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Mike Lopresti | | December 2, 2017

How Chris Mack prepped Xavier for Cincinnati Week

  Xavier rebounded with strong wins over Baylor and Cincinnati. What's next?

CINCINNATI, Ohio – Xavier’s week began with a question. The 102-86 shredding by Arizona State in Las Vegas, when the Musketeers gave up 73 points in 23 minutes – was that a sign of serious trouble?

By Saturday, we knew the answer. No. All seems well at Xavier. Not to mention pretty routine, what with another splash of bad blood in the Cincinnati rivalry.

The Musketeers have found second wind with consecutive 13-point whackings of two previously unbeaten ranked teams in five days. First, 76-63 over No. 16 Baylor Tuesday. Then 89-76 over No. 11 Cincinnati Saturday, in what has to be the nation’s hottest neighborhood rivalry this side of Tobacco Road.

Their arenas are not five miles apart, but they might as well be separate nations when it comes to basketball, as the world heard again Saturday as first Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, and then Xavier’s Chris Mack melted the microphone.

We’ll get that in due time, but here are coming attractions. Cronin got mad at Xavier senior J.P. Macura. A lot. So Mack got mad at Cronin. Very.

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But let’s go in chronological order. The week that was at Xavier:

Tuesday . . .

With the bad taste from their disaster in the desert still strong, the Musketeers hosted Baylor. One problem: Xavier might have owned the nation’s second best field goal percentage, but its shooting numbers from this night – 44.6, and 33.3 in the second half – looked as if they had come from a meat locker.

Didn’t matter. The Musketeers put away the Bears. Point guard Quentin Goodin had nine assists and no turnovers. Xavier controlled the boards and trailed only 13 seconds.

“I’m glad we won it in the manner we did, because good teams are able to overcome adversity,” Mack said afterward. “Not let a few missed possessions on offense – turnovers, missed shots – affect you defensively to the point where you cave. We did that against Arizona State.”

And the looming Cincinnati game, what they call the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout around here? “We know what’s up next.”

Wednesday . . .

Mack came to practice in a No. 19 shirt. Why 19? Cincinnati got 19 offensive rebounds last January against Xavier, the key component in the Bearcats’ 86-78 victory. Mack did not want the number forgotten. “That’s all we talked about,” he said.

Thursday . . .

Final score: Xavier 59, Cincinnati 57. Wait a minute. That was the annual game between student mangers. Good omen for the Musketeers, and the players were there to lend support.

“I tried to play the manager’s role,” said senior forward Sean O’Mara, “So I sat behind the bench, and tried to give back to them.”

Earlier in the day, Mack showed his team an edited film of last season’s Cincinnati game – starring all 19 Cincinnati offensive rebounds from last season.

Friday . . .

That loss to Cincinnati, the stunning 30-4 wipeout in second chance points — all like yesterday to the Musketeers. Trevon Bluiett scored 40 points that night, went 9-for-11 from the 3-point line, and it hadn’t meant a thing.

“We’ve been counting down the days,” O’Mara said. “That was pretty much the last thing when we left the locker room the other day, how many days it’s been since what happened last year."

Saturday would be 309, by the way.

Mack talked of the importance of not yielding to the emotions of the moment by rushing shots, trying to do too much, etc. “All the things that adrenaline can do to take away habits,” he said.

But he’s a Xavier alumnus. He understands about this game, especially with both teams ranked; what it means to his fans, his players, his school.

“We both could be 0-25 and play the game, and I think we’d be ready to go.” He said. “It might be the loudest arena in the country tomorrow.”

Saturday . . .

There were white T-shirts hanging over every chair in the Cintas Center and plenty of Skyline chili dogs being sold at the concession stands. Blaring out of the loud speaker was Rihanna: “Who’s gonna run this town tonight?” When the Bearcats took the floor, this rather direct chant from the Xavier student section: “We don’t like you.”

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This is a learned rivalry by most of the players. Nine different states were represented in the starting lineups, with only one player—Cincinnati guard Jarron Cumberland – from Ohio.

Tipoff was high noon, and almost all signs were good for Xavier — the Musketeers had not lost this rivalry at home since 2001, and were 8-1 when they came in ranked.

And so the afternoon went.  Xavier took an 11-2 lead, pushed it to 43-30 at halftime, and as large as 23 in the second half. That infamous 30-4 Cincinnati blowout in second-chance points of last January turned into 19-5 for the Musketeers, and their rebound margin was 44-27. Bluiett scored 28 points — "I wanted it bad," he said — and it is a fair guess the Cincinnati camp can’t wait for him to become the 106th consecutive Xavier senior to graduate.

“Nothing that I didn’t know, it’s a matter of getting it out of them. I think our offense at times will dictate how hard we play on defense. That doesn’t happen to elite teams; that’s where we have to get to. We have a lot of young guys, and old guys, who don’t really understand that at times.”

But Xavier's resurgence was not the only college basketball story of the day in the city of Cincinnati. These teams have the hardest time getting along. This time there was some open animosity in the handshake line between Cronin and Macura, a senior guard.

Cronin went first in the post-game press session, openly seething by what he said was some blue language Macura directed his way.

“I’ve never seen anything like it . . . If he was playing for me, he wouldn’t play.”

Mack’s turn.

“The narrative is not going to be J.P. Macura and Mick Cronin, because there are two sides to the story. There was a reason that their coach was issued a technical in the game. There was a reason for that. I know that reason because the official told me what happened. So I’m not going to have the narrative be anything other than us playing better than Cincinnati, and beating Cincinnati today.”

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Mack said he heard the same language himself years ago — from the Bearcats’ Lance Stephenson. “After the game, guess what I did? I shook his hand . . . A year ago, we got our ass kicked. Guess what Mack said? We got our ass kicked. Shook hands.

“I’m around (Macura) every day. He’s a warrior. He’s a great kid. He’s made mistakes, just like every kid on their team and every kid on our team . . . To say, `He wouldn’t play for me,’ that’s really disrespectful.”

Just another day in the electrified history of the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry, where often the emotions could cook the Skyline chili. Mack suggested this too, shall pass.

“I’m friends with Mick. We’re going to have to let probably cooler heads prevail overtime. My phone’s always on for him.”

But not Saturday. This was a big win and a big week for Xavier. How would Chris Mack celebrate Saturday night.

“A long time. That’s the great thing about noon games.”

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