A year after ugly brawl, Xavier and Cincinnati have learned, moved on
Whatever you want to call it and for whatever it's worth, Xavier and 11th-ranked Cincinnati will play basketball Wednesday night, nearly a year to the day after one of the most notorious on-court brawls in college hoops history.
The Crosstown Shootout is now the Crosstown Classic, a name change that changes nothing. Let's just call it the Crosstown Game. It won't be played at Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena as originally scheduled, but at US Bank Arena on the downtown riverfront. The raucous home-court advantage that has spiced this deep rivalry -- and, some would argue, contributed to the fight -- has been eliminated. The 16,000 tickets will be split evenly among the fans of the two schools.
Nearly all of the principals involved in last year's brawl are gone, either because they transferred, graduated or ran out of eligibility. That would include Cincinnati's Yancy Gates and Xavier's Kenny Frease, who genuinely didn't like each other, and Xavier's Tu Holloway, whose "gangstas'' comment kept the fire burning long after the game had been extinguished, nine seconds before the clock expired.
In the year since, the city and its two major universities have done some soul searching and sought some peace, to the extent that banning the game was considered. In the end, they kept it, which was only right. Certain events are stitches in a city's fabric. They're more than just games. They're part of who the city is. The Crosstown Game is one of those. It doesn't belong to the schools. The country's best in-city rivalry -- don't give me Temple-Villanova or North Carolina-Duke -- belongs to the city.
As Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski put it, last year "was a huge reminder of the responsibility we have to the community and the game. We're custodians, for a short time."
Xavier coach Chris Mack, a former Musketeers player and captain said, "It would have been cowardly not to play it. It's not Xavier's game or Cincinnati's game. It's everyone who lives here's game.''
It's hard to say how everyone who lives here feels about the fight and its aftermath. Embarrassed, obviously. Cincinnati isn't a place for people with puffed chests. Such an aggressive display of misplaced bravado was out of place and character. This isn't Noo Yawk.
Anxious, maybe. Wondering what Wednesday night will bring. Hoping it comes dressed in an olive branch. We're not especially muscular around here, either. This isn't Cleveland.
A writer from FoxSports.com asked me this week if the fight had been overblown Was too much made of it? How often did ESPN need to show Frease's crimson face, bloodied by an overhand right from Gates?
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin had an answer: "The most overblown incident in the history of basketball,'' he told me Tuesday.
Maybe. But you simply could not minimize what happened. Had it occurred among fans, and not players, it would have been criminal. It was worse than it looked on the replays, because a couple television cameras simply did not have the sweep of the human eye. I saw lots of bad stuff that never made it on SportsCenter.
Minimizing the fight by saying "the media blew it out of proportion'' would trivialize the damage that was done. But yes, too much was made of it. Holloway suffered the most from that, fairly or not. He was a terrific college point guard, whose game was dictated as much by guts and audacity as by his jump shot. His belief that there were "a bunch of gangstas'' in the Xavier locker room stuck to him and got him labeled a thug. Holloway's play suffered under the criticism.
In the pre-ESPN and social media days, the fight would have been acknowledged and dealt with locally. It wouldn't be a national topic today. I wouldn't be writing this. So, yes, the ongoing discussion is over the top. How long into Wednesday night's game before ESPN shows the brawl again?
Ironically, the fight was a springboard for Cincinnati. Cronin addressed it head on, immediately after the game, delivering an off-the-cuff condemnation/apology that ranked among the best coach messages I've ever heard. Cronin, who grew up in Cincinnati, played high school ball here and worked as an assistant for former Bearcats coach Bob Huggins, said he was embarrassed. He said his players needed to understand how lucky they were to be playing in the game, and that playing basketball was a privilege, not a right. Then Cronin suspended Gates, his best player, for six games.
Cincinnati went to a four-guard, hurry-up offense. Its season took off. When Gates returned, the question wasn't if he'd have a positive impact. It was if he'd slow the good thing down. The Bearcats reached the Sweet 16.
So did Xavier, even as the Musketeers were never the same after the fight. They upset Notre Dame in their Madness opener, then beat upstart Lehigh before losing to Baylor.
The Musketeers have five new starters. We looked at their schedule and saw 12 wins. They're 8-2 already with a victory over Butler. Because they are devoid of stars -- and their entitled egos -- they're far more coachable than last year's team. As for Cincinnati, it's unbeaten thanks to a trio of guards who have spent the last three seasons playing together.
"What's the lesson?'' I asked Mack. He played at Xavier. He met his wife there. Mack was a no-quarter guy as a player. It's easy to picture him in the center of all that badness a year ago. "What did you learn?''
"I don't know if learned would be the right word. There's an awareness from it, that you're always a teacher,'' Mack said. "There's a fine line between competing and [what happened]. We crossed it. All of us. I hope we've made it a teachable moment, in every way.''
It won't happen this again this year. It might never happen again. The players don't cause the animosity. They're OK with each other. It's fans, mostly. "The fans hate each other,'' Cronin said, "and what they say filters down to the players.''
Basketball is a small world. These guys have been playing with and against each other since they were 12 years old. They see each other socially. It's not unusual for a Cincinnati player to leave a ticket for an Xavier player, on a night when the Bearcats are at home and the Musketeers are off.
As Cronin said, "I don't know what peace needed to be made, honestly.''
They'll play at 7 Wednesday night for the 80th time. They had never before seen the likes of what happened last year. They hope never to see it again.
"A helluva basketball game,'' said Mike Bobinski, "and nothing more."
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Inquirer.