Monday, March 19, 2012

After Melee, Cincinnati & Xavier Fight Their Way To Sweet 16

Kenny Frease bears scars from aftermath of Crosstown Shootout in December, but now both Xavier and Cincinnati have recovered from incident with each school advancing to Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

December 10, 2011 will go down in college basketball history as one of the sport's darkest hours following the final seconds of a heated intra-city rivalry between Cincinnati and Xavier. Three months later; after multiple suspensions, reinventions and questions as to how each program would recover, both schools have fought (no pun intended) their way to a claim as a regional semifinalist in this year's NCAA Tournament, which resumes Thursday night in Phoenix and Boston.

Cincinnati will be one of the teams competing in Boston Thursday night; as the Bearcats will take on Jared Sullinger and Ohio State for the right to face either Syracuse or Wisconsin two days later, with a trip to the Final Four serving as the reward for the victor. Despite a six-game suspension for forward Yancy Gates that some feel may not have been harsh enough a sentence for his role in the December fracas, Cincinnati has redefined their style on both sides of the ball. Even after Gates' return to the lineup, coach Mick Cronin has played a smaller lineup that uses 6-3 guard Jaquon Parker as its swingman since the infamous 76-53 loss to the Musketeers that can now be considered a turning point for each program.

"We were able to get past it because of the leadership of our university," Cronin stated last night following the Bearcats' 62-56 victory over ACC champion Florida State. "We've been on a mission to define what Cincinnati basketball is all about and our kids have banded together to do that. The kids have really shown what they're made of, and that's why I'm proud of them."

For the Bearcats' adversaries, however, the road to the Sweet 16 has been longer and full of more twists and turns than an episode of "Survivor." After the 23-point win over Cincinnati vaulted Xavier to an 8-0 record and the No. 8 ranking in the nation, the Musketeers dropped five of their next six in the wake of suspensions to guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons; as well as a four-game ban for freshman forward Dez Wells, and have been a .500 team since then, going 11-11 to finish the regular season and winning two out of three games in the Atlantic 10 tournament before opening their latest NCAA experience with wins over Notre Dame and Cinderella Lehigh.

"We always knew we had talent in the locker room," said Xavier center Kenny Frease, whose career-high 25 points lifted the Musketeers past Lehigh; "but for some reason, things weren't clicking for us." Senior guard Tu Holloway looked at the incident as motivation following a January trip to Fordham in which the brawl was still fresh in the minds of the fans in attendance at Rose Hill Gym. "I remember going to New York and Coach (Chris Mack) talking to us about how everyone was taking shots at us around the country," said Holloway, a native of Hempstead, Long Island. "I never forgot that day because I knew it was a head coach who was disappointed in the way we were playing; and after going through so much, we're still standing today. It just shows the character."

Xavier's coach; who now prepares for a showdown with Baylor, was appreciative of the opportunity to continue a run of success that started under Pete Gillen and the late Skip Prosser and extended into the reigns of Thad Matta and Sean Miller, but at the same time remained grounded and realistic about what lies ahead.

"It's an amazing accomplishment," Chris Mack said last night, "but it's not something that we want to be final for our program. I'm just proud of this group to come together, but we've got more work to do and more basketball to play."

One program had to retool their strategy on the court after their biggest piece was unavailable. The other had to regain its bearings after negative publicity affected their performance. Three months later, both schools stand better than they ever did and are looking like true survivors; to quote Elton John, with the prospect of an improbable run to a Final Four, or maybe even a national championship, very much alive.

March may be about madness; but in the cases of Cincinnati and Xavier, this March especially is one that brings the feeling of vindication for two teams who were quickly and unfairly judged immediately following an incident both would like to forget, only to emerge stronger than they were before taking the court against one another in December.

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