Week five of the season centered on one thing and one thing only: the Crosstown Shootout against Xavier. The attention was particularly high because it was the first matchup between the two rivals as ranked opponents since 1994, when Bob Huggins was still stalking the sidelines and blowing up at officials.
Well, we are now a few days removed from the contest, which couldn't have gone much worse for the Bearcats, who regressed quite a bit in the spotlight of a rivalry that needs no hype but received plenty. Without further ado, here are the takeaways from the week that was (and we would love to forget) in Cincinnati basketball.
Let's not parse words. Xavier currently owns the Crosstown Shootout. It may not be in the same way UC smashed the X down in the 60s and 70s, but there is no arguing that the Musketeers have been the dominant program the last 10-15 years. With the win on Saturday, Xavier has won three straight and 12 of the last 17 dating back to 2000. The reason for Xavier's rise is a conversation for another day. For now, let's dive into why Cincinnati fell short on Saturday.
Remember when Butler pulled out a two-point win just a few weeks ago? Remember how turnovers were the main cause of the setback? Well, Xavier must have memorized the game tape of that contest because once again, ball security issues were a major part of Cincinnati's undoing. The Bearcats lost the ball 16 times and were outscored 19-11 in points off turnovers. This is a troubling trend. Against Butler, losing the turnover battle could be seen as a one-time thing. However, if Cincinnati is only able to hold onto the ball against the Norfolk State's of the world, but then crumble against top tier competition, then this team may not be Sweet 16-caliber. It's not time to slam your hand on the panic button by any means, but this team needs to play cleaner against better teams.
To their credit, the Bearcats were the better team in the second half against Xavier, outscoring the Musketeers 29-23 during the last 20 minutes. However, a slow start, which could be credited to the vitriolic home crowd, doomed them. Cincy trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half and allowed the Musketeers to drain 50 percent of their shots from the floor. After just over five minutes, the Bearcats had already fallen behind by 10. By the time Edmond Sumner scored on a layup with just under a minute to play to put the X up 18, the Bearcats just didn't look like a team that was ready to make a big run back. They may have cut their deficit to five at one point, but it was too little, too late.
Finally, Xavier beat up Cincinnati inside, which just can't happen. With Octavius Ellis, Gary Clark and Coreontae DeBerry stuffing the interior, there is no excuse for a team to outscore the Bearcats in the paint or on second chance points as Xavier did (34-24 and 14-8, respectively). Rebounds were even (32 apiece), but Xavier did more work close to the basket and it showed, especially since Cincinnati's new-found love of the 3-pointer was a detriment in this one, with the team making only 7-of-26 from long range.
OK. No more doom and gloom. This season is far from over. Cincinnati can use this loss as a blueprint. It needs to lock up inside, be more careful with the ball and make sure to start AND finish strong. Here's hoping the Bearcats get a second crack at the Musketeers in the NCAA Tournament. I think Mick Cronin said it best.
"As much as we want to beat Xavier because of the rivalry and this year not only is it a rivalry, it would’ve been a huge win for your RPI and your tournament resume, it’s a long year," Cronin said after Tuesday's 75-59 win over Norfolk State. "You have to just keep trying to get better and you’ve got to come closer as a team."
Free Throw Frustrations
As long as we're harping on a few negative things, there is a silent killer that needs to be addressed. The foul line has been a real area of struggle. Getting there has been rather easy, as Cincinnati is 39th in the country in free throw attempts (255). However, inconsistent shooting on freebies has been deadly. Leaving free points at the line is a cardinal sin in the basketball world. Right now, Cincinnati is only hitting 67.8 percent of its foul shots. To be fair, the Bearcats have not been a particularly strong free-throw shooting team during Cronin's reign, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
In the last two games, Cincinnati has made just 19-of-32 free throws attempts, including a paltry 6-of-11 effort against Xavier. Making matters worse, the Bearcats hit just 3-of-7 in the second half of the Crosstown Shootout as they desperately attempted to rally from a big deficit. Right now, Jacob Evans and Farad Cobb are the only guys you can trust, especially Evans, who has made 22-of-24 attempts this season.
While it is embarrassing from a rivalry standpoint to lose to Xavier, it is far from an embarrassment to an objective observer. Xavier is one of a handful of undefeated teams left in the country and it is playing excellent ball. A loss to such a team shouldn't have done much to Cincinnati's national standing and it didn't. UC remained No. 23 in the AP poll and actually moved up two spots to No. 20 in the Coaches poll. Those coaches (aka assistants, team managers or whoever actually casts those ballots) sure didn't think that Cincinnati embarrassed itself against the X.
Highlight of the Week
Now that I have effectively dampened your Wednesday afternoon, let me offer something fun. Here are the highlights, in all their glory, of Cincinnati's ho-hum massacre of Norfolk State last night, presented without comment.
Quadri Moore Minutes Watch
Six. Quadri Moore played a whole six minutes during the last week. As we found out against Butler, Moore isn't going to see the floor against the top tier teams, as he did not get off the bench once against Xavier. But even against Norfolk State, Moore still played a piddling number of minutes. If the Bearcats don't start stringing together some blowouts, Moore may not even get to 200 minutes, let alone the 500 I projected to start the season. He has 83 total minutes this season and is on pace for nearly 234 for the year, barring any postseason play.
With finals in full swing, Cincinnati has a pretty light load the next two weeks in terms of quantity of games. However, the Bearcats have a great deal of quality in the two matchups they have before American Athletic Conference play begins on Dec. 29. They play at VCU on Saturday and host No. 5 Iowa State next Tuesday. Still plenty of time to get a marquee non-conference win.