CINCINNATI — The level of talent Mick Cronin and Chris Mack have on their respective rosters this college basketball season won’t be an issue. Finding the right fits, combinations and rotation will be their challenge.
It’s just one of many similarities the two crosstown coaches and their teams share.
Cronin’s University of Cincinnati Bearcats and Mack’s Xavier Musketeers open their seasons Friday night at home – UC hosts Saint Francis (Pa.) at 8 p.m., while Xavier faces Northern Arizona one hour earlier. The two teams have a combined 12 new players from their makeup a season ago when both reached the NCAA tournament but lost in their opening games.
Neither is ranked in the national preseason polls. UC was tabbed as the fourth team in the preseason American coaches’ poll behind defending national champion Connecticut, Southern Methodist and Memphis. Xavier was picked fourth by the Big East coaches behind Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s.
Each team has the potential to be a whole lot better in February than anyone thinks of them now.
"I had a luxury last year because I had three guys, their mind was on winning and they understood how hard it was to win," said Cronin in reference to departed seniors Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. "We’ve just got to make sure we start becoming that type of a team. The teams that embrace dirty work and have their mind on all of the things that we just drew up on the board — like talk, defense, rebounding, hustle, togetherness — A to Z that I just made them put on the board and then I go up with a different color and write points and playing time. Losing teams, they’re worried about points and playing time."
Cronin was speaking after UC had wrapped up a 71-54 win in an exhibition game over Fairmont State Saturday afternoon. Mack had a similar theme after Xavier beat Northwood 102-68 Saturday night in an exhibition game.
"We are far from a finished product. We have a long way to go defensively, as well as offensively," said Mack. "We have to do a better job of guarding the basketball, keeping guys out of the lane. I thought offensively our guys shared the ball. I don’t think I’ll use the phrase much because that’s just who our guys are. They make the right play. A lot of times coaches call it the extra pass. It’s the right pass and our guys really know how to play offensively and we have to keep that up as the season goes on."
Forget the scores from Saturday. Both teams beat Division II programs that gave them good practice time but offered little in terms of resistance, especially inside. That won’t be the case most nights once the real season starts.
Here are three items of interest for each team as the season gets underway.
*The Bearcats should be better around the basket this season. Justin Jackson was the Energizer Bunny when it came to his work around the boards last season but he was playing out of position as a center and he didn’t have much help offensively. Octavius Ellis will bring an instant presence down on the low blocks. Freshmen Quadri Moore and Gary Clark and junior college transfer Coreontae DeBerry have some catching up to do but the potential for progress is there.
*There is no Sean Kilpatrick this season, no one player who can definitively be the go-to guy in whatever situation the Bearcats need. While it might take some time to figure out which players can be counted on in those spots, UC will be better off in the long run. They won’t be able to sit around and wait for Kilpatrick to come to the rescue. Junior forward/guard Shaq Thomas was especially aggressive in the second half against Fairmont State on both ends of the court. He’s got the capability to continue playing that way.
"I’m not a big believer in talk. The film shows it," said Cronin. "The film shows who’s into hustle, deflections, defense, rebounding. There are certain stats for us that are tale-telling signs… The deflection board tells me everything. That’s why we keep that stat. It tells you who is out there being active, who’s out there playing hard and running around and scrambling."
*The American had three of the best guards in the country last season — Kilpatrick, Louisville’s Russ Smith and UConn’s Shabazz Napier — but they’ve all moved on. Sophomore point guard Troy Caupain isn’t the scorer any of those players were but he is the one who will make the Bearcats offense go this season. He had six assists without a turnover against Fairmont State in 28 minutes. Cronin would like him to be more aggressive in taking the ball to the basket whether it’s to create his own shot or for a teammate. If Caupain can do that, he’s going to be among the best in the conference.
*Xavier has greater experience on its side. Senior center Matt Stainbrook is a big body underneath who the Musketeers will run their offense through. Senior point guard Dee Davis has been through the rigors of a long season before. Forward James Farr and shooting guard Myles Davis will have their roles while sophomore forward Jalen Reynolds could end up as a true matchup problem for opponents if he can meld his athletic talent with consistent effort.
*Xavier’s highly-touted freshman class all showed well against Northwood, especially forward Trevon Bluiett. The top-ranked player of a class that has been proclaimed Top-10 by most national scouting services had 14 points and four rebounds against Northwood as he got a starting assignment and played 23 minutes. Point guard Larry Austin Jr. had seven assists compare to just two turnovers in 18 minutes and could end up being a valuable backup to Dee Davis as the season progresses.
*This roster has more versatility and depth than previous teams under Mack. Divvying up playing minutes could be an issue but one Mack said he’s not worrying about at this moment.
"It will be up to our players," said Mack. "My job is to put the guys on the floor that are producing, that stay with it, that develop, that get better. They’re all in a good spot right now."