Crosstown Classic Has Arrived: And the winner is…

CROSSTOWN-SHOOTOUTThe Cincinnati Bearcats enter the 2012 edition of the Crosstown Classic a perfect 10-0 and on the cusp of the top ten. They’ve annihilated the lesser-thans on their schedule, piling up enough points to rank sixth in the nation in scoring. They’ve even beat a trio of legitimately good teams, atypical for a Mick Cronin-coached squad so early in the season. For all intents and purposes they have lived up to their immense preseason promise, showcasing their immense depth, impressive offensive firepower and relentlessly aggressive D.

The Xavier Musketeers, on the other hand, have scratched and clawed their way to a respectable 7-2 start. Solid wins against Butler and on the road against Purdue are cancelled out by unsettling losses to Pacific and Vanderbilt. They’ve received consistently inconsistent post play all season and, numerous times, have called upon a true freshman to rescue them from their most difficult situations. While the Bearcats go 11-deep, a product of consistently strong recruiting classes by Cronin and company, Xavier essentially plays eight guys, although walk-on Landen Amos has begun to sneak into the rotation. They strive not to make mistakes on defense, hunkering down inside the arc and rarely jumping passing lanes, instead preferring to remain between their man and the basket at all times. Talent, experience and depth are limited, so Chris Mack’s team must be bereft of mistakes to be successful.

The Bearcats and Musketeers play wildly divergent styles of basketball, due both to preference and pragmatism. If the aforementioned paragraphs don’t properly illustrate the dichotomy, here are a few numbers to truly drive the point home:

  • Possessions/Game: Cincinnati 74.2 (24th in NCAA); Xavier 62.8 (T-322nd)
  • Turnovers Forced/Game: Cincinnati 17.6 (32nd); Xavier 11.4 (322nd)
  • Rebounds/Game: Cincinnati 46.1 (2nd in NCAA); Xavier 31.6 (300th)
  • eFG%* Against: Cincinnati 39.1% (T-6th); Xavier 47.7% (182nd)

*eFG%, standing for effective Field Goal %, gives 50% more credit for three-pointers as they are worth 50% more points. An more detailed explanation can be found here (http://www.d3coder.com/thecity/advanced-stats-primer/)  

The former two differences, while equally as stark, are more reflective of a difference in coaching style than a sign of the Bearcats’ superiority. Mick Cronin, due to the luxury an eleven-man rotation provides, utilizes an incredibly aggressive defense, inevitably leading to more turnovers and, in turn, more possessions. Additionally, the Bearcats tend to run through their half-court sets quicker than the Musketeers, a product of increased firepower on the court. Xavier plays a defensive style with significant ties to the Pack-Line defense spawned by ex-Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1195699/index.htm), a defense imploring defenders to move as a single unit within the three-point arc, protecting the rim at the risk of permitting outside looks. This tends to lead to longer, drawn-out possessions as offenses search for an opening, lowering X’s possession total.

The latter two statistics are alarming for the Musketeers, however. While the Bearcats’ rebounding numbers are partially inflated because of their increased possessions they have been absolutely dominant on the glass, led by their pair of seven-footers, Cheikh Mbodj and David Nyarsuk. Xavier’s front line has been bullied against smaller front lines already this season and the prospect of facing not just one but two legit seven-footers is worrisome. Additionally, Cincinnati’s defense has been absolutely stifling thus far this season, particularly at the rim where they rank second in the country behind only Kansas, another byproduct of having a seven-footer on the floor for all forty minutes. This is terrible news for a Musketeers team already struggling to score in the paint, placing an even greater burden on Xavier’s guards to create offense themselves and, most importantly, make open jump shots.

All of that being said, the perimeter matchup isn’t kind to the Musketeers either. While Dee Davis is a feisty defender adept at navigating screens and providing consistent ball pressure, he is likely to be overmatched against the veteran-laden Bearcats’ triumvirate of Wright, Kilpatrick and Parker. All three are deadly from the perimeter while also possessing the ability to get to the rack, making them tough guards. As igniting of a catalyst Brad Redford was against Kent State in Xavier’s most recent game it is difficult to find a suitable place to hide him on defense, even when Bearcat reserves like Ge’Lawn Guyn or Jermaine Sanders are in the game. And, to top it all off, the Bearcats are absolutely deadly in transition, unafraid of pulling up for three at any time, particularly Cashmere.

In nearly every facet of the game the Bearcats come out on top, making them the heavy favorite. However, rivalry games such as the Crosstown Shootout Classic are notorious for shunning statistical profiles and objective analysis and providing incredible basketball regardless; just look at the 1996 and 1999 editions which saw an unranked Xavier squad beat a number one-ranked Cincinnati team. If Xavier is to pull the upset and negate the sizable difference in-depth, experience and talent, however, they must accomplish the following tasks:

  • Slow It Down — A game played at Cincinnati’s preferred pace will be over before it begins as Xavier simply doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with the high-octane machine the Bearcats’ have trotted out thus far this season. Slow, methodical offensive possessions are a must, as is rugged defense requiring UC to exert effort every time down the floor in order to find a good look.
  • Protect the Glass — It’s a pipe dream to expect the Musketeers to pose a significant threat on their offensive glass but they must prevent the Bearcats from getting too many second chance points. This ultimately falls on the cadre of forwards, an embattled group which should be highly motivated to prove the consensus wrong.
  • Establish (at least) a Low-Post Scorer — The Bearcats’ defense is simply too suffocating to require the Musketeers’ perimeter outfit to supply the vast majority of the scoring. Beyond simple put-backs and easy looks created by slashing guards, at least one Musketeer must demand the ball in the post and consistently produce points, or Xavier will simply get swallowed up by UC’s über-aggressive style. Best bet is Isaiah Philmore, but Travis Taylor is also a possibility.

The odds of all three of those things happening, along with a handful other necessary bounces along the way, is rather doubtful. The first two require stunting season-long trends of the Bearcats, not to mention the middle bullet is something Xavier has struggled with all season long. Put bluntly, the Bearcats are the much better team and matchup rather well with Xavier, with their strength (guard play) usurping the Musketeers’ strength.

Even given the fact that it’s a rivalry game, not to mention Xavier actually has posted (slightly) more points per possession than Cincinnati (1.13 to 1.12), the substantial difference in both experience and depth should be enough to sway this one towards the Bearcats.

Final Prediction: UC 71 Xavier 60

All stats were provided by the extremely useful StatSheet.com and Hoop-Math.com