“I was a medium person. I should get to spend eternity in a medium place, like Cincinnati!”
-Eleanor Shellstrop, NBC’s the Good Place
While Cincinnati is a big city, it flies a bit under-the-radar nationally. Unlike similarly-sized cities Nashville or Las Vegas, it’s not known for being a big entertainment center. It’s not known for being an overall horrible place like fellow Ohio city Cleveland. It has pro sports teams that are more known for mediocrity than success. Many people around the country have no idea that half of its metro area lies in Kentucky. People elsewhere are aware that Cincinnati exists, but that’s about it.
To the average college basketball fan, the Crosstown Shootout occupies roughly the same amount of attention that the city it showcases does. While the infamous 2011 brawl put an unsavory light on the series for a while, most college basketball fans would put it below more celebrated rivalries like Kentucky-Louisville, North Carolina-Duke, and Michigan-Michigan State. Television channels plan around those big rivalries while the Crosstown Shootout either appears on ESPN2 or at the same time as a couple of massive football games.
Just like the criminally unranked DePaul Blue Demons, there are legitimate reasons that the Shootout is underrated nationally. For many years, it featured a power program throttling its tiny Jesuit neighbor. Lately, UC and Xavier have had plenty of success though neither is one of the dominant programs in college basketball. The Bearcats have a couple titles from the Oscar Robertson era and had a dominant stretch under Bob Huggins around the turn of the millenium. In the years since, Mick Cronin racked up wins with the ugliest basketball possible but only once made it to the second-weekend of the tournament. Xavier’s been a consistent second weekend team while cycling through coaches but has the most tournament wins without a Final Four appearance.
The Shootout matters in Cincinnati. In other large cities, college basketball gets overwhelmed by other entertainment options. Here, as Cincinnatians watch the Bengals gear up for the No. 1 overall selection and Reds try to finish .500 for the first time in seven years, the Bearcats and the Musketeers have been the best shows in town. Of cities with pro sports teams, only Kansas City and Raleigh-Durham usually post higher television ratings for college basketball games. Both teams routinely draw over 10,000 fans. People pay attention to the Bearcats and Musketeers.
Perhaps the reason that Shootout flies below-the-radar nationally is also the reason it’s so feisty — both program’s fans are a bit insecure about their standing in the college basketball world. Cincinnati, once one of the best programs in the game but with only one Sweet Sixteen appearance since Huggins was forced out in 2005, is stuck in a conference it desperately wants out of. Meanwhile, Xavier fashions itself as one of the top programs in one of the best conferences but couldn’t keep an alum and Cincinnati-native from flirting with, and eventually leaving for, another job. The Shootout is the easiest way for fans of UC and Xavier to claim superiority over the other.
Give the Shootout a chance on Saturday. It won’t be the biggest sporting event of the day, let alone the biggest at the time slot. Highlights from the game might only occupy a short clip at the end of Sportscenter. Just remember that the whole city will be watching, Cincinnatians’ pride invested in the performance of really tall 18-22-year olds.
Tale of the Tape: What is a Bearcat anyways?
Record: 6-2 (48th in Kenpom, of 353)
Head Coach: John Brannen, first season (81-51 in four years at Northern Kentucky)
Key Figures: Per Game, Rank of 353 Nationally (Xavier’s corresponding number)
PPG: 75.9, 70th (73.7, 109th)
PAPG: 68.4, 148th (62.4, 51st)
3PT%: 32.7%, 171st (27.8%, 313th)
Possessions per game: 76, 43rd (73.9, 104th)
UC Player Stats
This year’s Shootout may lack some of the feistiness that past games have. Cronin and Chris Mack were both Cincinnati natives and alums of the schools they coached, helping contribute to the series’s chipiness. The supposed friends have been replaced by more mellow figures in John Brannen and Travis Steele, neither a native of the city (though Brannen is from nearby Northern Kentucky). Nonetheless, the two will look to set the tone in their first Shootout battle.
