When you haven't played an in-state rival for over 40 years, the game is bound to receive a lot of hype. When that game is on the heels of your biggest annual rivalry, it's that much bigger.
Ohio State and Cincinnati are set to clash at 4 PM Saturday afternoon from Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. First, the Bearcats were set to rumble with Xavier in the annual crosstown shootout Wednesday evening at Fifth Third Arena.
"For us, having the roster that we do with the inexperience and everything, it's about getting our players to know what this game is all about," said UC assistant coach Chris Goggin of the game against Xavier. "To follow that up Saturday with Ohio State, it's probably the same thing...It's probably helpful that we have it (the game against Ohio State) right after Xavier because we will have been there (an emotional game) and we'll know what's coming with Ohio State."
The Bearcats and Buckeyes (8-1) haven't played in over 44 years. They meet in a nationally televised game on CBS Saturday afternoon in the Wooden Tradition. It's the second game of a doubleheader that also features Butler against Purdue.
Goggin and head coach Mick Cronin are in their first seasons leading the Bearcats after taking over for interim head coach Andy Kennedy. Cronin and Goggin coached at Murray State for three years after being former Bob Huggins assistants - Goggin a former administrative assistant until 2003 when Cronin was named the Racer head man.
Having lost Devan Downey via transfer and several key members of the Bearcats' team last season, including 6-8 guard James White, Cincinnati has relied on several newcomers including JUCO transfer John Williamson and prep school guard Deonta Vaughn.
The Bearcats have just one player (6-6 forward Cedric McGowan) with any meaningful experience.
"They've done a great job of buying in (to the system) and just working hard," Goggin added of blending a new mix of players. "Just knowing what it takes from every player on the roster every day at this level to be successful is the biggest hurdle you have to overcome."
Cincinnati plays just six players an average of 20 minutes or more and only one more (Ronald Allen) plays more than 10 minutes.
The depth, however, will not deter Cronin and the Bearcats from trying to push the tempo Saturday against the Buckeyes. Cincinnati likes to play up-tempo despite the lack of scholarship players available.
"We still want to get as many easy baskets in transition as possible because the easiest thing in a half-court offense is to score when you have a huge post presence and we don't have that presence as far as scoring," he explained. "It's important to get the ball up quickly and get into a flowing offense so that we're not facing a set defense every time down the floor. Even though we're short on numbers, we feel like we've put in the work strength and conditioning wise to push the tempo a little bit."
That presence Goggin refers to is 7-1 freshman Greg Oden. Oden has played two games for the Buckeyes and averages 15 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots in just over 20 minutes a game for Ohio State thus far.
Oden, a Lawrence North High School native will be playing in front of his hometown crowd on Saturday.
"Obviously he's a big presence offensively and defensively for them - it's something that we don't have," Goggin said. "The best coaching in the world is not going to turn a 6-6 post guy into a 6-10 or 6-11 post guy. We have to do some different things and draw him away from the basket a little bit and play to our strengths as far as our roster goes. Then we need to figure out a way to stop him as he has the ability to change a game offensively."
Bigger, however, than the homecoming return of Oden is the fact these two programs haven't played in nearly half a century.
While Goggin says he expects it to be the first true road test for Cincinnati, as he anticipates Ohio State having a large crowd especially with Oden and Mike Conley playing in their hometown, people want to know when Ohio State and Cincinnati might play again.
"I don't know what our plans are for the future," Goggin added. "It's been brought up and I think it's something that will be discussed above the assistant coach level before it gets down to our level. When it comes down to a game of this magnitude, I'm sure the athletic directors and administration will be very involved. It's not going to be as simple as a coach calling another coach and gets the game done."
Although the game hasn't taken place in many years, Goggin believes it's a big deal. But more importantly, it's an important challenge for the Bearcats.
"I'm sure our players don't really understand the history and the fact this game hasn't been playing in so long," he added. "For them it's a chance to get right back out and play another very, very tough opponent that presents some challenges we haven't seen."
Goggin talked about the keys to the game against Ohio State from Cincinnati's perspective."They (Ohio State) have some great one-on-one players so defensively, it's going to be gameplan and make them take tough shots," he concluded. "We don't want to give them free transition baskets, we don't want to get beat one-on-one with them going to the rim, layups, kicking it out for open jumpers – we want to make them take tough shots. We have to win the battle on the boards and win the battle in turnovers. If we do those things we'll give ourselves a chance to win."