College basketball not so long ago saved Cincinnati sports fans from the dull struggle of February, when the University of Cincinnati team played in high profile and the team at Xavier was just starting to get serious. We all know, though, that UC this year is rebuilding rather than reloading while Xavier shares a first-place tie in the Atlantic-10 with its own limp.
The question at UC now isn't if the Bearcats will make the NCAA Tournament but if they'll make the Big East Tournament. The question at Xavier isn't if the Musketeers can beat the respected likes of Villanova and Illinois but if they'll show up Saturday in their own gym against an RPI dog like Richmond.
Xavier is a veteran team with a lot of nice pieces. The Musketeers play with a point guard (Drew Lavender) who moves the ball around, an off-guard (Stanley Burrell) who can fill the hole and an inside core of experienced players (Justin Doellman, Justin Cage, Brandon Cole and Josh Duncan) who can own the middle when they want it.
The Musketeers are a decent shooting team with scoring balance throughout the roster, a long bench and several players who can make free throws. They have a group of seniors (Cage, Cole and Doellman) who contributed to the Elite Eight team in 2004, along with an exciting freshman in Derrick Brown and talent in the classes between.
In short, Xavier has a really nice team.
And still we fret. Those aggravating losses by a basket or a free throw to teams like Bucknell and Duquesne come along and slap the fans up alongside the head.
We can understand the loss to UC. That's just how the Crosstown Shootout works. But when the group that beats competitive teams from power conferences loses focus against college basketball's foils, consistency becomes a worry.
Truth be told, the Musketeers could have all but clinched an NCAA bid by now. Furthermore, just to conjecture, it's probably just as well that they haven't. Among the 21st century's unchanging realities in sports is Xavier playing its best basketball starting a little before the middle of February. A good share of that grows from bad losses in January.
Nothing tells a good team that it's time to get its act together like losing to Duquesne. Since falling 93-91 at Duquesne (RPI No. 171) Jan. 31, the Muskies (18-7 overall, 8-3 Atlantic-10) have steamrolled three Atlantic-10 opponents by an average 27 points. Two wins last week shot the Muskies from 51st on the NCAA's rendering of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to the mid-30s in projections released before the NCAA's next issue.
An RPI in the low 30s or high 20s is a pretty secure neighborhood for NCAA hopefuls, and Xavier will be there if it wins its last five regular season games. The big one comes up at home Feb. 21 against Rhode Island, probably to break a tie on top of the league. With those wins and a couple A-10 Tournament victories, Xavier would own a 10-game winning streak when the NCAA selection committee starts refining the brackets.
We fret, like always, but that will end soon enough. This team is going to be fun heading to the end. Xavier is a deep, balanced and experienced team that's competent in all phases of the game when it decides that's what it's going to be. Typically, Xavier decides that about now. If the frontline firepower doesn't quite match the 2004 outfit that caught fire and went to the regional finals, this group has more depth. Expect a lot from this team, even though you might not want to.
Across town, let's just say the won-lost record doesn't really matter, because we already knew the Bearcats were going to lose in the Big East. We just wanted to see how they would lose. The standard this year for the Bearcats is much lower than usual, but they're reaching it. If you can like the way a losing team loses, this is your team.
The new coach, Mick Cronin, basically had to assemble players from nothing, not even a legitimate window for recruiting, just to dress up a team. Yet the Bearcats play hard and not stupidly. They're more likely to throw an assist pass than a turnover, hawk the ball a bit on defense and lead the Big East in turnover margin at plus-4.8 per game. They needed an overtime for their only Big East win in 10 tries, a 96-83 victory against West Virginia, but they've also been right there three other times before blowing late leads.
The Bearcats have problems. They lack depth, so they fade late. They lack size, so they can't rebound the defensive board. They lack experience and prestige, so they don't get to the free-throw line. They lack shooting skill, so they brick free throws and make only 41 percent of field goal attempts. They lack familiarity with one another, so they're not cohesive on defense.
In large measure, also, they lack luck. Granting that the Big East is filled with good shooters and the Bearcats aren't well enough tuned to keep up with them, there's got to be a bit of bad luck involved in giving up 42.9 percent from three-point range in conference games.
With a little bit of luck, the Bearcats (10-14, 1-9 Big East) would be in the hunt for a spot in the Big East Tournament, which admits only 12 of the league's 16 teams. As it is, without luck, the Bearcats are still alive, but only in a mathematical sense. Almost certainly, they'll finish in the Big East basement as the only 16th place team in America.
Next year, Cronin will bring in some better talented players, the remaining players will understand the situation better and the Bearcats will be fun again. They'll surprise a few Big East teams and beat a few more. It's not the end of the world. At UC, there's still next year. And at Xavier, there's still next month.