Weekend Homework: Take notice of Xavier, Cincinnati

— -- The O.J. Simpson highway chase. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Genocide in Rwanda. A World Cup in the United States. Kurt Cobain's suicide. "Pulp Fiction."

Cincinnati and Xavier meeting as top-25 opponents.

That's right: The last time the Bearcats and Musketeers were both ranked at tipoff of their annual rivalry game was in 1994. Bob Huggins was the coach at No. 19 Cincinnati, with Pete Gillen in charge of No. 22 Xavier. The Musketeers' 82-76 overtime win, their first in four years during the series, was memorable not only for the stakes but for Huggins' refusal to shake Gillen's hand after the game.

"The resultant uproar had the city buzzing for days," the Cincinnati Enquirer's Tom Groeschen writes.

Had this happened today, you're talking a Manziel-level Twitterpalooza.

Twenty-one years is a long time -- long enough to marvel at the gulf between that media culture and this one; long enough for Pearl Jam to show up on classic rock radio. It's ample time for an ugly brawl to threaten one of the sport's best continuous rivalries and for cooler heads to eventually prevail -- the brawl also forced the Crosstown Shootout to become the Crosstown Classic only to switch back again. It's a span wide enough for the rivalry's members to fit in 33 combined NCAA tournaments and seven Sweet 16s.

This week's 82nd game between the two that will end that span feels both momentous and like a trick of timing. How on earth has this not happened sooner? And are the 2015-16 Bearcats and Musketeers really that much better than their predecessors?

Saturday's Crosstown Shootout is a wonderful opportunity to find out.

Xavier appears to be very much for real. Through nine games, the Musketeers are not only unbeaten but as yet unchallenged. They have been held to a single-digit margin of victory (nine points) just once all season ( Nov. 13's opener against Miami of Ohio). At the Advocare Invitational, Chris Mack's team rolled Alabama by 19, handled USC by 10 and gave Dayton, which won at Vanderbilt on Wednesday, a 90-61 title-game thrashing. None of those was even Xavier's most impressive win of the season: That distinction belongs to an 86-70 blowout of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Musketeers have scored 1.13 points per possession. They've allowed .92. That performance, adjusted for competition, has made them one of the top teams in the country to date. This is one of the best two-way rebounding teams in any league anywhere, one rebounding 39 percent of its opponents' misses on the offensive end (No. 18 nationally) and 81 percent on defense (No. 2). Shockingly, the loss of senior center Matt Stainbrook from last season's Sweet 16 team hasn't hurt a bit, at least not yet. Forwards Jalen Reynolds and James Farr are gobbling up rebounds, extending possessions, wearing down opposing interiors and providing a perfect complement to a group of guards that feast on open looks from the wings. (Farr, by the way, is hauling in 21 percent of his team's misses and 29 percent of the opponents' when he's on the floor. Dude is a beast.) Throw in the general excellence of Trevon Bluiett, the steadiness of Myles Davis, a breakout sophomore season from J.P. Macura and the emergence of redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner, and there are no real holes in Mack's rotation, no obvious flaws to exploit or strengths to minimize. It's just good, tough, well-rounded basketball -- and the result, at least so far, is the best Xavier team in years.

Cincinnati doesn't quite have Xavier's bona fides; the Bearcats' schedule hasn't been nearly as tough. Their toughest game -- a home date with Butler -- resulted in a two-point loss at the buzzer. Cincy did hold George Washington (which, as you'll recall, got wherever it wanted against the typically stingy Virginia Cavaliers on the opening night of the season) to just 56 points in 60 possessions on Nov. 28, which is impressive enough. And they are just two points from entering the weekend undefeated in their own right. Still, at this stage, it is not unfair to say that of the two teams at the Cintas Center this weekend, coach Mick Cronin's is the one with more to prove.

Weakish schedule aside, Cincinnati appears to be a slightly better version of the kind of team Cronin almost always puts on the floor: tough, physical, obsessed with rebounds and devoted to the grind. Thus far, the Bearcats have managed to hold opponents to the third-lowest 2-point shooting percentage (36.5) in college basketball. They also are managing to force steals and turnovers -- and block a bunch of shots -- all while yielding the nation's fifth-lowest free throw rate (21.7 percent) to opposing teams.

