*Establish an Interior Game
While not massive by any stretch of the imagination, Xavier offers every team they play a difficult time in the low-box. With a front line of players of Brian Thornton (6-8 ½), Justin Doellman (6-9) and Justin Cage (6-6), UC is actually not dwarfed in the paint they are against many of their Big East foes. This offers Cincinnati the unique opportunity to attempt to create offense on the block. Doellman has been chastised for his toughness on the defensive end, and Thornton, while establishing great position and a low base, has very limited mobility, especially side-to-side. The athleticism of UC could create match-up problems for XU …at least when it comes to the starters. The Bearcat frontcourt must attack this starting group inside, as Xavier has the possibility of going to the bench and brining in big bodies, tough guys, all night long. Bruisers like Will Caudle (6-10) and Brandon Cole (6-8), versatile big men like Josh Duncan (6-10) and B.J. Raymond (6-7), with the likes of seldom used, but very lanky Boubacar Coly (6-9) and Adam Simons (7-0) thrown in the mix, it will potentially make it very difficult on UC as the game goes on. A lack of depth and an up and down UC style can take a lot out of players like Eric Hicks (6-6) and Cedric McGowan (6-6).
*Keep XU off the Offensive Glass/Hit the Defensive Glass
For as great as they can look on the offensive glass, throwing down put-back dunks all game long, the Bearcats have showed a real inability to keep teams off the offensive glass. This could prove to be a major problem against a Xavier team that makes a living off getting inside. Either off penetration of a kick to the post, UC likes to initiate their offense inside with the services of Brian Thornton. With his ability to score down low, UC must not double or attempt to come from the weak side to block shots, or Xavier will annihilate the offensive glass. Doellman, Caudle, Duncan and Cage will kill the glass. UC must makes sure to box out and stay patient, not being too quick to leave their man making the other side of the glass susceptible for an explosive XU frontcourt. Allowing offensive rebounds will hurt UC for more than just the immediate second chance points. Not hitting the glass will lead to free-throw attempts for a smooth-stroking Xavier team, foul trouble for a thin ‘Cat team, and will take the most impressive part of the UC offensive repertoire out of the picture. By pulling down defense rebounds, the Bearcats will be able to outlet, pass and get into the open floor, getting to the basket or the free-throw line. Without collecting the misses, UC will struggle to get into an offensive rhythm, as we have seen all year that UC, especially when without Armein Kirkland, meaning a wild-shooting Jihad Muhammad is on the floor, struggles to initiate offense in the half court.
* Who Will Cover the Versatile Xavier Frontcourt?
Xavier will look to score the majority of their points from the versatile frontcourt. Offering size, speed, and shooting ability, Xavier will present difficult match-ups for UC. If UC does not go to a 3-2 match-up zone, which I propose they do, Hicks will more than likely cover Thornton. Thornton has a face-up game, as well as quality moves in the post, which will present problems for UC's biggest beast. However, Hicks strength, speed, and athleticism, as well as Thornton only being about 6-8 (and slow), will make this an interesting one-on-one battle. However, where the potential disadvantages for UC will be when it comes to Cage and Doellman. They are a strange pairing when it comes to college basketball. While Doellman is listed as the power forward, he has far more of a small forward-type game. Cage, on the other hand, is only 6-5, but plays like a guy that is 6-10. Doellman will most likely play on the perimeter for most of the game, so James White will probably see time on him. While Doellman is not necessarily a "banger" on the inside, he could be difficult for White to guard straight up in the post. If you put McGowan on him, who has decent on-ball skills at best, Doellman will be able to take him to the basket. Cage, on the other hand, is entirely too strong White, but may be too quick for McGowan. He does not like to shoot from the outside all that much, but he can if need be, and is also a competent ballhandler. McGowan probably offers the better match up because of his strength, but you may see White guard him at times.
