The University of Cincinnati brought a basketball team with no expectations -- bad news for the rivalry. UC fans aren't the kind to love a bad team until it becomes good. Only Mick Cronin can hold this team to high expectations, and only because it's his job.
This instant basketball team tested itself early with winning results against the likes of Howard and High Point, then ventured out of its depth in a loss to Wofford. Now the schedule has the 7-3 Bearcats in pretty heavy water, and they're going to have to get a lot tougher and more together before they can swim.
Contrary to the preferences of many fans, though, UC is always much better as an underdog than as a front-runner. Every win this year is precious, and the Bearcats can work with assurances that the college basketball season is built for teams just like them.
Xavier came to the Shootout suffering from the mysterious crippler of its young seasons, Creighton. This is Xavier basketball in a nutshell: The Musketeers can win four games in four days to make the NCAA Tournament out of nowhere or can respond to severe challenges and play all the way down to the country's last eight teams, but they can't beat Creighton in December.
Rising to No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, the Muskies went to Omaha and missed their first 13 shots in a 73-67 loss on Dec. 9.
Winners of seven games in their first eight, losing only to No. 9 Alabama, Xavier replicated its odd subservience to the Blue Jays. Last year the Musketeers went to Omaha at 5-1, losing only to incumbent national finalist Illinois, but Creighton sent them away with a 61-59 loss.
Among those on the floor for Xavier in the 2004 Creighton game were Justin Doellman, Justin Cage, Josh Duncan and Stanley Burrell. Doellman, Cage and Brandon Cole played eight months earlier in a regional title loss to Duke. All the fellows mentioned are still on the team today. And they've picked up help with Drew Lavender, Johnny Wolf and Derrick Brown, among others. Xavier should have won the Shootout without a sweat.
But the team that's been together for weeks outplayed the team that's been together for years. Xavier went up 22-15, then must have started thinking it was going to be easy.
Who would have thought anyone at UC cared about the game, anyhow? Ticket sales on the UC end lagged from low expectations and a December date that depressed student turnout. Xavier fans took more than their fair share of UC's arena.
Many UC fans won't get over the Bob Huggins matter for years. In the meantime, they're likely to hope UC will lose just so that damned Nancy Zimpher will get hers.
That's the dynamic, and Cronin knows he can't change it. He can only make people forget about it. Fortunately, he's deeply rooted in Cincinnati and minimizes the Huggins fallout just for that. And if his team can duplicate the ferocity of that 67-57 win Dec. 13 against Xavier, fans might trickle back.
Ferocity will have to be UC's calling card this season, because the Bearcats don't shoot very well and can't share and take care of the ball. Through 10 games, the Bearcats have almost as many turnovers (133) as assists (137). They have six players who have been in every game and shoot less than 40 percent.
Locking down on defense the way they played it against Xavier will make the offensive misplays go down a lot easier. The Bearcats forced the more experienced Xavier into 18 turnovers.
They've got real glue in the short range with John Williamson, a 6-6 junior who comes to UC after playing under former Huggins Bearcats Andre Tate and Erik Martin at Cincinnati State. Add a couple guys like that to your ball club, and you can just put the ball on the rim and see what happens. Already a mean rebounder, Williamson, like Cronin, warms up the possibility that UC's next basketball success will grow from the ground Huggins planted.
But this gestating team simply doesn't have the depth or experience to come back from a sky high performance against Xavier and duplicate it against a loaded Ohio State team ranked fourth in the country. Ohio State finally consented to play the Bearcats for the first time since the 1962 national championship game, just in time for UC to be as down as a program can be.
Ohio State's 72-50 posterization of the Bearcats Dec. 16 gave the nation its first glimpse of Buckeye freshman center Greg Oden, playing only his third game after surgery on his right wrist. It also showed the Bearcats dreadfully overmatched.
While the Bearcats rebuild from Huggins' dust, Xavier is said to suffer from a confidence problem. But the 8-3 Musketeers have been around the block a couple times and won some big games -- what's with the confidence problem?
Xavier certainly has the guns to go places, especially if Burrell can find his shooting touch. But the Muskies need to find that next gear. They sometimes find it around the end of January. Last year they found it for a weekend in March. If they can find it during the week around New Year's Day, they ought to be an extremely confident team heading to the Atlantic-10 season.
It ought to be easy enough to solve a confidence problem -- just go beat the team you're playing. A couple big ones loom at the turn of the year, when Illinois visits on Dec. 29 and Huggins returns to town with his Kansas State team on Jan. 3. One can't wait to find out if the Huggins fans turn U.S. Bank Arena into a road environment for the Musketeers.
It could be that the Crosstown Shootout, considered dormant this year, really just grew another layer. If so, Xavier could use the opportunity to plant a stake in the ground, because it certainly didn't do that against UC.
The Musketeers have taken off after beating Huggins before, and it could be just what they need to grow into the deep contender such an experienced team ought to be.