The one downside to blocked shots -- and the rotations they typically require -- is weakside holes, and so far Cincy's lone defensive issue is its tendency to give up second chances. Which just so happens to be the last thing you want to do against Xavier.

Then again, who knows? Rivalries are weird. This one, with its annual meetings, fever-pitch drama and various levels of participant success, somehow went 21 years between ranked matchups. When the ball is tipped, Saturday's Crosstown Shootout will put that quirk of history to bed, and then we can spend the next two hours finding out just how much better each team is after all.


Florida Gators at Michigan State Spartans
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2

OK, so the contestant pool was slightly limited for this particular award, and by "slightly limited" we mean "literally reduced to exactly one combination of two teams." Anyway, revisiting the footage from the Spartans-Gators national title clash is a fantastic way to make yourself feel old: Tom Izzo looks like he's about 30, Billy Donovan looks younger than that and the Final Four court design is a hot, turn-of-the-millennium mess. What would have been an Izzo-Donovan reunion was scrapped by the latter's decision to leave Florida for the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer. That departure, alongside Florida's rough 2014-15, has also surely contributed to the Mike White-led Gators not receiving much notice despite playing top-five defense so far in 2015-16. Izzo is treating Florida's visit as a major nonconference clash, and that's not just nostalgia talking.

Utah Utes at Wichita State Shockers
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

As we discussed earlier this week, it's not easy being an elite team in a mid-major conference: The résumé-building window simply isn't as large as that of major-conference teams. For the Shockers, who lost Fred VanVleet to a hamstring injury and then lost three straight games at the Advocare Invitational, that window has almost closed. Saturday's game against Utah is something like a must-win, a way for coach Gregg Marshall's obviously good team to give itself some small breathing room before entering MVC play. The idea of Wichita State missing the NCAA tournament in VanVleet and Ron Baker's final season seems insane. But that the possibility has already crept in to the back of our minds is the best indication we can offer for just how little margin for error the Shockers, and teams like them, have.

UCLA Bruins at Gonzaga Bulldogs
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Speaking of which, there is no better analogue for Wichita State than Gonzaga, which has been in the "elite program in a mid-major conference" game since we can remember. The similarities hold true this season too. An injury to a key player (Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski) has left the Zags in diminished form, sweating out games you would otherwise expect them to win -- from last Saturday's second-half collapse at home against Arizona to Tuesday's 61-58 win (in 67 possessions), also at home, against Montana. The last time Gonzaga -- which has the pure best scorer in the country in Kyle Wiltjer -- averaged more than a point per trip in a game was Nov. 27. This is unusual. And it's not all the fault of injury. The Zags' starting backcourt, charged with the collective replacement of four-year seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, had nearly as many turnovers (seven) as points (eight) in the loss to the Wildcats. UCLA's frontcourt of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh manhandled Kentucky last week and matches up fairly well with Wiltjer and forward Domantas Sabonis, to boot. If there was ever a time for Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis to lift their team to a solid nonconference win, this would be it.

Arizona State Sun Devils at Kentucky Wildcats
Saturday, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Will Arizona State win in Rupp Arena? Almost certainly not. It's that "almost" part that is troublesome. Not only are the Sun Devils coming off a pretty impressive lockdown of Texas A&M, they will have had seven days between that game and this week's trip to Lexington to prepare for the Wildcats. ASU coach Bobby Hurley has proven himself uniquely adept at such preparations. And as UCLA showed -- albeit in the Bruins' own gym -- a well-prepared team, one that packs in its defense and dares the Wildcats (currently shooting 27.5 percent from 3, good for 325th in Division I) to shoot, can absolutely dictate the terms. Kentucky fans are perhaps not the world's most patient, and they have echoed coach John Calipari's criticisms of the Wildcats as lacking in toughness. Complaints about freshman center Skal Labissiere's disappointing start are widespread. If ASU somehow pulls this thing off -- and the Sun Devils almost certainly won't -- UK fans will be officially slamming the panic button en masse.

Alabama Crimson Tide at Clemson Tigers
Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Finally, the matchup everyone has been waiting to see: Clemson's high-flying offense against Nick Saban's defense, Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson going up against ... what's that? This is a basketball game? Oh, right. Nevermind