No love lost as No. 21 Xavier hosts No. 11 Cincinnati

CINCINNATI — While there isn’t much that can prepare young players for the intensity of the annual crosstown battle between Cincinnati and Xavier, Bearcats junior forward Gary Clark offers this advice:

“I usually try to say, it’s like your biggest rivalry in high school, times about a hundred,” Clark said. “And, one that they really do not like you, whatsoever. Just go in there, don’t look at anybody in the stands, and focus on everything you practice.”

Over the past 90 years, these two Queen City institutions have exchanged memorable performances, thrilling finishes, and even a few fists. Since Xavier’s program has gained national prominence, the rivalry has drawn wider appeal as well.

On Saturday at Noon, No. 21 Xavier (6-1) will face No. 11 Cincinnati (6-0) before a raucous, standing-room only crowd at Cintas Center, where the Musketeers have beaten the Bearcats in six of seven meetings.

“I think it’s going to be an unbelievable game for our city,” said XU coach Chris Mack. “We both have really good teams. It will be a war on Saturday. Hopefully, we’re up for the challenge.”

Xavier largely has dominated the series over the past two decades, winning three of the past four meetings, seven of 10, and 14 of the previous 21. The Bearcats lead the overall series 50-34, dating to the first meeting in 1928.

The Musketeers are battle-tested coming into Saturday’s matchup, having won at Wisconsin and at home over No. 16 Baylor on Tuesday. Xavier also had to deal with a tough loss to Arizona State at the Las Vegas Invitational.

The challenging portion of Cincinnati’s schedule begins on Saturday, and coach Mick Cronin said the Musketeers have a leg up on the Bearcats in that regard.

“They’re really good, even better at home,” said Cronin of Xavier. “They’ve played another top twenty team, and we haven’t. A loss like (Arizona State) makes you look in the mirror. That hasn’t happened to us. That’s an advantage for them.”

The Bearcats have matchups against No. 6 Florida and a trip to UCLA looming this month. But, first things first, a chance to get a second straight victory over the Musketeers.

The advantages that led to an 86-78 Bearcats’ victory over XU last season still are present this season, namely Clark, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. UC dominated the Musketeers’ on the boards last season and Clark was a big part of that.

Xavier counters with Trevon Bluiett, who’s been dealing with a sore back but is expected to be fine for Saturday. Bluiett had 40 points in the loss to UC last year and averages 19.7 points through seven games. Feisty senior guard J.P. Macura, a flashpoint for most Musketeers’ opponents, averages 14.6 points.

Over the years, there have been many memorable games and contentious moments in this rivalry.

In 1994, Xavier head coach Pete Gillen and Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins refused to shake hands after an 82-76 Musketeers’ victory in overtime, an incident they reportedly made amends for years later.

In 1996, Xavier guard Lenny Brown’s lane jumper at the buzzer lifted the Musketeers to a shocking 71-69 upset of No. 1-ranked Cincinnati in their gym.

On December 10, 2011, in the closing moments of a 76-53 Xavier win at Cintas Center, an ugly bench-clearing brawl erupted, resulting in the game being played at a neutral site for two seasons.

That vitriol has calmed in recent years, but there’s certainly no love lost between the Bearcats and Musketeers. The schools are separated by less than three miles, and the teams and fan bases are united in their hatred of each other.

“It’s not hard to focus when you play Cincinnati,” Mack said. “The problem is Cincinnati, because they are really good.”