CINCINNATI, Ohio – Four teams ranked in the top 19. Two games over two days, 10 miles apart, played with the sense of urgency that mid-February brings.
How No. 3 Villanova and No. 4 Xavier, and No 5 Cincinnati and No. 19 Wichita State spent their weekend on the banks of the Ohio River:
(Hint: The two visitors left town feeling exhilarated. The two hosts stayed behind, frustrated and with some flaws to fix)
You’re Villanova, and it’s Saturday . . .
“It’s easy to say,” coach Jay Wright would note, “but it’s hard to do.”
The last time you lost two in a row was 2013. That was nearly five years ago. You’re 152-20 since. But now you’re in one of the hardest places for a visitor to win in the nation, and besides that, your ownership of the conference is under siege. You’ve been regular season champions all four years of the new Big East. Not exactly Kansas in the Big 12, but pretty impressive. And here’s Xavier, with a 1 ½-game lead, thinking it’s time for a change.
What it’s time for is – yep – Villanova Basketball. That phrase you use until the cows come home.
You nearly blow a 19-point lead and the packed house is screaming for your blood, but then you commit two turnovers the second half, and hit 13 of 15 from 2-point territory, and hand out assists on 25 of 38 field goals, and win 95-79, letting the world know you’re not going anywhere. Not with March this close.
“I think we wanted to send ourselves a message,” guard Donte DiVincenzo says. “Not necessarily about the title race or anything, but about playing Villanova basketball.
“I think the best thing for us today was we could look each other in the eye after the game and know we played Villanova basketball.”
Your future opponents should be worried at the very phrase.
“I think they showed each other something,” Wright says, adding what counsel his veterans sent to the younger guys in time of crisis against Xavier. “We’ve been here. This is what we come to experience, this is what we want.
“A coach can’t do that. The players either do that for each other, or they don’t.”
There has been a nationwide search all this tumultuous season for a dominant team. Might it be Villanova?
“They were tonight,” Xavier coach Chris Mack says. “If they shoot the ball the way they did today, it will take a monumental effort to beat them.”
You’re Wichita State, and it’s Sunday.
You returned just about everybody but the trumpet player from last season’s 31-5 team that nearly took out Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, and you were expected to go eyeball-to-eyeball with Cincinnati in your first American conference tour as a top-10 national contender. But then came some injuries and uneven play and you arrive at this weekend with three league defeats. You had four the past four years combined in the Missouri Valley.
“We lost to some good teams,” coach Gregg Marshall says, meaning the likes of a healthy Notre Dame and Oklahoma’s Trae Young, before he turned human. “The common theme is there’s a lot of great players out there, and when great players really play well, they’re hard to beat.”
Going into Cincinnati, No. 19 @GoShockersMBB tightened the race for the #AmericanHoops regular-season crown, knocking off No. 5 Cincinnati, 76-72, snapping the Bearcats' 39-game home court winning streak in the process.— American MBB (@American_MBB) February 19, 2018
Highlights from BB&T Arena: pic.twitter.com/XxZaociTEj
But Sunday is different, against a Cincinnati team that has won 39 consecutive home games. The Bearcats are your old rivals from the Missouri Valley Conference, but you haven’t seen them in 36 years. The place is seething to say hello; it was announced this week standing room only tickets would be on sale for $50. “As a competitor you have that circled,” Landry Shamet would say afterward about Sunday. “This one was one I was ready to play.”
It’s also billed as a red-out game, meaning nearly every human in the place is wearing red. Cincinnati is as hostile as it gets for visitors, but then again, you come in 46-8 the past five seasons on the road, and nobody else in the nation can say that.
The Cincinnati defense is one of the best – allowing only 36.5 percent shooting and 56.3 points a game. So when you hit 60 percent and lead 42-40 at halftime, the crowd seems a little unsettled. Temple had 19 points here at halftime, Memphis 16, UCF 13.
The second half is harder, but you make just enough plays to win 76-72. You hadn’t beaten a top-5 opponent on the road in 54 years. Suddenly, you look like the team all the fuss was about, just in time for March.
