March College Basketball

March is here. That most wondrous, glorious time in which both the NCAA Tournament and baseball’s Opening Day both happen. This post I’m focusing on the former. It’s been a mixed bag of a season for our area teams. Let’s take a look at where they stand, relative to the tournament.

All records are as of March 4th, 2019

 

The Shoe-ins

 

Kentucky Wildcats (24-5) – John Calipari has these Cats currently projected to be a 2 seed in the dance. Considering everyone outside the bluegrass basically wrote them off after they began the season getting smashed by Duke, Kentucky just proves that losses in November mean very little in March. Keldon Johnson figures to be the highest draft pick from this squad, but this may be one of the most cohesive teams Coach Cal has ever put together. They defend like nobody’s business. KenPom has them rated top-10 (#9) in adjusted defense. They’ve also got Tyler Herro, whose last name says it all. They could very well be a 1 seed with a SEC Tournament victory.

 

Cincinnati Bearcats (25-4) – Yeah, that record is the exact same as Kentucky. Sure, they’ve had different roads to get to where they are, but considering this is technically a rebuilding year, that is amazing. They lost the best player the program has seen since Kenyon Martin, in Gary Clark, another NBA-caliber player in Jacob Evans, and a strong post presence in Kyle Washington. They’ve followed that up by producing the favorite to win conference player of the year, in Jaron Cumberland, ad sticking to the top of the conference standings. Mick Cronin has truly done a great job with his team slotted in as a 7 seed with a possibility, if they win the American Athletic Conference Tournament, of a 6 seed. Like the Wildcats, the Bearcats are a well-knit unit of a team. Mick has these guys rolling like a family who is fighting for each other. They could be a sneaky pick to make it out of the first weekend in the tournament, though I do not expect them to in order for me to be happy with their season.

 

The Bubblers

 

Dayton Flyers (19-10) – The Flyers have had an up-and-down year and may need to just flat out win their conference tourney to make the big dance. Their recent OT loss to Rhode Island at UD Arena has emphasized their desperation. They came really close to signature, non-conference wins in the early season, but couldn’t finish them off. They would have been in a better position had they beaten Virginia Commonwealth once. The NET rankings, the new standard for the tournament, currently has them at 74. Making the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals could sneak them in, but Anthony Grant’s side may have their backs against the wall for an at-large bid.

 

Xavier Musketeers (16-13) – It is an absolute shock that they are in this conversation, but here we are. A few weeks ago they were left for dead. A truly rough January, where they won just two games in seven, had them in dead last for the Big East. Travis Steele was being seen as a bust…in his first year, but whatevs…and then things change. Naji Marshall morphs into the player he was expected to be, coming into the year, and has taken over the Trevon Blueitt role of putting the team on his back when they are in need of a basket. After a loss to DePaul on February 9th, the Musketeers got to work. They beat Creighton in OT, smashed Providence on the road, and then loudly proclaimed their comeback by soundly beating Villanova by a dozen. Now it feels like, if they can finish strong against Butler and St. Johns, followed by a deep Big East tournament run, they could steal an at-large bid. Like Dayton, they may have their backs to the wall and need a Big East Conference tournament title to get in. Unlike Dayton, three weeks ago, this seemed as farfetched as the existence of aliens. Yet, here we are.

 

You must be a Conference Tournament Title Winner to ride the ride

 

Northern Kentucky Norse (23-8) – The Norse hit a speed bump on February 23 when Cleveland State, on NKU’s senior night, left Highland Heights with a win. The second-to-the-bottom Cleveland State Vikings snapped the Norse’s 20-game home winning streak and threw water on any argument they had at an at-large bid, should they not win the Horizon League Tournament. Now Drew McDonald is a special player and broke the school record for most points, but he will need to lead the Norse to a tourney title in order to dance.

 

Wright State Raiders (19-12) – Like the Norse, they split the regular season championship for the Horizon League. Unlike NKU, Wright State never had a whisper of an at-large bid. Cleveland State help them split the regular season with the rival Norse, but now the Raiders need to win the Horizon League tournament to make it in. Led by Sophomore Loudon Love (15 ppg), Wright State’s run to a conference title starts tomorrow night at the Nutter Center against IUPUI.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, let’s enjoy our area teams finishing up their respective seasons!

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Happy Veterans Day Weekend, Cincinnati

It’s Friday and my mind is focused on a three day weekend, but I did want to impart some thoughts on the world of Cincinnati sports for this weekend.

The Bearcats football team has a massive matchup this Saturday night. USF comes into Cincinnati an underdog, but I do not believe they’re as bad as the line (UC favored by two touchdowns), but this is definitely a winnable game for UC. It all comes down to focus. Luke Fickell had the boys ready for Navy’s triple option offense, a running attack that put up the loftiest rushing total by an opponent in Bearcats history, last year. This year, though, the Bearcats held them to just over two yards a carry. Now Fickell has to keep his team reigned in as they approach a monster matchup with the best team in the conference, the “defending national champion” Central Florida Knights. South Florida is not good in the cold, and it will be coooooold tomorrow night. Still, the Bearcats cannot take them for granted, as the Bulls were undefeated and ranked in the Top-25, as soon as three weeks ago.

The Xavier Musketeers play their second game of the season on Saturday, against Evansville. Another solid mid-major opponent for the Muskies to grow against. The question will be, will Naji Marshall return to the floor in this one? Didn’t have him in the opener and they got by, it will be difficult against a solid squad from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Men of Steele found a way to win, forcing turnovers late, we will see if that trend continues. Xavier hasn’t had a good defense in the past few years, but if they consistently force turnovers, there’s your defense.

