CINCINNATI — The Crosstown Shootout always means something. This season’s version holds a little more meaning.
The regular season for both the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers is in full crunch mode. The anguish meter took a spike last Saturday after each team lost at home; Xavier by eight points against St. John’s and UC by one point against Tulane on a 30-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was the 10th loss of the season for Xavier, a concerning number for its NCAA tournament resume given the four games the Musketeers have left to play before the Big East tournament. UC’s loss dropped it to 17-8 and was its second in a span of two weeks to a team with a RPI ranking above 160.
"When you lose one, the next one always matters more," said UC associate head coach Larry Davis. "We lost a tough game Saturday. We didn’t feel like we played our best. Guy throws in a 30-footer… This game is big because we did lose the last one. We’re getting down the stretch and we need every win we can to add to our resume."
When it comes to the RPI, the teams are in pretty good shape. UC is No. 34. Xavier is No. 41. Getting into the NCAA tournament is much more than a computer-generated comparison ranking, however. Playing well down the stretch and beating quality opponents, other teams that also have NCAA aspirations, when you face them counts.
The winner of tonight’s 7 o’clock game at UC’s Fifth Third Arena will benefit in the eyes of the tournament selection committee.
"To me, the Crosstown has always been more of a players’ game," said Xavier head coach Chris Mack, who has played and coached in the rivalry. "Guys at this point in time understand X’s and O’s on both teams. They understand what we’re trying to do offensively, at times defensively. Cincinnati understands their system through and through. It’s not a big X’s and O’s chess match.
"It’s so loud. Guys have to make plays. Generally, kids step up that in the past maybe haven’t had much of a role during the season. Guys just step up and make plays, and some guys shrink."
Xavier won last season’s game, 64-47, and has won five of the last seven matchups, and 10 of the last 15 games. The game is being played as late as it ever has since 1981, when the teams also met on Feb. 18. Seven of the last eight seasons it’s been played in December. The one time it wasn’t in December, in the 2010-11 season, it was played in early January.
Xavier has four games left in the regular season after the Crosstown Shootout — vs. Butler, at St. John’s, vs. Villanova and at Creighton. The Musketeers lost their first games against each of those teams. The Musketeers got into the NCAA tournament last season with a 20-13 overall record and reaching the Big East tournament semifinals after a 10-8 regular season conference record. They still need four more wins to reach 20.
UC has five more regular season games left after tonight, three of which are RPI land mines they can’t afford to lose — at Houston, vs. Central Florida and a return game at Tulane. The Bearcats close out the regular season at Tulsa and at home against Memphis before the American Athletic Conference tournament begins play in Hartford on March 12.
Matchup to watch: Xavier’s Dee Davis vs. UC’s Troy Caupain
The two point guards are key to their respective team’s success. Davis, a senior, is second in the Big East and ninth in the nation averaging 6.3 assists per game. In his last seven games, Davis has a 56-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio. Davis also has a career-high 38 steals this season. He doesn’t need to score to be a game-changer. Caupain, a 19-year-old sophomore, leads the Bearcats in minutes played (30.6), points (10.0) and averages 3.4 rebounds a game but isn’t as aggressive and assertive as he needs to be all of the time. That’s always going to be an issue with a 19-year-old who’s a first-time starter. Caupain can’t play passively in this game. In the last two games, losses at Temple and against Tulane, he has attempted just 10 field goals (made six), been to the free throw line just twice and grabbed just two rebounds in 58 total minutes.
Three keys for Xavier:
1) Jalen Reynolds stays on the floor… The sophomore forward has begun to turn his potential into results the past few weeks, but he can’t do that from the bench if he’s in foul trouble. Reynolds is averaging 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds the last five games. His energy on the court is infectious for the Musketeers. It doesn’t nearly as well on the bench.
2) Get a lead, expand upon it… Xavier has trailed at halftime of nine of its last 11 games. XU is 3-6 in those nine games. Xavier is also just 2-8 in games decided by single digits.
3) Get a hand up… Xavier’s opponents are shooting 35 percent from 3-point range and have made 188 3-pointers in total this season. XU is next-to-last in the Big East in points allowed (68.7), total field goal percentage defense (43.9) and 3-point field goal defense.
Three keys for Cincinnati:
1) Value each possession… UC is shooting 44.3 percent from the field as a team, which is tied for No. 3 in the AAC. Problem for the Bearcats is they turn the ball over more than 13 times a game on average. They lost it 16 times against Tulane. Xavier is too potent of an offensive team for UC to give possessions away.
2) Hit the boards… Rebounding is typically UC’s forte but Tulane out-rebounded the Bearcats by 12 last Saturday. Xavier had a 33-20 advantage on the boards in beating UC last season. UC has only been outrebounded five times this season. The last two times it has been a factor in losses. Freshman forward Gary Clark averages 7.4 rebounds a game but hasn’t had more than five in his last five games.
3) Get some easy baskets… UC is last in the AAC in scoring at 61.7 points a game. St. John’s hurt Xavier last Saturday by getting out in transition. UC is not the Red Storm when it comes to athleticism but is capable of producing fast-break chances with its defense, which is holding opponents to 55.2 points a game. That’s No. 7 in the nation.