How college basketball teams have come along through the year, how they've answered the challenges from the start and what new challenges have emerged -- these questions now can be attached to answers and conjecture. Mostly conjecture, as it's not even March yet.
Last week's Crosstown Shootout, which always focuses the town around college basketball, came off about how form predicted for a too-easily-satisfied University of Cincinnati team playing at home against a Xavier squad rebuilding from graduations.
The Bearcats won 65-54 after leading by 21 at halftime. As is their custom, they went into showtime mode with a big lead and lost their grip.
No one should suggest the Bearcats would have lost if the game were 50 minutes long, but then you look at a blown 17-point lead against Louisville and a nearly blown 20-point lead against East Carolina among other second-half fold-ups. Then you realize the Bearcats limped to the finish against Xavier in their only win of the last four games.
Do we hear panic? Should the 18-6 Bearcats be worried? In mid-February?
To win their ninth regular season Conference-USA title in 10 years as their parting gift to the league, the Bearcats would need much more help than the pack can provide. UC already has discharged six games against three of the teams in front of them -- Louisville, Charlotte and DePaul -- winning only two.
But it's not the end of the world. Right now, indeed, is the beginning of the world, that crucial 10-game stretch ending the season that includes the conference tournament and plays so heavily into seeding decisions for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Remember Xavier last year, of course. The Musketeers went from 10-9 to one of the last eight teams standing.
College kids are resilient. The Bearcats can snap right out of this funk, win nine in a row and go to selection Sunday 27-6.
All of their remaining regular season opponents, except Memphis, are down in the standings.
And UC coach Bob Huggins is absolutely right in that two recent losses against Charlotte and DePaul came with the opposition preparing for a week while UC came in right off tough games, putting the Bearcats at a huge competitive disadvantage. Well, the schedule makers have no incentive to do UC favors, obviously, since the Bearcats are leaving for the Big East next year. Then again, so is DePaul.
But it's a point worth making, since it won't show up in any of the stats, and the pollsters as well as the NCAA Tournament selectors should be aware. The Bearcats are better than 18-6 suggests. They're better than three losses in their last four games suggests.
The Bearcats were absolutely flat in an 85-66 loss at DePaul Feb. 12, 41 hours after an emotionally draining Crosstown Shootout. A DePaul team that seems to contain nothing but guards out-rebounded the Bearcats 35-26. And it's always hard to beat a team that makes 11 of 25 three-pointers, as DePaul did in that game.
Oddly enough, during this recent run of losses and tough luck, the Bearcats seem to have corralled the most frustrating aspect of their offense, which is the fact that a 5-foot-11 backup junior guard takes more shots than anyone else on the team. Who on Earth wants to watch Jihad Muhammad take more shots than Jason Maxiell, James White, Eric Hicks and Armein Kirkland?
The ball absolutely must go to those four players if the Bearcats are to reach their offensive peak. No one else in this group can shoot straight. Not that the Bearcats are terrible offensively, averaging 76.6 points per game. But they could be better.
Consider these two points. First, you have Maxiell, a proven senior leader, solid guy by accounts, and he's gotten only 223 shots in 752 minutes this season. Second, you have the aforementioned Muhammad with 226 shots in 629 minutes. So the unproven junior college transfer has played three full 40-minute games fewer than the proven senior and still took three more shots! That's dysfunctional.
But Hugs is on the case, and Muhammad has started the last two games on the bench, taking a total of 10 shots. To the extent that UC can knock off the quick shots, get the ball to the right people and finish games, they'll be hard to stop.
The key to every UC team, as we all know, is the defense. Nobody in college basketball is 10-feet tall anymore, so good defensive pressure doesn't merely enable the less explosive team to beat the more explosive team. Good defensive pressure just is the most reliable power in college basketball now that the aircraft carriers and best slashing wing men are moving quickly, if not sooner, to the NBA. The time has come for UC's players to turn it up defensively.
As for what's happening on the Xavier side of town, let's begin with this: Maybe we shouldn't be so upset that Thad Matta went to Ohio State the way he did, because he evidently didn't recruit for XU worth a damn. First-year coach Sean Miller is left holding the bag. The X-Men already are paying the price for the transition between Skip Prosser and Matta four years ago, as their only senior is Keith Jackson.
Leaning heavily on freshmen and sophomores, Xavier is basically a junior varsity team in the Atlantic-10, which is sinking relative to the rest of the college basketball world. For the first time in decades, Xavier is a middling team in a weak league. But no one sensibly figured the Muskies would be better than the 12-9 record they took into this week.
It was already miraculous last year when the Muskies won 12 of their past 13 behind seniors Romain Sato, Lionel Chalmers and Anthony Myles -- Prosser's recruits. Lacking even approximately that much experience, we can't expect that much prosperity late in this season.
But the problem runs deeper than that or, rather, not deeper. The Muskies are way too reliant on the same five players -- juniors Dedrick Finn and Brian Thornton, sophomores Justin Doellman and Justin Cage and freshman Stanley Burrell. The talent just isn't there.
Yes, they lost Brandon Cole and Boubacar Coly for the year to early knee injuries, but it's not clear either of these fellows were going to be 20-minute players anyway. You just can't set yourself up so a couple injuries reduces your team to five reliable players.
That's recruiting. Xavier has been bleeding talent for the past two years. It's not just a lack of bodies but a lack of star power among the people they have. David West and Sato didn't wait until they were seniors to become dynamite players -- they didn't have to, because they were that good -- and neither did the other Xavier greats of the last 20 years.
So Miller took on a tough job, and now he has a young, shallow team going to the meat of the season. The best we can realistically hope for is a training exercise at the National Invitational Tournament. Then we can hope Miller proves better at bringing in good players than the man he assisted at Xavier for the last three years.
We wish Miller the best. Regardless of what UC-bred Xavier haters think or say, Cincinnati needs a strong Xavier program to hold its place as a college basketball capital.
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