The Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers basketball programs don’t exactly like each other. The history between the two programs who share the same city is one filled with its share of barbed comments, clapbacks and the occasional on-court scrap. The Bearcats dominated the first 46 games of the series, going 34-12, but things have swung Xavier’s way over the past 30 years with the Musketeers winning 23 of the last 39 contests including this year’s game 89-76 back in December. Both schools have amassed over 1,400 wins, and yet, until recent years, it seems they had to fight to get in the national spotlight.
Maybe it was due to the style of basketball that both schools have espoused over time, leaning more towards physical, hard-nosed defensive teams that keep scores low and highlights few and far between. But, there’s no ignoring these two schools this year. Mick Cronin’s Bearcats and Chris Mack’s Musketeers are both ranked inside the Top 5 of the AP Top 25 poll for the first time ever. Xavier leads the Big East, thanks to Villanova’s recent missteps, while Cincy is dominating the American, Thursday’s loss against Houston notwithstanding.
With a big game on tap this weekend for #4 Xavier as they host #3 Villanova, and #5 Cincy meeting #19 Wichita State this weekend, we checked in with CBS Sports Network college basketball insider Gary Parrish to break down these teams and the weekend slate of CBS games.
CBS Local Sports: Want to start with Cincinnati and Xavier, two programs in the Top 5 of the AP poll together for the first time ever. As we get closer to tournament time, do you see these two teams as Final Four contenders?
Gary Parrish: I think so. Sometimes people forget what Final Four means. It’s not the four best teams, it’s almost never the four best teams. In fact, I believe for the past five seasons we’ve had a seven seed or worse make it to the Final Four. So, if you do the math on that (4 x 7 = 28), basically, if you’re a Top 30 team in America, you’ve got a chance, a realistic chance to get to the Final Four. Obviously with Cincinnati and Xavier we’re talking about I think two of the best 10 teams in the country and they’re certainly ranked that way in the AP poll. I don’t know that either will get there, but I think both can get there absolutely.
CBS Local Sports: Xavier’s been near the top of the Big East the past several years, but hasn’t been able to get past the Villanova roadblock. Is this the year they take the conference? If so, why?
Gary Parrish: I think they are going to get past and I think they’re going to win on Saturday. Once they knock that out, they’ll have a two game lead in the Big East standings heading into the remaining games on their schedule and they’ve only got three, in which they’ll be favored in every one. So, basically, it becomes a math problem at that point for Villanova, they’re not going to be able to catch them. So, unless Villanova wins at Xavier, that streak of four consecutive Big East titles is coming to an end. Xavier is going to be your Big East champion.
CBS Local Sports: Their rival, Cincinnati, has been rolling through conference play as well, 12-1 with the loss to Houston last night, what has made them so successful this year in the AAC?
Gary Parrish: They’ve got a real identity. They know who they are. They’re not going to go out and try to outscore you, they’re just going to guard you like crazy, offensive rebound like crazy and they’re going to take the ball away from you. And then, they’re good enough on the offensive end to score more points than you in a 40 minute basketball game.
Obviously, last night at Houston, they got caught on the road, but it was a loss to a Top 30 Ken Pom team. It’s not the worst thing in the world, it doesn’t really hurt their resume too much. I just think Mick Cronin’s done a good job, year-after-year, regardless of roster turnover, still creating a team where he’s older than a lot of elite teams in college basketball, tougher, and built with guys that know exactly who they are. It got off to a bit of a slow start when he replaced Bobby Huggins, he really had to rebuild from basically nothing. But, now that he’s got it going, he’s kept it going pretty consistently and I think this might be the best team he’s ever had.
CBS Local Sports: Turning our attention to some of this weekend’s match-ups on the network, Miami hosts Syracuse. Who needs the win this weekend more in terms of tournament chances?
Gary Parrish: Probably Syracuse because they are very much on the bubble and that’s not where that program tends to live. That’s a situation where they’ve had a Hall of Fame coach in place for a long time and he’s been in the NCAA Tournament more often than not.
So, Miami, even though this season hasn’t been what any of us thought it was going to be, they’ve now lost two straight to drop to 7-6 in ACC play, they’re still safely on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Syracuse on the other hand, needs quality wins. If you can get one at Miami, that would be a Quadrant 1 win which is the type that the NCAA Tournament selection committee made clear over the weekend that they prefer.
CBS Local Sports: Kentucky is struggling and now faces Alabama this weekend, what’s different about this Wildcats teams from past Calipari teams because I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like this from his team?
Gary Parrish: We’ve never seen anything like this only because of the basic fact that they’ve lost four straight games and John Calipari has never had a four-game losing streak at Kentucky. His last four-game losing streak as a coach was in 2005 when he was the head coach at Memphis and the Tigers lost the last four games of the regular season in advance of the C-USA tournament where Darius Washington famously missed a couple of free throws with zeroes on the clock that prevented Memphis from going to the NCAA Tournament.
This is new stuff for Cal at Kentucky. But, I don’t think it means what so many people think it means. I was asked earlier today by someone if Kentucky is going to miss the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, the accurate answer to that is maybe, but, I don’t think so. They would still right now, if you had to put a bracket together, be an 8-seed. They’re still safely away from the bubble.
Kentucky’s fine, but they are different and they’re different in this way. They’ve got five-star freshman all over the court, just like always. But, I think what we’ve learned is all five-star freshmen are not created the same. For example, Kevin Knox is really good, but he’s not Anthony Davis. Hamidou Diallo is a good five-star recruit, but he’s not DeAaron Fox. In other words, I don’t think this Kentucky team has a Top 10 pick on its roster. If that’s true, this is going to be the first time since 2007 that John Calipari has not coached a freshman who was not picked in the Top 10 in the subsequent NBA Draft. They’re just not as talented at the top of the roster right now.
CBS Local Sports: Ohio State has been a great story all season in the Big Ten, jumping to first place in the conference in Chris Holtmann’s first season. But, their two losses have both come against Penn State, the most recent a 79-56 blowout last night. How do they rebound this Sunday against Michigan?
Gary Parrish: They have to rebound because not only did they get beat, but they got beat bad by Penn State and now they’re in a tie with Michigan State atop the Big Ten. But, Chris Holtmann has run that thing remarkably well this season. To get the job in June, an odd time in the calendar and only because the athletic director at Ohio State concluded, accurately, if I’m going to make a coaching change at the end of the 2017-18 season if we’re not good and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be, why wouldn’t I make the change now? That’s how Chris got the job at Ohio State.
Then they were picked 11th in the preseason Big Ten poll. They weren’t supposed to be good. They’re sitting here, the middle of February, tied atop the Big Ten standings. That’s National Coach of the Year stuff.
Big picture, they’re fine even though Thursday night they got beat up pretty good. Now, you’ve got to go to Michigan and play a road game against a Michigan team that’s likely going to be in the NCAA Tournament. I’m not certain they’re going to be able to get that win, so a two-game losing streak is possibly on the horizon. But, the very worst case scenario is Monday Ohio State wakes up with a 13-3 record in the Big Ten. That’s pretty incredible even if, right now, things don’t seem to be going so well.