Bragging rights are back in Clifton.
I’m okay admitting I didn’t see Saturday’s performance coming. The story seemed written to those of us that have watched this program long enough. They got embarrassed in the season’s opener against local opponent Ohio State and then strung together eight wins that seemed to essentially get better as November wore on. Then, just as this team in transition was finding itself, local opponent Xavier comes to Clifton and washes it all away, right?
Instead, it was Xavier that seemed to hang in the game on toughness for most of the first half before getting outclassed by the Bearcats after halftime. This is what it must feel like for Musketeer fans from 2013-16, when they controlled the rivalry for three meetings. Xavier is not at their strongest this season, but they will be okay. On Saturday they could do nothing right. It was awesome.
The game was back and forth for much of the first half. In a game Xavier traditionally excels in by grabbing an early lead, the Bearcats rode a raucous crowd while they were finding themselves, and Xavier’s final lead of the afternoon was erased on a Keith Williams dunk with 6:35 remaining in the first half.
In a game that tends to be a proving ground for Musketeers, it was the Bearcats that had players making statements. Emerging star Keith Williams tagged the Muskies for 16 points and nearly brought the newly renovated roof down with several dunks. New tentpole Trevon Scott added a double-double.
Seniors always want to win this game going out, and Justin Jenifer scored seven points while dishing out nine assists to just one turnover.
The story of the game was, of course, Jarron Cumberland’s 19 points. Justin Williams wrote beautifully about it for The Athletic, but my favorite (and, conversely, least favorite?) quality of Jarron’s is that he needs no help getting amped for big games. After foul trouble kept him scoreless in the opening half against Ohio State, he unloaded 22 after the break, single-handedly getting the ‘Cats back into the game. It was a similar story on Saturday. He picked his spots early before erupting with a pair of threes in the first half’s final four minutes to light the gym of fire and stretch Cincinnati’s lead going into the half.
In the second half, it was a three pointer seemingly taken from somewhere near Calhoun Street that put Cincinnati up by double digits with 15 minutes left and put me over the edge. I knew the Bearcats were going to win.
Suddenly, after all the fussing about Xavier dominating recent history, they lead the series just 5-4 this decade. The only win by a road team in that period came in 2015 when the Muskies stole the first game back in Clifton after the US Bank Arena hiatus by two points on a pair of missed game-winners by Cincinnati. Bearcat wins have come by an average of 14.5 points.
In a day fraught with anxiety for both sides of the fan base, Bearcat faithful never really had a chance for dread to set in. Xavier waltzed into Clifton with all of their smugness and scored just 47 points, looking dreadful the whole way.
Not a bad day.
Trevor Moore may have made the game’s biggest shot, and I love it. With Xavier making its final push going into the under-12 timeout, Moore caught the ball with three seconds on the shot clock and stepped into a beautiful three to put the Bearcats up double digits for good. I think my eyeballs nearly popped out of my skull. He’s struggled this year, so I’m happy for that kid.
Cronin mentioned it after the game, but this team has several ways to beat you. While you’d like to see some of those things develop consistently before feeling confident in them, he’s not wrong. Game planning for Cincinnati isn’t as easy as it may seem. Sure, Cumberland is the main attraction, but Cane Broome is also prone to reel off 15 points, Keith Williams is suddenly Dwayne Wade, Justin Jenifer will happily take any shot you give him, and Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks are taking turns recording double-doubles. When people talk about this team having a low-ish floor but a high-ish ceiling, this is it. Get all of these pieces moving in the same direction and deployable on command and this team can tear through a weak AAC.
Keith Williams is stealing the Breakout Player thunder, but Eliel Nsoseme is quietly having a great season off the bench. Just Tuesday I praised his dirty work. On Saturday he went out and gobbled up seven rebounds in 17 minutes, four on the offensive glass. He’s still playing with a splint on his shooting hand, which is why you’re seeing abysmal scoring and free throw shooting, but he’s dominating in other facets.
Next Saturday’s game against Mississippi State figures to be the doozy we expected prior to the season. The Bearcats have snuck up to #29 in KenPom, which lists the Bulldogs as five-point favorites at home. Given the conference’s strength this year, this is actually the biggest game on the schedule today, per KenPom. I wouldn’t call it a “must win,” but it’s certainly a “would be great to win.” Beating a Top 25 team on the road would be massive for a resume that will get little to no help from the AAC. The Bearcats have won nine in a row, so momentum is on their side.
The renovated Fifth Third Arena is a pristine place to watch a major college basketball game. The crowd had little opportunity to get amped against the Buckeyes, but the place was practically vibrating for 40 minutes on Saturday. And, as a bonus, this new home came with very little loss of capacity. I was more than willing to give up several thousand seats to bring the arena into the 21st century, so the announced capacity of 12,012 (an homage to Oscar Robertson) was a pleasant surprise. On Saturday we learned that Standing Room Only tickets push it to 12,513 (an homage to Cincinnati’s area code). Gaining those vastly upgraded amenities and viewing angles at the mere cost of about 600 seats is a riddle I don’t understand. I’m not asking questions.
Xavier really does suck.