Russell: Xavier will win its fourth straight Crosstown Shootout, and here's why

This team is ready to peak
Posted at 9:00 AM, Jan 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-25 15:01:18-05

CINCINNATI -- You don't have to lean in too closely to hear the whispers.

In posts on message boards and debates among fans, there's a sentiment that No. 19 Cincinnati will prevail over No. 24 Xavier in this year's Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.

And on paper, why not? The Bearcats' offense has kept pace with its defense in a 17-2 start featuring a 10-game winning streak. Mick Cronin's team has a glut of talent, big plans for the future and home-court advantage in Thursday's rivalry game at Fifth Third Arena.

Those incentives are precisely why Xavier will rally for the victory.

As a reporter who has covered every year of Chris Mack's tenure at the program's helm, I can say with certainty that his teams always improve. This year's group has not reached its potential. A "work in progress" is how Mack described it Monday on his radio show.

I'd take it a step further and say a "work in progress that's tired of losing." Defeats don't pile up much for Xavier teams, which is why there seemed to be palpable relief Sunday at Cintas Center when the Musketeers ended a three-game skid by defeating Georgetown.

The last time XU dropped three straight games before that, in 2013-14, it won its next eight.

Players like J.P. Macura would like nothing more than to defy prognosticators who surmise UC is due for a Shootout victory. There's a chip on Macura's shoulder, and Trevon Bluiett's, and RaShid Gaston's. No better way to draw out their best than by questioning their chances to win. 

The Musketeers' experience also becomes pertinent now, as they've cut their teeth on some of the country's best teams. They played at No. 1 Villanova and No. 11 Butler and hosted No. 16 Creighton, which was No. 7 before Maurice Watson Jr.'s knee injury at Cintas Center. They played No. 5 Baylor on the road.

All these games were losses. And lessons.

Xavier has learned what it can't overcome (tying its defensive effort to its offense when shots aren't falling) and why some would-be comebacks were derailed (individuals tried to be heroes by taking ill-advised shots, plus turnovers, plus missed free throws).

With a 1-4 record in true road games, the Musketeers desperately need a resume sparkler. They can secure it just 3 miles from campus. The desire to finish the non-conference schedule with a victory is powerful motivation for a team that has just endured the roughest two weeks of its season.

Myles Davis came back and left again, this time for good. Edmond Sumner twice hurt his shoulder. Tyrique Jones strained his patella tendon in Creighton warm-ups. Sumner and Jones can still compete. Although the team lacks great depth, it still possesses the talent to outplay a rival with a less robust schedule.

The keys to victory start with, well, a good start. The onus is on Xavier to play its own pace and not be hastened by the Bearcats' defense, or nerves, or a thunderous crowd of 13,176.

Then it's up to Bluiett, Macura and Sumner to lead the way, avoid foul trouble and consistently contribute.

An attacking Sumner is a headache for any opponent, and Bluiett has maximized his contributions on both ends of the court as a result of a now-defunct 3-point slump. Macura's fearlessness and relentlessness are no more crucial than now. In other words, none of the mainstays can disappear.

The frontcourt is another big subplot, most significantly the contributions of Gaston and UC's Kyle Washington, but Sean O'Mara is coming off one of his best games thus far.

It would behoove Xavier to lead at halftime, as the program limited UC to just 26 points, 24 points and 25 points respectively in the first halves of the last three Shootouts. The Musketeers won all three outings.

The conditions are right for Xavier to exorcise the demons of its recent past and win a fourth straight Shootout.

Don't believe me? Tune into ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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