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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Xavier Musketeers

The Crosstown Shootout has arrived. It could serve as a launching pad for the Bearcats this season.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Kentucky at Cincinnati The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODA

As we’ve traversed the early season, sometimes it’s taken some extra effort to get amped up for every game. When the opponent on the other side of the court is an Arkansas-Pine Bluff or a North Carolina Central, the hype level is just lacking.

We don’t need to worry about that on Saturday. The Cincinnati Bearcats are playing easily their most important game of the season, as they host the Xavier Musketeers in the 86th rendition of the Crosstown Shootout.

This is a rivalry with a history filled with blood, sweat and tears, and it might just be in that order. These teams have battled it out for quite some time, with the first meeting in the rivalry coming all the way back in 1927. The Musketeers have had the upper hand in the recent past, winning four of the last five matchups, but its only a matter of time before the momentum shifts, especially since UC still leads the all-time series 50-35.

Before we get to dissecting the Musketeers, we’ll need a quick refresher on how UC’s season has progressed. During what could accurately be called a transionary season, the Bearcats are still finding ways to win. They have won eight-straight since an opening night loss to Ohio State, including a 78-65 victory over Northern Kentucky earlier this week. Kudos to the Bearcats for remaining focused with Xavier right around the corner. With the country’s 23rd best defense, according to KenPom, and a boatload of momentum, the Bearcats are hitting this rivalry game at the most opportune time.

Who are the Xavier Musketeers?

You already know who the Musketeers are in the abstract, but let’s dive into the specifics of this year’s group. It’s the first to be playing in the post-Chris Mack era and things have been up-and-down so far. The Musketeers are 6-3, which may not look like the most sparkling of records, but if you look at their losses (Wisconsin, Auburn, San Diego State), having so many this early can be forgiven. The setback against the Aztecs (No. 78 in KenPom) is the only “bad” loss, but Wisconsin and Auburn are both nationally ranked programs.

While excuses can be made for those losses, Xavier’s defense is not so easily swept under the rug. The Musketeers are 133rd in the country in adjusted defense, according to KenPom, and allowing 72.3 points per game on 44.0 percent shooting, including a 39.3 percent mark from beyond the arc. Tyrique Jones, the double-double threat with stunning shot-blocking skills, is the team’s top defender and only player with a defensive rating below 100 (97.8).

Jones (11.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG) fits in nicely with Xavier’s balanced and much more potent offense, which ranks 20th in the country by KenPom’s reckoning. The Musketeers have four guys scoring in double figures, led by Naji Marshall (13.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.6 APG), who can really do a bit of everything but has fallen for his three-point shot to poor results (25.0 percent).

In the backcourt. Quentin Goodin (12.3 PPG, 4.3 APG) is a junior guard with size who can create for himself an others, while Paul Scruggs (12.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.9 APG) can knock down three-point shots and defend anyone on the wing. The Musketeers get a lot of energy off the bench from 6’11” graudate transfer Zach Hankins (9.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG) as well.

So while this Xavier team isn’t the same one that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season (you’d need Trevon Bluiett for that), they are still a formidable opponent, rivalry or otherwise.

Bearcats Beat Norse

In a showdown of the last two teams to call BB&T Arena on Tuesday, UC toyed with Northern Kentucky for the first few minutes and then turned on the jets and sprinted to its eighth win. With the game tied at 13-13, the Bearcats ripped off 14-straight points and never looked back, shooting 46.2 percent from the floor overall and draining 23 foul shots.

Many of the things we’ve learned about the Bearcats were on display in the victory. Trevon Scott continued his development as an effective two-way threat, scoring a career-high 22 points while securing 10 rebounds and handing out three assists. Scott is currently second on the team in scoring (11.0 PPG) while leading in rebounds (6.4 RPG).

But Scott doesn’t even have the best rebounding skill on the roster, with Nysier Brooks (15.7 rebounding percentage) and Eliel Nsoseme (23.4 rebounding percentage), who carved out eight rebounds against NKU, able to clean the glass and protect the paint.

The ball is generally in the hands of wing players, however, particularly Jarron Cumberland, who can shift between being the team’s top scoring threat (14.9 PPG) and an distributing maestro (23.8 assist percentage). He was more the latter against NKU, betting 12 points and dishing five dimes. Cumberland’s usage rate is sky-high (31.2 percent), so all eyes will be on him, but Keith Williams has a breakout year developing just below the surface and Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome are a strong tandem at point guard. This team runs deep.

Prediction Time!

This is a clash of cultures in more ways than one. UC and Xavier both have different ways of winning basketball games. UC grinds opponents to dust on defense and finds ways to score in the halfcourt at a relatively sluggish pace. That can be frustrating for opponents, and could be for Xavier, which struggles to get stops but has no problem finding the bottom of the net. The outcome of this game will depend on which team asserts its will most effectively. On their home floor and with the type of balance to rival the Musketeers, the Bearcats will be that team.

Cincinnati 76 Xavier 73