I would suggest that the ‘Cats go to the 3-2 match-up if possible, but if not I believe that the front court pairings should look like such:
-Hicks vs. Thornton
-White vs. Doellman (due to perimeter play and similar body types, plus White's athleticism)
-McGowan vs. Cage (due to Cage's strength)
* Stay Out of Foul Trouble
The most obvious statement undoubtedly is that the thin UC squad most stay out of foul trouble. XU will run a gauntlet of players, especially in the frontcourt that will look to bang, harass, and frustrate the Bearcats. Xavier will be able to play with their match-ups a bit more, and play a little more aggressively than the Bearcats due to their depth. With that being said, UC will have a guy go down with foul trouble or have someone in need of a breather, so the bench must step up. Probably only going three-deep off the bench, with Muhammad, Ronald Allen, and tight end turned power forward Connor Barwin, UC will need those players to step up and play with composure. Barwin will be aggressive and knock bodies around (in other words, play like a football player), so he may get into foul trouble in his limited minutes. However, he will be little more than a pick-‘em-up for the ‘Cats. UC needs scoring and defense from both Muhammad and Allen. A bench is needed for two reasons: to spell foul-ridden or tired players, and to give a change of pace that the opponent's defense must adjust to. The biggest problem with Allen and Muhammad is that they play with too much energy, and not enough head. They are too "pumped" for the game and often have ill-advised shots and poor defensive decisions. Both Allen, due to his size, versatility and athleticism, and Muhammad, for shooting ability/creativeness on offense and quick hands on defense, must step up and play big for the ‘Cats when they are called upon. If UC goes any deeper than Barwin off the bench, however, there is no shot of a UC win.
* Chadd Moore/Jihad Muhammad's ability to Handle Stanley Burrell (watch out for Dedrick Finn)
In his two years with the Musketeers, Stanley Burrell has quickly made himself a crowd favorite. His ability to connect from the outside, while still getting to the paint, energizes the Cintas Center crowd like no other. While Thornton and the frontcourt are usually the major crux of the XU offense, Burrell's ability to "get off" is generally the "X"-factor. As streaky a player as there is in the country, Burrell's ability to score in the open court or connect from the outside will probably determine the outcome of this contest. Xavier does not need Burrell's scoring output as much as they need his flair for the dramatic. A clutch shot, a 10-0 personal scoring run, or an exciting play at the basket fires up an XU crowd that is known for sitting on their hands at times, becoming almost apathetic, against even the most impressive of opponents.
Chadd Moore or Muhammad will most likely check Burrell. Standing a couple of inches taller than his potential defenders, while also having a bit more bulk to his frame then either of the ‘Cats, Burrell has the quickness to be a problem by getting into the lane. Burrell is explosive and must be played for the potential for penetration. Moore and Muhammad are both swarming defenders; they enjoy getting in the face of the defender, creating havoc for their opponents. They also look for the trap to help force turnovers. As good as the combo is when it comes to playing one-one-one at times and helping to trap, they must not be left vulnerable to Burrell passing the ball or being able to cut to the basket due to an overplay. Burrell can drive the lane and pass the ball, so UC cannot sellout to play the shot alone. With that being said, the ‘Cats must play Burrell for the shot, as he is capable (and willing) to shoot the rock from any spot on the floor. They cannot give him an inch from behind the arc. XU will most likely look to screen for Burrell when is near the top of the key or at the elbow. The pick-and-roll has hurt the Bearcats in the future, most recently by Gerry McNamara of Syracuse. If the ‘Cats go under the screen Burrell will take the shot. If they fight over the top, Hicks and McGowan must be quick to seal off the lane if Cage or Thornton is involved. If Doellman (or Duncan) is setting the pick, he likes to roll to behind the arc to hit the jumper that is generally left wide-open do to the confusion and double-team of Burrell.
* Keep the Xavier Crowd Out of the Game
Like any Crosstown Shootout, home court advantage could potentially be huge for Xavier. Notice that I said could instead of will. The reason for this is that Xavier has notorious fans that, despite showing up to every game, they do not always "show up". College crowds are truly the sixth man in college basketball. They give their teams energy and help to hinder their opponent's ability to hear and feel comfortable. However, it is difficult to consider Xavier fans "college fans" most of the time, as they are often reserved in their approach to watching their team. The Cintas Not-So-Crazies have a tendency to sit on their hands for much of the game. Allowing Burrell to pump the crowd up or seeing a big dunk in the lane will get the crowd into the game. When they are pumped, they are as good as any crowd in the country, making a huge advantage for Xavier. However, when they are down, not excited by what they are seeing on the court, there is really no advantage for Xavier. If UC can keep the Cintas crowd grounded, both literally in their seats and in their emotions, it will hinder one of the biggest assets Xavier will coming into the contest.