By John Fanta, @John_Fanta
CINCINNATI — Saturday. High noon. The Cintas Center is the place to be in college basketball.
One of the sport’s elite rivalries will be renewed when #11 Cincinnati visits #21 Xavier in the 85th meeting of the Crosstown Shootout, and this one has all of the makings of a heavyweight clash. The Bearcats, picked at the top of the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, have lived up to their billing with a 7-0 start to the season. The Musketeers were chosen second in the BIG EAST, and check in at 6-1 after a double-digit commanding of #16 Baylor on Tuesday.
What’s this one going to come down to? Here are three keys.
Cincinnati’s offense. That’s right, it’s not the Bearcats’ defense that is the top key in this match-up. Why? Well, Mick Cronin’s UC teams have made getting stops a program staple. The Bearcats roll into Cintas allowing just 57.3 points per contest. The difference with this Cincinnati team, though, is the amount of offensive capabilities the Bearcats have. UC runs deep with scoring options, as well as great length. The top four Cincinnati scorers stand at 6-foot-5 or taller, with AAC Player of the Year candidate Gary Clark leading the way with 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. A match-up within this match-up to watch will be Muskteers’ X-factor Kaiser Gates guarding Clark. The 6-foot-8 Gates, a junior, has always been a solid defender but has been a key to Xavier’s offense thus far this season. Coming off a 19-point breakout against Baylor, Gates is averaging 11.3 points per contest while shooting over 40 percent from both the field and three-point territory. Facing a Xavier team that averages 89 points per game, UC will have to counter the Musketeers’ runs with outbursts of their own. It will take more than just getting stops inside a raucous Cintas Center.
Rebounding. The battle on the boards will be fascinating. Both these teams are physical as all get out. Xavier outmuscled a lengthy Baylor team on Tuesday with a 38-28 advantage on the glass. While the Bearcats haven’t been tested nearly as much as Xavier, which has won at Wisconsin and over Baylor, UC is averaging a +15.4 margin on the glass. Neither team has an elite, 7-foot center but they both rebound by committee. Clark and 6-foot-9 Kyle Washington power UC, while Xavier has Tyrique Jones as their mainstay at the 5. You may not think of them right away as great rebounders, but J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett have that skill in their toolboxes as well. The wing duo, one of the best in the country, combines for over 11 boards per game.
Point guard play. Xavier sophomore Quentin Goodin is averaging over six assists per game, which juts off the screen, but the second-year point guard is still learning. Bluiett and Macura can easily handle the ball as well, but the Musketeers need Goodin to command the halfcourt offense. Fast break opportunities do not come often for any Cincinnati opponent, so the Musketeers must be able to execute when they are stuck in the halfcourt. That’s why Goodin and Gates are so crucial in complementing the scoring duo of Macura and Bluiett. Cincinnati has a junior guard duo of Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome, with the two putting up 19 assists each thus far. Neither one of these teams really has a chink in their armor, but if there were an area that you wonder about going into tomorrow, it’s point guard play.
By the Numbers…
- Cincinnati may lead the series 50-34, but Xavier has won three of four Crosstown Shootout showdowns and the last six at the Cintas Center.
- The Musketeers ride a 34-game non-conference home winning streak into Saturday’s contest.
- This rivalry keeps getting better. Tomorrow marks the third straight year that both Xavier and Cincinnati are ranked heading into their match-up. Before 2015, the teams had only met ONCE when that was the case. The year was 1994, and Xavier won 82-76. The Crosstown Shootout is getting better by the year.
Tip-off is at noon Saturday at the Cintas Center. You can watch the game on FS1. Follow @John_Fanta for updates from Cincinnati.