Less than a month old, the college basketball season is so new that it doesn’t begin to add up. Among the names to be found on top of the RPI listings (by realtimerpi.com) are Butler, Evansville, Clemson and Northwestern.
But one highly placed name that doesn’t read like a sampling error is Xavier, which is fifth or sixth in various RPI ratings. The Musketeers also show up well in the polls, 10th by the media and ninth by the coaches.
Like it or not and believe it or not, Xavier continues raising the bar, pushing itself now to two Elite Eight appearances in the last four years and reloading with a Top 10 operation. Yet one still views Xavier as a mighty mite that could break into the Final Four, and if it doesn’t that’s fine, too.
For a team that’s so consistently delivered — and no team in Cincinnati has been more consistent for the last 20-odd years — fans still watch Xavier with controlled expectations. Unlike the Reds, Bengals or University of Cincinnati basketball, the Musketeers never enter a season in which failure to win the championship might count as a failure. They somehow raise the bar without raising expectations.
The Xavier coach, Sean Miller, is already sitting on 100 career wins in barely more than four years. His performance last year has to count as the best in school history: 30 wins for the first time ever, the Atlantic-10 regular season title and a four-game run in the NCAA Tournament. Since a stunning loss at Duquesne on Jan. 31, 2007, Xavier is 47-9.
Miller doesn’t do it by talking up his ball club. After every Xavier win, it seems, he makes sure to point up a problem or two. A week ago, the Muskies beat Auburn at the Cintas Center, improving to 7-0. But Miller disparaged the effort and promised to run his operation as if it were 0-7.
Miller’s penchant for self-criticism appears to have trickled down to the team. B.J. Raymond, the team’s leading scorer, told reporters that the Musketeers are “horrible,” indeed “the worst 7-0 team in the country.” He said all this at the end of a game in which he shot 10-of-13, scoring 32 points with seven three-pointers to later win Atlantic-10 player of the week.
Raymond and swingman C.J. Anderson are the only Xavier seniors. Big men Derrick Brown and Jason Love are the only juniors. So maybe the Musketeers aren’t as bad as they say they are, but they’re a young team with problems to iron out, especially in the backcourt.
While the Muskies await NCAA permission to use sophomore guard Jordan Crawford, who transferred from Indiana after the Kelvin Sampson disaster, freshman Terrell Holloway emerged as the top point guard. Now Holloway is injured and the Muskies are making due with sophomore Dante Jackson, who’s more naturally an off guard.
So, if Xavier still hasn’t passed its tendency to poor mouth, no one is believing it.
Of course, they haven’t faced a game this year quite like the Crosstown Shootout, coming up Saturday at Fifth Third Arena, because no game is like that. From down the road in Clifton, the UC Bearcats see this game as their chance to make a mark as they rebuild with hopes that they’ll hold up through February.
Mick Cronin opened up a pretty bare cupboard in 2006, when he took the UC gig right on the heels of Bob Huggins’ acrimonious departure. After an 11-19 performance in 2006- 07, including 2-14 in the Big East, Cronin brought the Bearcats up to 13-12, including an 8-5 Big East record, as of last Feb. 20. But the Big East grind wore down the Bearcats, who lost their next seven games to finish 13-19.
Cronin has an even younger team than Miller. His only senior, guard Branden Miller, seldom plays. The real tone on the floor is set by high-scoring junior guard Deonta Vaughn, who will go down in the UC annals as a hero if he can take his team to the NCAA Tournament before his eligibility expires next year.
Vaughn gave Bearcat fans their one ray of light in 2006-07, when he averaged 14.5 points as a freshman. Today he remains the Bearcats’ only player who sees 30 minutes per game. Another junior, Mike Williams, leads them in rebounding.
The Bearcats are off to a 6-1 start, striking their biggest blow for credibility with an 87-80 win against Alabama- Birmingham Dec. 6. They’ll line up for a couple real tests this month, first against Xavier, then at No. 15 Memphis Dec. 29.
Back when the Crosstown Shootout happened in January, coaches complained that it posed too many distractions from the conference season. But the teams had defined themselves by then, each had set its own path to the NCAA Tournament and we knew who they were.
Now the Crosstown Shootout introduces college basketball in December, trying to get a word in edgewise while the UC football team goes to the Orange Bowl and the NFL works out its playoff races. The season is still too new to say anything.
But the Shootout can still make a statement at any time of the year, and this year’s game could say a lot. With two young and improving teams on the floor, it could signal that UC is on the way back and, because Xavier never left, the winters in Cincinnati might heat up again.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: firstname.lastname@example.org