Trevon Bluiett announced to the world that his shooting slump was behind him by scoring 40 points in Thursday night's Crosstown Shootout. However, Xavier's failure to get stops and rebounds on the defensive end wasted his performance as Cincinnati broke its three-year losing streak against the Musketeers with a win at Fifth-Third Arena.
Bluiett was unbelievable in the first half and stayed hot into the second, though Cincinnati's defensive attention made it hard to get many decent looks after intermission. He sank 6-of-6 from 3-point range while going 8-for-8 from the field on his way to scoring 26 points in the first half. He finished 12-of-15 from the floor and 9-of-11 from deep with four rebounds, one assist, and four turnovers while playing every minute of the game.
"He is more than capable of a game like this," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "You never know that is going to happen on the stage that it did. He’s a big time player and when he gets on a roll, we were looking for him and calling his number. Quite honestly he hit a couple of shots that he created on his own. I thought Edmond (Sumner) did a great job of getting in the lane, he’s a tough matchup and they found him for a couple. Trevon played as well as I have seen him play or anyone play in the shootout.”
Cincinnati's 30-4 advantage in second-chance points was the story of the game. Sophomore Jacob Evans led the Bearcats with 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting (3-9 3PT) to go with seven boards and three assists with one turnover in 37 minutes. Senior Troy Caupain added 16 points (4-7 FG, 2-5 3PT) and five assists with one turnover. Freshman Jarron Cumberland, a Wilmington High School grad, was the surprise star of the night with 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting (2-5 3PT) and four rebounds in 21 minutes.
"There is only one thing you can talk about, we got our ass kicked on the glass. That’s it," Mack said. "We played well enough to win. We got a performance like Trevon Blueitt had shooting the ball. We took care of the ball which was a big problem of ours early in the year and at certain times it has plagued us. It sucks. I don’t know how to explain it other than, we talked about it for two days. God love Mick, that’s how his teams play. They play hard, they play with an edge, they rebound the ball, and you’re either going to get punked or you’re not. We got punked. We talked about it – what is today, Thursday? – we talked about it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, in every huddle during the game. But talk is cheap and you have to be able to do it.”
It was a memorable game from start to finish. Both sides will remember Bluiett's ridiculous first half that totally stunned Xavier fans and overcame Cincinnati fans with that familiar nauseous "here we go again" feeling as the Musketeers trotted into the locker rooms with a 44-36 lead after knocking down 10-of-15 from deep in the first half.
Fans on either side will also remember Cincinnati's total domination on the offensive glass that led to momentous shots by Caupain and Evans. They'll remember the local kid, Cumberland, completely dominating an extended stretch of the second half while displaying a level of fire and confidence that felt like an homage to the stars of Shootouts past.
Xavier struggled on the defensive glass from the opening tip. The Bearcats had seven offensive rebounds and 11 points on second opportunities in the first half. The Musketeers' inability to defend Caupain, Evans, and Cumberland off of the dribble without fouling in the second half forced them into a 1-3-1 zone for an extended period. That only allowed UC to blitz them on the glass even more.
"I would tell you, in my opinion, the offensive rebounding is a tenant of them playing the 1-3-1 (zone)," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "It's a weakness of that defense. If you don't turn it over against that defense, it's tough to rebound out of that defense. I played it in high school so I know."
Caupain nailed the dagger shot for Cincinnati. After melting the shot clock while dribbling at the top of the key with UC leading 81-77, he took one dribble forward and rose up for the triple from the top of the key. His shot rattled in to put the Bearcats ahead 84-77 at the one-minute mark, sealing the win.
Caupain's big play was preceded by even bigger moments from Evans and Cumberland.
Cumberland buried a three from the left wing with 12:30 to play to draw the Bearcats within one, 52-51, as part of a 15-2 run.
After a tip-in by Evans for UC's 16th second-chance point of the game, Cumberland grabbed a rebound and drove the length of the floor for a hoop and a foul to give Cincinnati its first lead since the 12:32 mark of the first half, 55-54. Moments later he drilled a three from well behind the line on the right wing to make the score, 65-61. Another 3-point play by Cumberland with six minutes left, put the Bearcats ahead 72-63. He scored 13 points in an eight-minute stretch.
