CINCINNATI – The UC-Xavier game seems to have gotten lost this year in the excitement over the Bengals and pre-Christmas blasts of snow and icy cold temperatures.
The buzz has been missing. It hasn’t helped that neither team is in the Top 25 or that talk about whether the game will return to campus next year or could even be discontinued has overshadowed the debate about who’s the better team.
And there certainly hasn’t been any taunting from either side, owing to the fallout from the 2011 brawl. For better or worse, nothing has happened to incite the players and fans or excite the city at large.
But that won’t matter Saturday night.
The heat will build up again inside US Bank Arena, and when everybody there looks across and sees the red and black or the blue and white on the other side, the excitement of one of college basketball’s best rivalries should send up enough noise to raise the roof.
Or at least melt the snow on top.
Xavier coach Chris Mack had to admit he’d be lying if he said it’s just another game.
“The coach-speak answer is it’s just one game. But having played in the game, having coached the game, it only counts for one game, but the emotion that you feel as a player, the emotion in the building, it’s surreal,” Mack said.
Last year, it was defense and a wild card that turned one team’s halftime lead into the other’s 15-point win. And this game could go the same way.
WCPO asked former Xavier guard Ralph Lee (1982-86) and former UC forward Terry Nelson (1989-93) to give three reasons why his favorite team will win. Lee and Nelson regularly give their take on college basketball on WCPO’s Sunday night sports talk show, “Sports Of All Sorts.”
Lee, Xavier’s all-time assist leader and co-MVP as a senior, said the Musketeers (7-3) will win because:
"1. Xavier has played a tougher schedule and has already been in tough games. One tough game for UC and (they) lost it.
"2. Xavier is looking to regain control of the city as the power in basketball and is still a little upset from their performance last year.
"3. Xavier has more players that now know what it means to win this game. Dee Davis and Semaj Christon will play much better than they did last year and this will push Xavier to a win."
Nelson, a starting forward on UC’s 1992 Final Four and the 1993 Elite Eight teams, said the Bearcats (7-1) will win because:
"1. UC's depth will be a factor against the Muskies (nine Bearcats play double-digit minutes).
"2. Sean Kilpatrick will get to the free-throw line eight times, drawing fouls on the Muskie post players.
"3. Justin Jackson’s and Titus Rubles’ ability to rebound and start the fast break will be too much for the tall and immobile bigs of Xavier."
Argue now, if you want, or finish the story first.
Certainly the big wild card in last year’s game was Christon’s loss for all but five minutes of the second half due to cramps. Davis, his backcourt mate, got them, too, and had to gut out the second half until he fouled out with five minutes to go.
Christon, Xavier’s leading scorer then and now, got just six points. Davis left with seven and Brad Redford, the third guard, had six on 2-of-10 shooting.
On the other hand, UC’s primary guards, Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright, had a field day. Kilpatrick scored 18 in the second half for a game-high 25 and the since-departed Wright finished with 15.
That 40-19 advantage - combined with UC’s defense and rebounding - was enough to send the Bearcats to a 60-45 win.
As Lee pointed out, Christon and Davis will have to score more, protect the ball better against UC’s tough full-court pressure (they had eight turnovers last year) and keep Kilpatrick from controlling the game.
Both Christon (16.2 points per game this year) and Kilpatrick (19.6) were named to the Wooden Award watch lists.
Xavier has to handle the pressure and shoot better than it did last year. The Musketeers hit 37.7 percent and only 15.4 (2 of 13) outside the arc. This year, Xavier has been averaging much better: 47.7 and 36.9.
Free throws were another Achilles heel for Xavier. The Musketeers hit only 3 of 14 (21.4 percent). Grade-school teams do better than that. And it’s still a problem for Xavier this year. The Musketeers average 60.7 percent from the line (UC averages 72.5).
Turnovers were about even in last year's game, but the Bearcats had a 47-37 edge in rebounds with Rubles getting nine and Jackson five in part-time roles.
The Musketeers have been outrebounded in their last four games this season.
Which brings us to this year’s wild card, Xavier’s new 6-10, 263-pound center, Matt Stainbrook.
A transfer from Western Michigan, Stainbrook is taller and brawnier than Rubles (6-7, 220) and Jackson (6-8, 230) and Shaquille Thomas (6-7, 205) . He’s averaging 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and
1.8 blocks per game.
Could the hulking Stainbrook be the equalizer in the low post in his first Crosstown game? Or a liability in transition, as Nelson suggests?
UC leads the Crosstown series 49-31, but Xavier has had the upper hand since 1980.
Despite two UC wins in the past three games, Xavier leads 8-5 in the 21st century and 19-15 since 1980.
Xavier's Mack is 2-2 in the series and UC coach Mick Cronin is 3-4.
Xavier is coming in with a little momentum following close wins over Bowling Green and Evansville on the heels of three straight losses in a Thanksgiving weekend tourney in the Bahamas. UC is coming off its first loss at New Mexico.
Tipoff is 8 p.m. on ESPN.
Cronin thinks the way to hype the game is to move it back to January.
“I wish that our games were all sold out, Xavier’s games we’re all sold out and everybody loved basketball. I just think in this day and age there are so many things going on, it’s hard to get the attention for the game that it needs to get,” he said.
Cronin’s predecessor at UC, Bob Huggins, didn’t want to play in January because he said it interfered with the conference schedule. Ultimately, ESPN insisted on moving it to December.
“We’re in talks now not just about where to have the game but when to play the game,” Cronin said. “Maybe playing it early is a disservice to the game before the eyes of the city are really turned to college basketball.
“If we could get national TV to take the game in January, we’d both get a break from our conferences.”
UC and Xavier will decide after Saturday’s game whether to keep the Crosstown series at US Bank Arena or return it to their campuses in alternating years. After the 2011 brawl at Xavier’s Cintas Center, administrators felt they needed a cooling-off period, so they agreed to move it off campus for two years.
UC prefers to keep it at US Bank Arena, where some speculate it will move its home games from its smaller campus arena – either permanently or while it finds funding to build a new one.
Xavier wants to play the game on campus.