'Crosstown Classic' moves on from brawl
DEC 19, 2012 1:34a ET
It wouldn't be fully accurate to say that Mack is steaming mad right now. He'll get steaming mad a little bit later, during practice, when one of his big men doesn't slide over to take a charge on a one-on-three fast break. ("That's just egregious, man!" he'll say.)
Right now Mack's attitude would be better described as... concerned. He knows this team, which lost its three most talented players from last year's squad to graduation ( Tu Holloway) and transfers ( Mark Lyons and Dez Wells), has a long way to go. And the expectations at this Jesuit university of 4,500 students are always high. That's what happens when you make the Sweet 16 four of the past five years, and the NCAA tournament 11 of the past 12.
He's frustrated that at this moment his team is ranked 179th out of the 347 Division I teams in defensive efficiency. He says teams that make the NCAA tournament don't rank that low. He's coaching his men to be more aggressive, to hit the boards harder, to throw their bodies into the game.
At no point does Mack mention that awful spectacle that occurred on this same court a year ago, when with 9.4 seconds left and Xavier leading its Crosstown Shootout rivals by 23, all hell broke loose. A back-and-forth spate of trash talk turned into Holloway and Cincinnati's Ge'Lawn Guyn tussling. Then Wells pushed Guyn. Then Cincinnati center Yancy Gates threw the ball at Holloway. Then benches cleared, and Gates punched Xavier center Kenny Frease and drew blood, and the most local of our nation's great college sports rivalries — Xavier and Cincinnati are only three miles apart — got a big black eye.
Why should Mack even mention this anymore? Yes, he's had to talk about it more regularly as Xavier has prepared for tonight's matchup with the 11th-ranked Bearcats. For a while, people worried the brawl would end the rivalry game that's been played every year since 1946. There's always been a great storyline between these schools, with Xavier playing David to Cincinnati's Goliath. Bearcats believe the Xavier folks can be the overly self-righteous private school kids, while Musketeers believe the Cincinnati folks can be the big state school kids who get all the resources.
It's a rivalry that should never end. And with tonight's game getting this rivalry back on track, it looks like it won't.
Despite the eternity of replays of Holloway's unfortunate postgame remarks — "We've got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room" — Mack insists that this dark moment is in both schools' past. All the players central to the brawl are gone. The rivalry has been renamed the Crosstown Classic, a silly moment of political correctness to defuse the violence associated with calling it a "Shootout." And tonight's game will be played at a neutral site in downtown Cincinnati.
"We've gotten past it," Mack said after that intense two-hour practice a few weeks ago. "We don't have any players on our team that were involved in the fiasco. We have a new energy about our team. We even dealt with it last year, put it in our back pocket and went to the Sweet 16." He paused a moment. "You can't control what other people think."
What other people thought a year ago was this: How in the world did these two often-overlooked but great basketball programs in this often-overlooked but great basketball town play a game that became some street-ball match straight out of "The Wire"?
"You had an interesting chemistry last year," Paul Daugherty, the respected sports columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, told me the other day. "Holloway and Mark Lyons are very cocky, street type of players who don't back down to anyone. That's an attribute that served them well, especially Holloway. He's a warrior. Against K-State in the Sweet 16 two years ago, he made three free throws to tie the game and send it into overtime. He has the balls of an elephant. Mostly he used that trait constructively. But not during the Shootout."
What happened after the brawl was ugly, too. Each team suspended four players. Sports pundits decried the lack of civility. Social media turned a story that would have been only Cincinnati-horrible and made it whole-nation-horrible. When players went back to their hometowns, friends didn't ask about national rankings or impressive performances, they asked about the brawl. The schools debated ending the historic rivalry, then decided to try it for the next two years at a neutral site in Cincinnati. Having it at a neutral site is a decision with debatable logic, because now, instead of a crowd filled with only home team fans, it'll be 8,000 well-lubricated Xavier fans on one side of the arena and 8,000 Cincinnati fans on the other.
But there's something else we can expect to see on the court tonight that we didn't see a year ago.
It's always been there between these programs. The players know each other. Many played AAU ball together. They see each other at offseason open gyms. It's not like the brawl was between teams with genuine and personal hatred for each other. It was more like a scrum between competitive siblings that spun out of control.
"There's no bad blood there," said Xavier senior Brad Redford, a 3-point specialist. "There's a chip on your shoulder sometimes when you see them... You know how it is when you play against your brother. You have a lot of respect for each other, but sometimes it gets a little heated. Unfortunately it took a turn that I don't think anybody wanted. Sometimes guys forget it's on national TV and everybody's going to see this. When you're in the heat of that game, it's so competitive, the crowd's so into it, it means so much to both sides that unfortunately a good game got lost because of what happened in those final 30 seconds."
Tonight's game will be a big public step to mend this broken rivalry. But a couple months ago these two teams took a less public but just as meaningful step to getting this rivalry back to a place of respect.
On an October day, the Bearcats and the Musketeers gathered to tour a beautiful building on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. Players and coaches visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum that tells the story of America's struggle to free itself from the shackles of slavery. No television cameras were there to record the symbolic moment. No reporters documented the mending of this rivalry.
But what happened there paralleled the story the museum was telling: two schools reconciling a dark moment in their history, moving forward and looking at each other as brothers again.
As Xavier players left practice, I asked Mack about their trip to the Freedom Center. Did it change anything?
Mack didn't really want to talk about it. This was a private moment of communion between the teams. Playing it up publicly just didn't seem right. That wasn't the intent. The intent was the players get something meaningful out of it. Mack thinks they did, and that the ugly stain of last year's game will soon fade away.
"The rivalry is very heated but at the same time it's not what it was for those 8 seconds, those 10 seconds, on the floor last year," Mack said. "And both programs know that."
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.