The first obvious difference between Brannen and Cronin is the pace that each coach prefers to play at. While Cronin had exploited an apparent rules loophole where if you slow the game down and foul your opponent on every single possession the referees would just stop calling fouls, Brannen has his teams play up-tempo. Last year, UC had the 19th fewest possessions per game, this year they are up to 43rd.
As expected with such a drastic change in playing style, the Bearcats have hit a few speed bumps thus far. Though a season-opening loss at now-No. 6 Ohio State is nothing to be ashamed of, Cincinnati has struggled with mediocre competition since. After getting by with a 66-65 victory over Illinois State in the opener of the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, the Bearcats lost in overtime to Bowling Green before needing overtime to get by Valparaiso in the tourney’s conclusion. They returned home for a game against a middling UNLV team, but blew an 8-point lead in the final minute before they were able to escape with a 72-65 victory in their third consecutive overtime game.
Most of the Bearcats hopes for 2019-20 were based around senior forward Jarron Cumberland. The returning AAC Player of the Year was a preseason second-team all-American, but the Wilmington. OH native has had a bit of a troublesome year so far. First, Brannen decided to hold him out of a game against Alabama A&M without elaborating on a reason. Cumberland then got shaken up against Bowling Green and missed the following game against Valpo. Brannen announced Thursday that Cumberland was “questionable” for the Shootout.
Despite their pace, the Bearcats best players are down low. Perhaps the biggest surprise for the Bearcats has been 7’1” center Chris Voit. Voit came across the River with Brannen from NKU and has been the best non-Cumberland scorer so far. After seemingly appearing in every Shootout this decade, this is supposedly r-Sr. forward Tre Scott’s final game against Xavier. He’s averaging just shy of a double-double with 9.4 ppg and 10.1 rbg this season.
- Brannen graduated from Newport Central Catholic (KY) just across the river from Cincinnati. Before becoming the head coach of the Norse, he was a long-time assistant of current-Dayton coach Anthony Grant at VCU and Alabama. He went 1-1 in an interim role at Alabama when Grant was fired in 2015.
- Xavier freshman KyKy Tandy is expected to play after an elbow from Naji Marshall led to his lip being pierced by a tooth in the game against Green Bay. Tandy, expected to bring long-range shooting to a team in dire need of it, is 3-10 from deep in two games this season.
- Xavier coach Travis Steele was very critical of his team’s performance in Xavier’s 84-71 win over Green Bay. In a game that his team seemed destined to play a bit sluggish, Steele saw plenty to be concerned about. “I thought Green Bay was the harder playing team. They were the more together team for sure,” Steele said in the postgame press conference, “Tonight, I thought we looked like a bunch of individuals and that has to change. Our huddles weren’t good for the first time this year. I think guys weren’t necessarily thinking about the right things on either end of the floor and that’s got to change. That’s embarrassing.”
Date/Time: Saturday, December 7 at 5:00 p.m.
Kenpom projection: Xavier -6
With both teams playing at a much faster pace this season than they did last season, it’s tempting to say that we will an old-fashioned shootout in the Crosstown Shootout. Look a little deeper and the opposite seems more likely to happen. While both teams rank in or near the top-100 fastest teams in college basketball, Kenpom has their adjusted tempo much slower (Xavier drops from 104th to 145th while UC drops from 43rd to 83rd) meaning that much of that pace has to do with opponents that like to play fast as well. Coaches also hate wasted possessions and both of the teams rank in the bottom half of D1 in turnovers per possession (Xavier is 188th, UC is 257th). Combining a bit of a misleading pace statistic with the fact that both Steele and Brannen will want their teams to slow down and take care of the ball in a rivalry game will lead to more of a grind than expected.
At the moment, it certainly seems like Xavier is in a better position to continue its home winning streak in the series. While it would be shocking if Cumberland doesn’t suit up, it also doesn’t sound like he’ll be near 100% at the same time the Musketeers are getting healthy. Neither team is particularly efficient on offense, but it's easier to see Xavier going on a few key runs in front of an amped Cintas Center crowd. Cincinnati hasn’t seen a team as with as much talent since they opened the season at Ohio State. Xavier grinds out a win, getting Travis Steele his first Shootout victory.
Xavier 64, Cincinnati 57