The Cincinnati professional football team may be smashed this Sunday. They may also (tiny chance) win. The New Orleans professional football team is really good. They have a future hall of famer at quarterback and, possibly, a future hall of famer at coach. They have oodles of talent at running back and wide receiver. They are also coming off a huge win to knock the Los Angeles professional football team off their undefeated pedestal and have to travel to a non-conference opponent and play in dismal weather. Not the brightest, most motivational backstory for the fleur de lis-wearing pigskin professionals, but they are a much better team (given injuries) than that of the Orange and Black. Honestly, if Marvin Lewis’ men come out on top, I will be pleasantly surprised, but if they don’t it won’t even phase me. The all-important game for the Bengals is next week, in Baltimore, against the Ravens. So long as they don’t come out of this week’s game with even more injuries than they are already plagued with, I think they’ll be fine. Also, a personal reason I wouldn’t mind the Bengals losing, is I will be at a wedding watching on my phone. Shout out to Zack on his big day (holler at me if you actually read this, bro).

Two Reds rumors circulating have me feeling a certain way. The first is that some teams are interested in Eugenio Suarez. Well, so are we in Cincinnati, frankly, and I do not want to see him traded. The other rumor is very encouraging, and that is the Cleveland Indians are open to trading away their ace, Corey Kluber. Now, it will require a king’s ransom, but go for it, Reds! He is one of the best pitchers in the game. He will cost a few top prospects, but he is also the kind of pitcher who will bring the wins. He’s under control for a few years, so it won’t be a rental, which gives the Reds the perfect pitcher to build their rotation around. Plus, I am sure Derek Johnson will enjoy having a vet like Kluber to be the “stopper” of the rotation. I am a Cincinnati sports optimist, to a fault, but I am excited by what’s going on around Great American Ballpark.

Here’s to a three-day weekend, for some of us and Happy Veteran’s Day!

College Basketball, Previewing the Queen City

It’s that wonderful time of year when college basketball begins. I’ve taken a look at the area teams (and one not in the area) and will give you what you should watch for this year with each one. This post is specifically about the two big schools that call the Queen City home. That’s the American dream, right? Someone who tells you what to think about?

Cincinnati Bearcats (31-5, 16-2 American), Head Coach – Mick Cronin

Oh no, whatever will Mick do? He’s lost Jacob Evans. He’s lost Kyle Washington. He’s even lost Gary Clark. There are now no more problems for opponents! Clark is gone! Mick is on the other side of the table, smiling. He knows he has a good front court tandem, in Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott, to go along with a trio of guards who could play for just about every team in the country. Jaron Cumberland is a very gifted guard, Cane Broom can be the floor general, and Justin Jenifer will lock down the opposing team’s best guard. They won’t miss a beat on the defensive end, and may be more balanced, offensively. Plus, there’s the added boost of the new Fifth-Third Arena. The Bearcats home got an upgrade, and now, instead of that old driftwood, there’s some nice, sleek wood flooring in there. It’s a proper arena. Basketball is back, and I am looking forward to seeing some games at the shiny new place.

Predicting the team MVP – Tre Scott. It might seem easy to say Jaron Cumberland, here, but I think Scott is a better version of Kyle Washington. He’s athletic and quick in the post and can put up a nice jumper. Going to be a new problem for opposing defenses.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. I was tempted to say the Wichita State games, and those will be phenomenal, but come on. Few things in college basketball beat out the Crosstown Shootout, and this time it’s at Fifth-Third.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Bearcats will enjoy their second-straight year on top of the American and will have a two-seed in the tournament. Look, this team will be able to put up the points it keeps other teams from scoring. Mick will have plenty of weapons, on both sides of the ball, and will be able to employ a defensive scheme that will baffle 9-out of-10 teams.


Xavier Musketeers (29-6, 15-3 Big East), Head Coach – Travis Steele

This is the new Xavier. No Chris Mack. No Trevon Blueitt. No J.P. Macura. No Kerem Kanter. This will not be the juggernaut of last year, but it won’t be bad. New head man, Steele, already has a snappy nickname placed upon his team: “The Men of Steele.” Sometimes I like it, sometimes I roll my eyes, regardless, there’s still a lot to like about the Musketeers. First off, Quentin Goodin stepped in and showed his quality, last year, whenever they needed him to. Naji Marshall also returns to anchor the frontcourt that is now without its leader in Kanter. Steele knows Xavier, he was a great hire, and will lead this team with little deviation from the way Mack led. The Big East is up for grabs, and Xavier is in the mix.

Predicting the team MVP – Naji Marshall. He will lead the team in the important things, things they didn’t have last year. He will lead their defense, which I have a feeling will be improved, and will pull down a lot of rebounds.

Best game to watch – The Crosstown Shootout. All due respect to Villanova and other Big East powerhouse games, the Crosstown Shootout is the second biggest game in the city of Cincinnati, all year, in any sport. Only Opening Day for the Reds beats it.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – We will look at the job that Travis Steele did in one year and just about forget about Chris Mack. No offense to Mack, he was an amazing coach, but Steele will not miss a beat and Xavier will constantly be in the discussion for the Big East crown.

Check out the other previews of area college basketball:

The Gem City Previews

The Blue Grass Previews

Miami (OH) and Missouri State Previews

Follow @jefffcarr and @sportsinnati on Twitter