CINCINNATI — There were a couple minutes left in a first half of basketball that seemed so perfectly scripted by the Xavier Musketeers it deserved a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There still was time for more spectacle, though. So when Cincinnati Bearcats point guard Justin Jenifer chose to attack an XU post player by dropping down and double-teaming, the ball almost immediately found its way to star wing Trevon Bluiett at the top of the key.
Bluiett knew what to do at that moment. What he always does: He cut loose another accurate 3-point shot and dropped the Bearcats into a deeper hole.
They only had begun to climb out of that ditch by the middle of the second half, when Cincinnati guard Cane Broome stole the ball and fed it to gifted junior Jacob Evans to start a 3-on-2 break. Evans, as well, did what he so often does in these situations: He passed to an open teammate on the wing.
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Thus was the fundamental competitive difference between Xavier and Cincinnati exposed during Saturday afternoon’s episode of the annual Crosstown Shootout. XU’s most talented player embraces his responsibility as the Musketeers’ star. Cincinnati’s most talented player is content letting others set the tone.
That there were only five points difference in their scoring totals shows how empty stats sometimes can be in evaluating athletic performance. Evans’ box score line makes it appear as though he performed brilliantly: 23 points, 9-of-15 shooting, a single turnover. The numbers that tell the truth, though, are those in the final score: Xavier 89, Cincinnati 76.
Evans’ scoring wasn’t meaningless, because it did help provide at least an instant when Cincinnati had a chance at completing a comeback. But if he’d scored 18 points in the first 10 minutes instead of the last 10, the game would have developed much differently.
Instead, he was content to blend into the background as his teammates shot 10-of-26 from the field in the first half and Bluiett rang up 13 for the Musketeers in building a 43-30 lead.
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“He’s got such a quick trigger,” coach Chris Mack said. “When you have a guy that is as prolific of a 3-point shooter as Tre is, it helps the other guys … He’s just so dangerous. When he hits a couple, his confidence level is through the roof. I’m happy he’s gone out the right way in this game.”
Bluiett was one of the many productive juniors nationally who flirted with the idea of entering the NBA Draft last spring before deciding there was something to be gained through another year of college and college hoops.
He averaged 18.5 points last year and was the most important player in the team’s surprising run to the Elite Eight, but he has returned better in every category, in part because of hard work during the offseason, in part because he is part of a deeper, more talented and more experienced team, and in part because he completely embraces his role as a senior star.
He developed a reputation as a phenomenal deep shooter in 2016-17, but having to sometimes fire tough shots because the Musketeers had a thinner roster and too many injuries left his 3-point percentage at only .376. He’s at .465 this season, even after a 2-of-10 slump in a loss to Arizona State and a win over Baylor.
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Bluiett told Sporting News he arrived at XU four years ago believing he was a top player but willing to wait to learn from the program’s veterans before stepping forward as the primary option last season.
“I would say it was gradual, just coming in under the wings of the seniors, showing me the ropes,” Bluiett said. “And when it was my time, I’d have learned everything from the past players.”
It still is amazing to see that opponents will forget exactly whom they are defending and rotate away from Bluiett because that’s what might typically be the proper action. He is “a little bit” surprised when it happens, but also eager to make those opponents pay.
“I just feel like that comes with other players on our team getting their players out of position,” he said. “That creates a whole bunch of scrambling for everybody, which frees me up.”
Through three years, we have seen Evans improve significantly save for this one area. He has the talent to rank with the best players in college basketball. But one of the most important elements of ranking with the best players is believing you are one.
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When broadcast analysts admonish players such as Evans to “be more selfish,” it’s an untenable misdiagnosis of the issue. It’s not selfish for a scorer to score, for a shooter to shoot, any more than it is for a running back like Todd Gurley to rush forward with the football. That’s the job.
“You’ve got to look to be aggressive,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said, employing the exactly proper word. “That’s more of a question for him than me. He has a tendency to look for other people.”
Cincinnati did not lose this game because Evans did not score until late, not when it allowed Xavier to shoot 57 percent in the first half and to offensive rebound at a 42 percent rate for the game. The Bearcats attack was less that it could be, though, with Evans so much less active in the offense than Broome and senior forward Gary Clark.
The truth is that Clark is Cincinnati’s best player because he has to be, because the person who ought to be is willing to accept a supporting role. There is a place in every great film for a John Lithgow or Don Cheadle. But stars must be stars.