Xavier and Cincinnati have a history of animosity. Think of it as a dirtier version of Duke-Carolina. For years, the Crosstown Shootout – Xavier is a Jesuit institution located in the Queen City – has been a game of taunts and trash talk as much as it’s been a contest of pick-and-rolls and tight defense.
This season’s edition, in December, was ugly from the start. The home crowd at Xavier began taunting Cincinnati’s players. A brief confrontation occurred between the two teams as they went to halftime. Finally, late in the second half, the game exploded into a bloody mess. Xavier forward Dez Wells shoved Cincy guard Ge’Lawn Guyn. Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates threw a ball at Wells’ head, then busted Xavier center Kenny Frease’s face wide open. Another player stepped on Frease. Both benches emptied.
The post-game comments inflamed the controversy, especially those from Xavier players, including the team’s star Tu Holloway. “We’ve got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room – not thugs, but tough guys on the court,” Holloway said. “And we went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game.” Four players were suspended from each team, for a total of 30 games. That was December, and it looked like you could write off the rest of the season for both teams.
But now it’s March, and somehow, Xavier and Cincinnati are in the Sweet 16. (Cincinnati plays Ohio State on Thursday, while Xavier faces Baylor on Friday).
After the brawl, the teams responded differently to the negative national attention – and loss of key players. Xavier, which had won its first eight games, went on to lose five of the next six. At the time of the Cincinnati game, they were ranked No. 8 in the country. Two weeks later, they dropped out of the top 25. For a handful of games, they were without Holloway, forward Wells and guard Mark Lyons, the Musketeers’ top three scorers, forcing Xavier to find ways to generate offense – with no luck.
But Cincy went in the opposite direction. After losing the Xavier game by 23, they won their next seven and eventually beat Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Syracuse and UConn, all top 25 teams. Losing Gates and backup center Cheikh Mbodj transformed Cincinnati into a faster, up-tempo, perimeter-style team. “Your back’s against the wall,” said point guard Cashmere Wright. “Either your season’s going to go downhill, or you push for what you want.” And Cincy pushed, finishing 21-7 after the brawl.
“If we didn’t do it, we were dead in the water,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. “We were in must-win games since Dec. 14 at Wright State,” the game after the fight, he said.
Xavier, meanwhile, continued down a bumpy path toward the NCAA tourney, losing in the Atlantic 10 championship game to St. Bonaventure. But the Musketeers have won when it mattered. Xavier won their first two games of the NCAA tourney, first upsetting No. 7 Notre Dame, then getting a huge break and playing and beating Lehigh, which knocked off No. 2 Duke. And they’ve been led by Holloway, who’s averaging 17 points and five assists a game.
Cincinnati knocked off a hot Florida State team (a No. 3 seed) in the second round to reach the Sweet 16. Many of the Cincy players are sick of having to talk about the fight, especially Gates. “After a win, they try to make it out as if we didn’t have that fight, we wouldn’t be where we are now, that the reason we’re playing so good is because of that,” he said. “Where, really, the reason we’re playing good is just that we’re playing good now, we figured it out.”
Along with Xavier, they have figured it out. But now, the most important fight of the year, for both teams, will be the road ahead to the Final Four.