we won’t lose a game until New Year's Eve against Villanova.
Going into every season the expectation is the same: that we make the Sweet 16. This years team has quickly turned into Elite 8 or bust, and if the cards are right we just might make the Final 4. This team is good, and the sky is the limit.
Joseph Ciccarello (Big East Coast Bias): To be honest, I think it's time to pump the brakes a bit. Yes, Xavier has gotten off to a strong start with strong wins over Michigan and Dayton, but a lot can change from now until April. The Musketeers must continue to play consistent basketball on both ends of the court, and must continue to play great team basketball as well. There's no superstar on this team, at least not yet. If that remains the case, I think it's too ambitious to call the Musketeers a national title contender.
Trevon Bluiett has been incredible after a strong freshman season. What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen in his game?
CC: Trevon is tremendously fun to watch and has been ever since day one. What makes him so good is his scoring instinct. Bluiett is a consistent scoring threat that cannot be left unguarded, and he’s averaging 15.9 PPG right now. His game is smooth, and he’s got a wicked jump shot. From last year to this year, he’s making more mature decisions and is a bigger presence on the court.
JC: Bluiett was a good shooter last year. This year, he's an assassin from long range. His three-point shooting has gone up from a respectable 32.6 percent to a Stephen Curry-esque 47.2 percent this season. As a whole, he's shooting 46.7 percent, a respectable increase in comparison to the 42.2 percent he shot last season. He's elevated his game immensely, and has taken the reigns as the X-Men's No. 1 offensive option.
Xavier is a top 10 team in the country in rebounding thanks in large part to James Farr. Have you been surprised by how well he has fit in this season?
CC: Surprised? No. Over at Banners on the Parkway, we love Big Game James and last year I was blown away at how much talent he has. This year he is finally growing into his own and the country is taking notice. Farr is a beast and can go up against anyone on the glass, and he really stood out in the Thanksgiving tournament. My hope is that he’s able to sustain this pace, but I think it’s possible for the senior.
JC: Not totally surprised; Farr is a monster in the paint at 6'10", after all. What has surprised me is that he has averaged 8.7 rebounds in just 18.9 minutes a game. When he's on the court, he quickly establishes control of the paint. This not only opens up rebounding opportunities for him, but likely opens up easy rebounds for his teammates as well. Farr has been and will continue to be one of the most intimidating post presences in the Big East.
Edmond Sumner has done a great job helping Xavier make the transition from Dee Davis. Where does he rank among the best freshman in the Big East? The nation?
CC: Great question. Sumner sat out last year because of injury so he was a big question mark coming into this season. We hoped he would be good, but I’ve been impressed with his game. Myles Davis is a great guard, but not nearly as good as Dee Davis at running the offense, so having Sumner step up as a redshirt freshman is a blessing.
I think Villanova’s Jalen Brunson is without a doubt the best freshman in the league, and so far I’ve been impressed with Marquette’s Henry Ellenson. I’d definitely put Sumner behind them, but I expect him to get better with time like a fine wine. He’s finally playing NCAA basketball and he’s going to learn so much by the time Big East play begins. Right now he turns the ball over a bit too much, but he’s talented and will be great in March and a force next season.
JC: Sumner has been terrific, averaging 10.6 points and 3.1 assists per game thus far. Good on Chris Mack- it feels like he hasn't asked too much of Sumner, and Sumner has responded very well to his role. He's not Henry Ellenson or Jalen Brunson just yet, but that's certainly not a knock on him. I'll rank him as a top five freshman in the Big East, and in the second or third tier of freshman nationwide.
Free throw shooting has been a real strength for this team, which is ranked fourth in the country in foul shots and second in foul shots made. What are the driving (pardon the pun) factors behind that?
CC: Well we don’t have Matt Stainbrook taking foul shots, so that helps. All jokes aside, this team plays tough offense and both Farr and Jalen Reynolds force their way to the basket. As a whole, this team has been incredibly impressive on offense. What’s made X dangerous is how each night a different player steps up and leads. Currently six different players are averaging 10+ PPG and everyone got in on the action during the romp against Dayton. A balanced offense has really been a blessing for this team, and a strong team game leads to victory.
JC: This is a team with a lot of slashers, guys who can get into the paint, draw contact, and get to the line. Sumner leads the team with 55 free throws attempted, though he's just a 69 percent shooter himself. Myles Davis and Remy Abell are almost automatic at the line, shooting 93 and 88 percent respectively. J.P. Macura and Farr shoot 82 percent each, Jalen Reynolds shoots 72 percent, and Bluiett shoots 69 percent as well. If the worst free throw shooter on your team is hovering at 70 percent, that's a blessing in disguise. Free throw shooting might seem trivial, but it's certainly helped the Musketeers put games away free of stress this season.
Bonus question, which team is going to win this game? (Hint: The answer is Cincinnati)
CC: Xavier. Since the 1999-2000 season, Xavier has won 11 and UC has won five. This year's Xavier team has a balanced offense with tremendous talent, and a strong defense down low. I’m predicting it to be Xavier 66, UC 60.
JC: I hate to disappoint you, but I think it will be Xavier, who will benefit from their home crowd en route to their third straight victory over Cincinnati.
Pretty sad both of our panelists couldn't get the answer right when it was right in the question. Guess that's what you get with two blokes repping Xavier.