CINCINNATI, Ohio – This will never be the bluest-blooded neighborhood rivalry. Not as long as Duke and North Carolina share Tobacco Road. But Cincinnati and Xavier – separated by five spots in the Associated Press top-25 rankings and four miles on a map -- ain’t bad.
Thursday night reminded us of that. And also how much fun it is, when neighbors get together for a little basketball game.
That was Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett, aroused at the very sight of the No. 19 Cincinnati Bearcats, scoring 40 points and torching the 3-point line, hitting nine of 11. There was a stretch you would have bet on him blindfolded. “You’ve got all that adrenaline going, once you get a couple to fall in, it’s like the rim as big as the ocean,” he would say later.
The thing is, his No. 24 Musketeers lost, 86-78.
That was Cincinnati’s Gary Clark, trying to explain what a night like Thursday means. “It’s big to beat the guys across the street. Growing up, you always had those kids that you wanted to get your guys and go against their guys.”
That was Xavier coach Chris Mack, a wee bit miffed when he got a look at the box score and noticed Cincinnati’s rather shocking advantage in second-chance points: 30-4. This even with his Musketeers ranked 15th in the nation in rebound margin.
“I’m going to be really honest . . . there’s only one thing you can talk about. We got our ass kicked on the glass. That’s it. We had some soft guys on the interior tonight.”
“If you can’t keep Cincinnati off the glass, which is easier said than done, you’re not winning. We couldn’t, and we didn’t . . . We talked about it on Monday, talked about it on Tuesday, talked about it on Wednesday. We talked about it in every huddle during the game. But talk is cheap. You’ve got to be able to do it.”
That was Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, the coach who missed this game and lots of others two years ago as he recovered from an aneurysm, noting that to avoid any frustrating streaks, a team has to protect its own house. His Bearcats had dropped three in a row to Xavier before Thursday.
“You’ve got to win at home in this series,” he said. “Two years ago I was sitting at home eating pizza when we blew a game late we should have won.”
And that was Bearcat veteran Troy Caupain, mentioning how freshman teammate Jarron Cumberland was already up to speed on life against Xavier. “I noticed he took this one personal . . . That’s the first time I ever heard him talk trash.”
The long regular season would be emptier without such feuds. Look around. The tents are already up in Krzyzewskiville, waiting for the North Carolina visit still two weeks away. Belmont and Lipscomb, who share the same street, just over two miles apart in Nashville, played twice early in the season. Belmont won both in the final seconds. One point of pride for Villanova’s seniors – well, besides that national championship thing – is how they took ownership of Philadelphia’s Big Five, lock, stock and Temple. They’ll graduate a perfect 16-0 against their four city cousins, every victory by double digits.
And just this past week, UCLA went down the freeway 14 miles to USC and took an upset thumping. That makes four in a row over the Bruins for the Trojans. “I wish the crowd was like this every game,” USC’s Chimezie Metu said afterward.
But no neighborhood quarrel has any more heat than the Crosstown Shootout.
It was just a little over five years ago that the last seconds of the game turned into mixed martial arts. The schools were so mortified, as the nation watched continued replays of their brawl, there was talk of a series ceasefire for a few years. The games did go on, at a neutral site temporarily for a cool-down. They’re back on campus -- Cincinnati was Thursday’s host -- and there has been no repeat mess. But passions are annually strong, and it is always good idea to make sure the assigned officials are accustomed to heavy lifting.
The three guys with the whistles Thursday -- Tony Greene, John Higgins and Doug Shows – have all worked national championship games. Probably not a coincidence.
There’s a different dynamic to this relationship than say, USC-UCLA. That’s an in-state production. Eight of the 10 starters in their game this week were Californians. The 19 players who saw action for Cincinnati and Xavier Thursday night come from 15 states. Only one from the city of Cincinnati. Still, everyone learns quickly what it is all about. Caupain did; he’s from Virginia.
“You understand it right away. If you go to Xavier they know, if you go to Cincinnati you know. When I first got here, that was kind of the main thing they were talking about. Get ready for the Crosstown Shootout, get ready for the Crosstown Shootout. I think two years before they got in the fight. When I came for my visit, the fans were telling me, `Beat Xavier. Beat Xavier. Xavier’s all we care about.’
“Being from out of town, it’s like a high school rivalry with a school around the corner.”
But once over, there are other fish to fry. For Xavier, the Big East is calling. “We’ve just got to move on to the next page,” Bluiett said.
“The game is so much better than it used to be,” Cronin said. “There was a time in the ‘80s where neither team was going to the NCAA Tournament, and the highlight of the season in Cincinnati was this game. It’s still a great game, but for different reasons. Both teams are going to the big dance. So it’s a different era in this game, which is a good thing.”
Some things never change, though. Teams always love beating their neighbors. But not as much as they hate losing to them.