CINCINNATI — Gary Clark spent the week preparing Cincinnati's newcomers for the city's passionate basketball rivalry.
"I usually just say it's your biggest rivalry in high school times 100 with a bunch of people (in the stands) who really do not like you whatsoever," said Clark, a senior. "Don't even look at anybody in the stands. Stay connected. If one guy gets jitters or loses his focus, the ship can go south."
There's more than bragging rights on the line. Both teams are nationally ranked and off to impressive starts as they get ready to play Saturday at Xavier's Cintas Center.
No. 11 Cincinnati (7-0) has used its easy schedule so far to get its newcomers adjusted and develop depth that will be invaluable for this showdown. The Bearcats have lost seven of 10 in the series, although they won 86-78 last season. They haven't won at Xavier since 2001, when Bob Huggins was the coach. They've dropped their last six on Xavier's court.
"It's been a long time since we've won over there," coach Mick Cronin said.
The No. 21 Musketeers (6-1) already have wins at Wisconsin and at home last Tuesday over No. 16 Baylor , which was unbeaten coming into the game. Their one loss was to Arizona State in a tournament in Las Vegas, which showed Xavier its defensive shortcomings at the time. The Musketeers were much better in their win over Baylor.
Not that they spent any time savoring it, given what's next.
"We're not going to celebrate at all," point guard Quentin Goodin said. "We'll turn our focus to the next game."
This one grabs the attention. The basketball rivalry between two schools located less than 3 miles apart has provided big moments for both programs. There was Xavier's 71-69 upset of then-No. 1 Cincinnati on the Bearcats' home court in 1996. The worst moment in the series was an on-court brawl that ended Xavier's 76-53 victory at the Cintas Center in 2011 and resulted in suspensions by both teams.
Last season, Xavier's Trevon Bluiett scored a career-high 40 points when the Bearcats won on their home court. He'll be the focus of Cincinnati's defense Saturday.
"Try to not let him shoot and hope that he doesn't make guarded 3s," Cronin said. "I thought we did a pretty good job last time, but sometimes a kid just has an unbelievable game. Fortunately we were able to win in spite of him."
Bluiett had a stiff back against Baylor, moved cautiously on the floor, and finished with only 10 points, missing all four of his shots from beyond the arc. His health will be a factor.
Xavier's tough stretch of opening games has gotten the Musketeers ready for a high-profile game. Cincinnati hasn't been challenged the same way, which is Cronin's biggest concern. The Bearcats' closest call was a 73-67 victory over Buffalo.
"I think they have an advantage," Cronin said. "We haven't played anybody yet that's really been able to take our offense away from us, so to speak, and they'll be able to do that. They're not going to let us just throw the ball to Gary Clark whenever we want. It's not going to be that easy."
Xavier has won 34 straight nonconference home games, with the last loss 56-55 to Wofford on Dec. 22, 2012. The Musketeers are 232-35 all-time at the Cintas Center, where students will camp out overnight to get seats behind the visitors' basket.
"They're really good, and I think we're really good," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It's going to be an unbelievable game for the city. Again, there is no pressure when you're playing these types of teams — Baylor, Cincinnati. History will show that when you drop one, nobody gets penalized.
"Having said that, we don't want to drop it on Saturday."