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Game Preview: No. 11 Cincinnati Bearcats at No. 21 Xavier Musketeers

All that holiday cheer will have to wait until the Crosstown Shootout is played.

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Xavier v Cincinnati Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Normally, when the calendar turns to December, we are supposed to feel warm, familial feelings as the holidays and New Year approach. In the city of Cincinnati, we’ll just have to press pause on that until Sunday, because the Crosstown Shootout is happening on Saturday.

A rivalry that gives off enough heat to last us all winter long, this year’s shootout features an 11th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats team and a 21nd-ranked Xavier Musketeers squad at the Cintas Center.

Who Are the Xavier Musketeers?

A second-rate basketball program. That’s the short answer.

In actuality, Xavier is and has been pretty good on the hardwood for quite a while and that has continued this season. The Musketeers are 6-1 overall in their ninth season under Chris Mack or, as he’s known around Clifton, a poor man’s Mick Cronin. Ranked as high as No. 15 this season, Mack’s team was brutalized on the day after Thanksgiving by Arizona State in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. But they bounced back with a 76-63 win over a ranked Baylor team this past Tuesday.

In that winning effort Kaiser Gates and J.P. Macura each scored 19 points while combining to make 8-of-15 shots from beyond the arc. The rest of the team went 0-for-9 from distance. Leading scorer Trevon Bluiett (19.7 PPG) had 10 points.

Bluiett’s name should ring a bell. He played an absolutely incredible game last time the Bearcats and Musketeers did battle, scoring 40 points on 12-of-15 shooting across 40 minutes. But that didn’t matter because the Bearcats were just better, winning 86-78 thanks to a second half surge led by Jarron Cumberland. Bluiett will be a challenge for the Bearcats again this year, as he is playing excellent ball, shooting .537/.465/.882 with a 27.0 PER.

Macura is an easy guy to villainize both for his on and off-court antics. Despite that, he has been a strong second option for the Musketeers, averaging 14.6 points per game while actually leading the team in PER (28.2). Gates (11.3 PPG) and Tyrique Jones (9.6 PPG), 6.9 RPG) are all important contributors as well.

When it all comes together, Xavier is a team to be reckoned with on offense. While it is not the best squad from three-point range (although Bluiett and Gates are both lethal), Xavier is efficient as heck inside, ranking first in the country in two-point field goal percentage and second in overall shooting (.550).

Reliving Last Year’s Shootout

As alluded to before, the Bearcats won last year’s shootout by a score of 86-78. It was far from the easiest victory of the season, especially since they trailed at halftime. But Cumberland etched his name in the history books with a 5-for-7 shooting performance in the second half to electrify UC and give them the strength to down their hated rival. It ended a three-game losing streak for the Bearcats in the shootout, a series they lead 50-34.

Cumberland was not the only player to show out last season. Jacob Evans dueled with Bluiett and scored 21 points to go with seven rebounds and two blocks. Gary Clark recorded a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds as well, with the Bearcats posting a 47.4 offensive rebounding percentage compared to Xavier’s 28.1 percent.

What will be a key factor for this year’s team, which obviously no longer has Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson, who combined for 21 points in last year’s shootout, is the foul shooting of Kyle Washington. The then junior had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks last year, but he posted an offensive rating of just 89 because he went a disastrous 4-of-14 at the free throw line. If he is aggressive and gets to the line it will help UC, but only if he makes his shots.

What Does UC Do Better Than Xavier?

If I just say everything, that may make you happy, UC fans, but it won’t bring you the basketball analysis you crave. So, let’s expand. While Xavier is a good offensive team, just as it always has been under Mack, the Bearcats continue to hammer opponents on the other end, ranking third in the country in adjusted defense. The clash between these two always seems to be a statement on the importance of offense vs. defense.

Controlling the boards is another area where UC has a distinct advantage over the Musketeers. Ranking 32nd in the country with 318 rebounds, the Bearcats have post players up and down the roster who can go up and swipe a board. Clark (19.1 total rebound percentage) is the team’s best rebounder, but Tre Scott (15.8 percent), Kyle Washington (15 percent), Nysier Brooks (14.2 percent) and even freshmen Eliel Nsoseme (22.2 percent) and Mamoudou Diarra (20.1 percent) are good on the glass, although Nsoseme and Diarra have obviously played far less.

Lastly, the Bearcats have more depth than Xavier. As just mentioned, there are six frontcourt players who have played well this season. Nsoseme and Diarra won’t play much in this one, assuming its a close game, but that rotation of Clark, Washington, Scott and Brooks is formidable. That’s before you mention the backcourt and guys like Evans, Cane Broome, Justin Jenifer, Cumberland, Keith Williams and even Trevor Moore. Xavier, meanwhile, relies heavily on Bluiett, Macura, Gates and Jones, with Quentin Goodin and reserves Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs the next best options.

Prediction Time!

This is the first difficult game for the Bearcats this season. There really hasn’t been much challenge on the road to 7-0, but getting to 8-0 will take everything they have. While the Bearcats would be the favorites on a neutral court, playing at the Cintas Center is difficult. That’s why the Bearcats haven’t won there since 2001. Keeping Bluiett in check is of utmost importance, and its a challenge that will fall mainly to Evans. Assuming those two cancel each other out, UC’s superiority on the boards, depth and aggressive defense will be enough to push Xavier home with a loss.

Cincinnati 71 Xavier 65