UC & Xavier seeking quality wins this weekend to ‘build the resume’

NCAA Tournament balloonsWhile the country was busy digesting their thirteenth turkey sandwich of the weekend late Saturday night, the Cincinnati Bearcats were polishing off the Oregon Ducks to claim the Global Sports Classic Championship. Not quite the National Championship, but a trophy nonetheless.

The Bearcats looked to be the class of a quality four-team field, holding off a hot-shooting Iowa State Cyclones unit in the semifinals and mounting a substantial lead against the upstart Oregon Ducks in the championship game, a lead which they almost blew but managed to hold through the final buzzer. The lone disappointment of the Bearcats’ weekend in Las Vegas was their departure without playing the host UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the predicted showdown in the title game. Oregon’s upset of UNLV prevented that, leaving the Bearcats with two solid, if unspectacular, wins to add to the résumé.

The Xavier Musketeers’ vacation got off to a decidedly sour start as, smack dab in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, they fell to the Pacific Tigers in the opening round of the DirecTV Classic. It’s not a horrendous loss in and of itself: the Tigers are a solid team and a contender in the Big West nearly every year, made an overseas trip to France in August earning them a vital ten extra practices and, perhaps most importantly, longtime coach Bob Thomason has declared this season his swan song, providing additional motivation. It’s a game the Musketeers shouldn’t have lost, of course, but it will not cripple their NCAA Tournament chances. The real downside to the loss was it shuttled them off to the losers’ bracket of the Classic, leaving them games against a decent Drexel Dragons squad and a decidedly mediocre Drake Bulldogs outfit. Given the close nature of these two games, perhaps I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself; 2-1 against ‘meh’ competition is better than 0-3 against quality opponents.

However, an opportunity to play Saint Mary’s, then either California or Georgia Tech, would have been a boon for this Musketeers squad. While the Atlantic 10 is in position to have one of the best years in conference history this season, it still doesn’t offer a plethora of opportunities for quality wins, and missing out on two opportunities against two likely Tournament teams will hurt Xavier.

Fear not, however, as both the Bearcats and Musketeers have big tests waiting for them on Saturday.

Cincinnati hosts the Alabama Crimson Tide in a game where only a handful of ‘Bama fans will even bother watching; tip is at 3 PM EST while the football team kicks off in the all-important SEC Championship game at 4 PM. Regardless of the fan base’s lack of interest, Anthony Grant has built a quality hoops program in Tuscaloosa and they should provide Cincy a legitimate test.

The Tide, led by point guard Trevor Releford, play an even smaller lineup than the Bearcats, meaning Saturday’s game should be incredibly free-flowing and dynamic. Five of their six top minute-earners are 6’6” or shorter and the exception is only 6’8”, although ‘Bama does have two seven-footers who should see some time. More importantly they are 6-0 on the season including a blowout of Villanova in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic and are coming off a 2012 NCAA Tournament appearance, losing a heartbreaker to Creighton in their first game.

They’re a good team to say the least, a solid bet to return to the Tournament and an opportunity for a quality win to add to the Bearcats’ résumé. It’s a game UC should win but Alabama is almost certainly the toughest team they’ve played yet. As long as Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick knock down open jumpers the Bearcats should roll; if they have an off-shooting night, though, the Tide are plenty talented enough to knock ‘em off.

Musketeers hit the road for tough Big Ten challenge

Similarly, the Musketeers have a quality opportunity to pick up a résumé-building victory on Saturday. Unlike UC, Xavier is making a road trip out to West Lafayette to battle the Purdue Boilermakers, an always-solid program who may be having a down year. They lost their opener to Bucknell, spawning some discussion on just how good they were, but laid a beatdown Wednesday night on the road against Clemson, adding some luster back to the matchup. Unlike Alabama, they aren’t as certain to make the NCAA Tournament, but given the fact it is on the road it is still a prime opportunity. A loss wouldn’t kill the Muskies but it would transform next Thursday’s home match against Vanderbilt into a must-win, a proposition Chris Mack certainly wants to avoid.

I’m decidedly less confident in Xavier to pull off an upset of sorts than I am of Cincinnati to protect homecourt advantage, but I see both Cincy-based schools picking up quality wins on Saturday. Both the Bearcats and Musketeers missed out on opportunities this past weekend to pick up solid victories, but they both should help remedy the situation by tacking one on the ol’ résumé Saturday afternoon. If they both do emerge victorious the Crosstown Classic stakes grow a little steeper, as they represent each team’s toughest test between now and the fateful night of December 19th.