CINCINNATI -- Trevon Bluiett’s career-high 40 points weren’t enough to hold off the University of Cincinnati in last year’s Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at Fifth Third Arena, but this year’s edition of the rivalry game could restore Xavier’s bragging rights.
From a home court advantage to clashes with quality opponents in the early going, Chris Mack’s No. 21 Musketeers (6-1) have a chance to spoil the No. 11 Bearcats’ perfect start (7-0).
Here are nine reasons why Saturday’s noon Shootout at Cintas Center may favor the Musketeers:
Cintas Center domination
Xavier has won 34 straight non-conference home games at its on-campus arena, most recently Tuesday’s 76-63 victory over No. 16 Baylor. In terms of the Shootout, XU is 6-1 at Cintas Center and hasn’t dropped a game to the Bearcats there since 2001. With a sold-out, energized crowd on hand for one of the top in-city rivalries in the country -- and don’t forget it’s the final chance for seniors Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Sean O’Mara to topple UC -- the Musketeers enter the clash with a distinct home court advantage. And capacity has increased due to an offseason renovation; what used to be 10,250 can now exceed 10,500.
Strength of schedule
The Bearcats have not truly been tested yet, making Xavier their first Top 25 match-up this season. UC has chewed up and spit out its first seven opponents to the tune of a plus-30.6 scoring margin, and its closest margin of victory was a seven-point win over Buffalo. Xavier meanwhile has cut its teeth on Wisconsin, Arizona State and Baylor. The 102-86 loss to the Sun Devils in the Las Vegas Invitational championship left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Musketeers, who followed up that performance with the defeat of Scott Drew’s Bears. UC has huge games ahead (Florida, Mississippi State, UCLA) but Xavier has had more quality opponents in the first part of the season, and in theory is better equipped for another elite-level game.
Beware Bluiett and J.P. Macura
The star seniors will dictate the Musketeers’ tone. Bluiett returned to XU after testing NBA waters in a second straight offseason and Macura spent the summer in the weight room, eager to make his final season his best. Bluiett was XU’s saving grace in the last Shootout, as he made his first 10 shots from the field including eight 3-pointers. UC had no answer for his sharpshooting but clamped down on the rest of the Musketeers (except Macura, who had 13 points). Since Bluiett and Macura are surrounded by veteran teammates this year, Xavier enters the game with a better stock of viable scorers. But make no mistake -- Xavier’s success will come down to the productivity of these two standouts.
Xavier has more weapons this year
Echoing the last sentiment, the Musketeers’ core is better than last year with the emergence of point guard Quentin Goodin and forwards Kaiser Gates and Tyrique Jones. Goodin played behind Indiana Pacers guard Edmond Sumner until Sumner suffered a season-ending injury last January and Goodin -- then a freshman -- was thrust into a starting role. Gates has been playing his best basketball and remains a legitimate threat from 3-point range. Jones is still working on minimizing fouls but his ability to stay on the court longer is a huge boost to Xavier’s frontcourt. The trio combined for 16 points at Fifth Third Arena last year. They have proven to be better on both ends of the court this year and will be tougher to contain.
Don’t underestimate O’Mara
The 6-foot-10 forward went scoreless in eight minutes in the last Shootout, but ditto for then-senior forward RaShid Gaston, who started and logged 20 minutes. O’Mara is a mercurial player, making his contributions impossible to determine, but look no further than the last NCAA tournament to see where his capabilities lie. He scored 18 points with seven rebounds against Maryland and chipped in 11 points and five boards against Florida State. He played 21 minutes against Arizona and Gonzaga. For XU to win this Shootout, it needs O’Mara’s best offense and defense; UC outscored the Musketeers 34-12 in the paint last year. Don’t be surprised if O’Mara is, in a sense, a secret weapon in his final Shootout.
An evolving defense
After surrendering a gaudy 102 points to Arizona State, coach Chris Mack took his players to task and said their defense had to become better. In the short span between that loss and the Baylor game, it did. That’s a good sign for a Musketeers unit about to face four UC double-figure scorers in Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, Jarron Cumberland and Kyle Washington. The Bearcats are, pound for pound, the most talented team XU has faced this season. For Xavier, the key will be not tying its offense to its defense or vice versa and continuing to play well in each four-minute war. UC averages 87.9 points, the best under a Mick Cronin-led Bearcats team, a stat the Musketeers will try to dismantle.
The story within the story
This is a matchup between two hometown coaches in Mack and Cronin, which has long provided the rivalry series with an extra subplot. Since coming aboard in the 2009-10 season, Mack has led XU to a 5-3 mark against UC and never lost to the Bearcats at Cintas Center.
Revenge is sweet
The Bearcats lead the series 50-34 and last year spoiled Xavier’s attempt to win the Shootout a fourth straight time for the first time in rivalry history. The Musketeers lately have been in the business of avenging losses, like last year’s defeat by Baylor in Waco, so they will enter this game with a similar chip on their shoulders. Factor in some of the other points, like home court dominance and the fact that UC hasn’t won back-to-back Shootouts since 1994-95 and 1995-96, and the odds appear to be in Xavier’s favor.
Then again, records and history don’t matter
Who wants it more? Which team is better at noon Saturday? History, rankings and excitement make this must-see early season basketball, but it comes down to execution and weathering the opponent’s runs. While Xavier’s ability to play strong out of the gate would bode well, multiple other factors will determine the final outcome -- from contesting UC on the glass and minimizing fouls to keeping the Bearcats from scoring easy baskets in the paint. Defending the Cintas Center court may be the biggest factor of all. Look for Xavier to play its best basketball of the season in a quest to recapture Shootout bragging rights.