Xavier, Cincy have gone in different directions since Crosstown brawl
Since Dec. 10, Cincinnati has won seven straight, while Xavier has gone in tank
Bearcats went small after benching Yancy Gates, Cheik Mbodj, and it's paid off
Xavier has looked lost and coach Chris Mack is still searching for answers
A month ago, Xavier's Chris Mack coached the eighth-best team in college basketball, led by a point guard some believed to be the best player in the country. Now, Mack quotes Friedrich Nietzsche and calls his team's offense "pathetic.''
A month ago, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin coached an underachieving band of players who had lost at home to Presbyterian and Marshall. The team's preseason Top 25 ranking looked farcical. Now, Cronin is seen as a coolheaded statesman, a brilliant tactician and a Coach of the Year candidate in the Big East.
What occurred on Dec. 10, with 9.4 seconds left in the annual Crosstown Shootout, was a season-changing brawl for the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers. Benches cleared, punches flew. It was a black eye for the sport and everyone involved. Literally, in the case of Xavier center Kenny Frease, who took a right cross to the left cheek from Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates.
Since then, the tides for both teams have turned considerably. Xavier crushed Cincinnati on the court a month ago. The Musketeers haven't won a thing since, unless you count a victory over Southern Illinois (RPI 280) for that prestigious seventh-place trophy in a holiday tournament in Oahu.
Xavier's most recent loss came Wednesday night at LaSalle, by 10. The Musketeers were down 16 at halftime and never got closer than six after that. The 11-4 Explorers are improving. In normal times, they're in Xavier's league only by affiliation. These aren't normal times.
"That which does not kill us makes us stronger'' Mack told his team last week, employing Nietzsche in an attempt to rally the troops. The coach declined politely to be a part of this story. Not that more talking would help. Since Dec. 10, Mack has been fireman/apologist/hair-shirt wearer deluxe.
In the minutes and hours immediately after the brawl -- which led to suspensions of a total of eight players from both teams, including Cincinnati's best player (Gates) and Xavier's highly regarded backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons -- Xavier might have underestimated the backlash. Part of the problem was that Holloway was unapologetic in the postgame press conference and came off as crass, saying that the Musketeers were gangsters and wouldn't stand there and take anything from Cincinnati players.
The next day, following a barrage of social media anger and about a million replays of the fight on television, things were different. Mack has been on the mea culpa march ever since.
He apologized via Twitter and at a news conference. For two hours a few days after the fight, he invited students and faculty into his office to discuss it. He apologized at center court before a Xavier home game. A group of local sixth-graders arrived unexpectedly at a Xavier practice. When practice ended, he apologized to them, too.
What has happened to his team is not so easily remedied. This was a swaggery, chatty bunch, led by Holloway, a senior All-America and Player of the Year candidate who turned down the NBA partly because he didn't want to leave college with his final game being a five-point effort last March against Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
With Holloway and Lyons leading the way, the Musketeers won their first eight games, including a victory over Purdue at home and wins at Vanderbilt and Butler. They had the look of a Final Four dark horse: Great guards, a capable big man in Frease and a talented freshman on the wing in Dez Wells.
Xavier blasted Cincinnati with an ease that bespoke their prowess. Then the Musketeers fought and talked tough. We're still seeking the subtle differences between being "gangsters'' (good guys) and "thugs'' (not so good), as defined in the perilous postgame press conference by Holloway.
Things fell apart then. They're still falling.
Someone asked Mack after the loss at LaSalle if his team still felt the effects of the Shootout aftermath. "Seems like a long hangover,'' Mack replied.
You can look at the numbers for wisdom. In their five losses since the Shootout, the Musketeers haven't handled the ball well: 53 assists, 71 turnovers. They haven't shot it well: 3 for 18 from three-point range in a home loss to Gonzaga. They haven't defended, especially when the opponent has a talented power forward: Hawaii's Joston Thomas torched them for 24, 6-foot-9 Sam Dower of Gonzaga had 22.
But it's more than that. The blowback from the fight has robbed them of something. Call it confidence or "swag," whatever it was that made Xavier a go-for-the-throat kind of team, has left the building. The Musketeers only lost Holloway for one game, and Lyons for two. Their essence is still missing.