“Knowing everybody in the building hates you and wants you to lose, it just gets me going. I love playing in environments like that,” Shamet says after 19 points. “(But) I’ve never played in anything like that before.”
He mentions the post-game locker room celebration had “a lot of water everywhere,” which is why Marshall is so wet when he meets the media.
“Look at my shirt. The guys were excited. They’re in March form already,” he says. “Today we responded, so we’ve grown a little bit as a team. We’ve won some really good games. The win at Baylor’s looking very good, the win at Oklahoma State was good, this one was tremendous. We’ve beaten conference leaders. We sit at 21-5, and now all of a sudden, we’re hot again.”
Actually, Sunday was the fifth league leader you’ve beaten, so maybe that’ll help in the NCAA Tournament seedings. And you know how angry you’ve been about your seedings lately – not to mention several other perceptions of lack of respect.
“We have guys that play with a little chip on their shoulder, I coach with a little chip on my shoulder,” Marshall says. “It’s not a secret. We have to.
“I don’t care what league you’re in, when you’ve got the bullseye on your back and you have to go on the road and win a game . . . this is like the 50th red-out out or white-out or black-out. We feel comfortable when that happens.”
The last time Marshall walked out of locker room so wet? The NCAA Tournament first-round win over Dayton last March, he says.
“It’s an Ohio thing.”
You’re Xavier . . .
You have a senior core – Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O‘Mara – that has won 99 games. And wouldn’t this be a good weekend for No. 100.
You come into Saturday 244-35 here since Cintas Center opened 18 years ago; the fifth-best homecourt record for any arena in the nation. The only four better are Gonzaga, Oregon, Kentucky and Louisville – which means three of the five are within a hundred miles of one another. Kentucky-Louisville-Xavier: The Bermuda Triangle for visiting teams.
But not Villanova. Your addition has unquestionably been a boost for the Big East, but the hard fact is, you’re 1-10 against Villanova since joining the league, by an average margin of 18.4 points. So it’s clear who’s boss. You still cling to a half-game lead, but can you hold off the re-purposed Wildcats?
Also, what about the defense? You just gave up 51 points in the first half to Villanova, three days after allowing 65 points in the second half against Seton Hall. Both at home.
“We’ve just got to be tougher,” forward Naji Marshall says.
Mack tries to keep Saturday’s disappointment in perspective.
“You’ve got to make your own breaks when you’re trying to beat a team that has won as many league championships and been in as many big moments as they have . . . I’ve got to own the fact that we have to be better in those moments, and understand that when we’re playing an elite level team, the margin for error is very thin. I think our guys learned that.
“We’ve got a lot of season to play, we’ve got some good moments to come. Today wasn’t one of them . . . We also know we’re still playing for some things. We’re well aware of that. We’ve just got to be able to turn the page.”
You’re Cincinnati . . .
You haven’t lost in 39 consecutive home games, even if home this season is in another state. While your arena gets refitted, you’re playing across the river at Northern Kentucky.
But Thursday’s defeat at Houston snapped a 16-game winning streak, and there is this disquieting underside to a shiny 23-3 record: You have played only two ranked teams all season – Xavier and Florida – and lost to them both.
Sunday is a good chance to change that, but you don’t. That vaunted defense allows 52.9 percent shooting, and by nightfall, you’re looking at no more home court winning streak and an American lead down to one game, and yet to go to Wichita State. Seventy-two hours ago, you were 23-2. Now you’re 23-4, and still haven’t beaten a ranked opponent.
“Our defensive breakdowns are mind-boggling, to be quite honest with you,” coach Mick Cronin says. “You have to be committed to the uncomfortable things that go into winning, and right now, I have to do a better job of making sure my team is committed . . . We are not a juggernaut of NBA draft picks. That’s is not how we win.”
By Sunday night, Villanova and Wichita State have been renewed for the stretch. Meantime, it wasn’t a great weekend in Cincinnati, except for the concessions sales and ticket scalpers.