"There was a point in the game where I thought Jarron Cumberland totally carried us and changed the game," Cronin said.
Bluiett drove and scored to bring Xavier back within one, 76-75, with 3:30 to play. Caupain missed a three on the ensuing trip up the court, but Gary Clark snatched an offensive rebound and kicked it out to Evans for a three to put UC up by four. JP Macura responded by missing an ill-advised 3-pointer that was well-guarded from a few feet behind the line. Evans then made a pair of free-throws after drawing a foul on Bernard. XU never seriously threatened again.
There were positives for Xavier in the loss.
For starters, seeing Bluiett perform and shoot the ball like he did on one of the biggest stages of the year was a great sign. After playing well against Georgetown, freshman Quentin Goodin played one of his best games of the year on Thursday night. He finished with seven points (2-5 FG), six assists, and one turnover in 15 minutes. He even nailed a three in the first half. Also, freshman Tyrique Jones came off the bench and logged 12 minutes due to the struggles in the frontcourt, particularly on the defensive glass, and finished with six points and five rebounds before fouling out. He looked good at the free-throw line, sinking 4-of-5 with mostly swishes.
However, after this loss, the concerns with this Xavier team weigh heavier on the minds of fans. The Musketeers have been a great defensive rebounding team most of the year, but they've struggled all along with talented frontcourts. Mack playing Jones during crunch time minutes was a telling statement about his confidence in RaShid Gaston and Sean O'Mara against big-time opponents. Gaston finished with no points while going 0-for-5 from the field with four rebounds and a turnover in 20 minutes. O'Mara didn't score either. He was 0-for-2 from the field with three boards and a turnover in eight minutes.
"Man, we had some soft guys on the interior tonight," Mack said. "I was really disappointed. We knew that we wouldn’t be as effective rebounding the ball out of our zone. We felt like maybe we could get some deflections but UC handled it much better than they did a year ago. We felt like that would happen on their home floor. We couldn’t match their effort, we couldn’t match their intensity. When you get blocked out you do one of two things, you surrender to an offensive rebounder or you find a way and you swim around. Their intensity, their effort and their want was greater than ours. C’mon, 30-second chance points? Nineteen offensive rebounds? You’re not winning the game, and that to me is the reason for the loss.”
Sumner mostly deferred throughout the game, in large part because Bluiett was so hot and Cincinnati was selling out to clog the lane early in the game. However, he struggled to finish, looked hesitant at times, and is clearly bothered by his shoulder injury. He finished with six points and was 1-for-7 from the field (0-3 3PT) with seven assists and two turnovers in 25 minutes.
This was another game that saw the Musketeers allow their opponent to go on a massive second half run due to breakdowns in multiple areas and relinquish control after playing a strong first half. Xavier only recorded eight stops over 33 second half possessions as Cincinnati averaged 1.47 points per possession and shot 51.5 percent from the field after halftime. On the other end of the court, Xavier was 8-of-30 from the field (26.7%) with Sumner and Macura each making 1-of-6 field goal attempts. The fact that the Musketeers allowed similar runs in the second halves of losses at Baylor, at Colorado, and at Butler makes this trend even more concerning.
Xavier doesn't need to be in panic mode yet. None of the Musketeers' losses have taken them out of contention for a solid at-large bid, even with six of them piled up now, but the upside for this season has definitely been diminished with them missing all four of their opportunities for a signature road win. With Creighton dropping quickly due to the loss of Mo Watson, the Musketeers' best road game left on the schedule will likely be at Marquette, currently ranked 31st in KenPom.
"I’m not a pessimist by nature, I am an optimist, so I don’t get down, I just give our players reality," Mack said. "There are areas we have to get better. But we are going to keep fighting, we have to try and improve in some areas, we’re obviously giving up way too many points. Rebounding has not been an issue for us all year, but we also haven’t played teams like Cincinnati is on the glass.”
The season is far from over but, if Xavier doesn't find a solution or workaround for some of the aforementioned concerns, the Big East conference will be unforgiving over the final 11 games.