There is no explaining it.
"In my mind ... there's already enough pressure on us for our teammates to go out and have our best games and be able to make shots and defend, block out, all these different things,'' Frease told the Cincinnati Enquirer recently. "And then to have added on top of that the pressures of thinking to yourself, 'We need to get that back' and then wanting to get it back for not only your teammates at this point but your coaches and the fans and everybody.''
Meantime, five miles across town, Cincinnati's Cronin lords over a seven-game winning streak and newfound respect as a molder of young men. Cronin's postgame remarks were seen universally as a textbook way of handling an embarrassingly awful situation.
He accepted blame without assessing it, and with an indignance that validated his disgust. He passed swift judgment on his players, sitting Gates and his other big man, center Cheikh Mbodj, for six games (though many would argue it should have been more). Then he reinvented what was left. On the fly.
If that sounds hard, it wasn't. At least it hasn't looked hard. "It wasn't something we had to spend all day discussing,'' Cronin says now.
Without Gates and Mbodj, Cronin went small. He started four guards, spread the floor and told everyone to run and shoot. It was something he'd pondered before the suspensions.
"I've been wanting to do that ever since I got the job," Cronin said. Cronin tutored under Rick Pitino at Louisville, before coaching Murray State to two NCAA tournament appearances in three years. In each place, he embraced a run-and-shoot style. His problem at Cincinnati had been, he didn't have enough shooters.
Now, he does. And with Gates out, the preferred option of feeding the low post was taken away. The first practice after the Shootout, Cronin explained how it was going to be. "Let it fly,'' he said. ''If you're open, shoot. Then I started running practice like a track meet.''
Who knows why it worked. The Bearcats had the luxury of four straight pudding games. Reinventing on the fly works better when you're playing Wright State, Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago State. But it was more than that.
Cronin needed his guards to deliver. The key was junior point guard Cashmere Wright. Wright arrived highly-touted, then blew out a knee before he ever played. He has fought shoulder problems. Mainly, he lacked the confidence to assert himself. He let Gates do the asserting.
"I'd been trying to get him out of that shell since he got here,'' Cronin said. "I think he finally looked around and said, if I don't step up, we're going to lose. I'm the best player in the room.''
With Gates out, Wright emerged.
"A different player,'' says Cronin. "It's his team now.''
During the seven-game winning streak, Wright has 43 assists and just seven turnovers. With Wright directing traffic, the Bearcats have become a fast-lane team of three-throwers. The style change, says Wright, "allowed us all to start doing what [Cronin] recruited us to do.''
Since the Shootout, Cincinnati has played together and with energy, a fact that has surprised even Cronin. "We have nice kids, but they can be hard to coach,'' he says. "Except [Sean] Kilpatrick, they're not high energy every day. But I knew after our second practice [after the fight] that we were going to play hard. They hadn't been that unified and fired up to play all year.''
Since, Cincinnati has beaten Oklahoma and Notre Dame at home, and won at Pittsburgh. Gates returned Wednesday for the easy 71-55 win over the Fighting Irish. The concern had been that Gates could disrupt the team. As much as the Bearcats need Gates' 6-9, 260-pound presence in the Big East, everyone wondered how he'd fit into the reinvented wheel.
He had six points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. Actually, Gates has a decent touch from the perimeter and runs well, when he wants to. According to Cronin, he no longer has a choice: "He's going to fit in exactly like I ask him to fit in," the coach said.
At the moment, life is as good for UC and Cronin as it is miserable for Mack and Xavier. There is no explaining any of it.
"At the end of the day, we're teachers,'' said Cronin, managing to sound more noble than grandiose. Must be the winning. "If you never accept responsibility, you never learn anything. We owned up, we manned up, we apologized. We put it in our past.''
Meantime, Xavier is trying to do the same, with far different results. Ultimately, these players are still children, mostly. You never know how children will react to a situation. That's why they're children.
Said Mack, after Xavier's loss to Gonzaga on New Year's Eve, "I'm not going to lose my mind. The season's a lifetime. I've been through a lot of adversity, both personally and professionally. We're good. We just lost to a team that a lot of teams around the country won't schedule. I'm not going to go any further than that.''
No need, coach. Explaining the inexplicable isn't possible.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
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