The University of Cincinnati's basketball program is nearing completion of a painful transitional phase that's passing before our eyes. The light at the end of the tunnel grows larger by the day after nearly three years of waiting for UC to find the tracks.
Meanwhile, Xavier carries the flag nationally for local basketball this year, though some in town might deem it an unacceptable situation. During this season of UC's maturation, Ohio State's post-Odom odyssey, Kelvin Sampson's phone scam at Indiana and Kentucky's adjustment to Billy Clyde Gillespie, the region's major powers are Xavier and Louisville.
As always, Louisville is in it to win it with a ball club eluding respect at every turn. For 21-6, No. 15 on the latest RPI and tied for the Big East lead, the Cardinals manage only a No 18 ranking by the Associated Press and No. 23 by ESPN/USA Today. Chances are the Cardinals will rally to a fourth seed, mangle Memphis in a regional championship game and go to the Final Four, because Rick Pitino is a terrific tournament coach who will make his players hungrier than they really are.
Then we look at Xavier, 22-4, leading the Atlantic 10, ranked No. 10 by the AP and No. 12 by ESPN/USA Today, and one somehow sees a little less drive to the finish. The NCAA selection committee will dis Xavier with something like a No. 6 seed, then the Musketeers will go to the Sweet 16 before bowing out to bouquets for another great season.
Xavier is thusly cursed by low expectations. Some teams like to stay under the radar. But that shouldn't be good enough this year for XU because they're not going to have a better chance.
The Musketeers are probably better than the 2004 operation that went to the regional championship against Duke. That group began a rally in February and really came from nowhere. This club has won consistently throughout the year.
With their top six scorers averaging between 10.2 and 11.7 points per game, the Musketeers will cause defensive problems for whoever they play. The three seniors alone add up to hope because they cover so many facets of basketball between them: Drew Lavender moves the ball around, Josh Duncan can score from inside or outside and Stanley Burrell is the kind of shutdown backcourt defender who can win games almost by himself.
One has to love this team, yet it's hard visualizing Xavier as the kind of operation that's going to attack the NCAA Tournament as if it expects to win. It's hard to tell at this point if that's because we've talked ourselves into Xavier being Cinderella for 20 years or because Xavier never registers any real disappointment when it exits the tournament.
At the very moment when we credit Xavier's perspective and its pluck for accomplishing as it does at a small university, we also worry that the hunger for a national championship doesn't grip XU the way it does other programs. There's always a sense that Xavier has reached its ceiling, that the Musketeers went as far as they can go four years ago with their advancement to a regional championship game.
If UC's ball club were good enough for the NCAA Tournament but not quite as good as Xavier right now, fans would be anxious for a deep run. They'd be delusional, perhaps, and we know the Bearcats mostly exited in the second round.
But when the Bearcats lose, they blew it; when the Musketeers lose, they did their best. The UC fans really have the madness when their team is close to "good enough."
It's still too early to say the Bearcats are back. They're a long shot for the NCAA Tournament, but they're coming. The signs are in place for a Big East contender and therefore a national contender, perhaps by the end of next season.
Through last weekend, the Bearcats stood in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Big East, having defeated West Virginia and Pittsburgh, the other two teams in the tie. The Bearcats also have defeated Louisville, tied for first, and played second place Connecticut to a one-point loss.
Perhaps their best game, the one that charicatures a Bearcats victory, came up on Jan. 30, when they traveled to Morgantown for their first duel against Bob Huggins. UC held West Virginia to 20 percent shooting in a 62-39 win.
The Bearcats are athletic and tenacious, but we could have said that last year. The difference now is that they have an idea on the defensive end, they rebound a bit and they have a go-to guy in Deonta Vaughn.
A year ago, the Big East killed UC, which finished with a 2-14 league record, including 10 straight losses. The Bearcats didn't merely lose in the Big East, but they lost by a lot, 10 points or more on 10 different occasions.
Halfway into this February, the Bearcats were winning in the Big East (7-5) and even across their schedule (12-12), which might speak to their improvement through the season, though it could also say a bit about a non-conference schedule that included Xavier and Memphis.
Somehow, Coach Mick Cronin has worked up a ball club that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Offensively, the Bearcats are close to a one-man team with almost no scoring from the post. Their senior class scores about 25 points per game. But the Bearcats pull through with solid guard play.
Vaughn averages 17.2 points per game, sixth in the Big East. Senior guard Jamual Warren is ninth in assists (4.28 average) and Vaughn is 11th (3.88). And the Bearcats are fourth in three-point defense, another testament to guard play.
March is coming. UC probably shouldn't win and Xavier probably should. But the question for both teams is the same: Will we see madness?
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