Once again we live at the epicenter of college basketball — and this time it’s positive.
For the first time in the history of the NCAA Tournament, four teams in the Sweet 16 — a qualified quarter — are from the state of Ohio, with Cincinnati, Xavier, Ohio and Ohio State moving on to make up 25 percent of the remaining teams fighting for a chance at basketball supremacy. And while Cincinnati might be at an extreme corner of the state’s geographical limits, we are indeed the center of the basketball portion.
Not only are we the only city in America with two teams left in the tournament, we’re also in the middle of it all. Within a 125-mile radius of the Cincinnati city limits, you have nearly half of the teams remaining in the tournament, including a pair of Kentucky squads — Louisville and Kentucky — along with the Hoosiers of Indiana. Add another team from a neighboring state, Michigan State, and we have half the field within proverbial spitting distance.
But we don’t need to go to a far away place to lay our claim for supremacy, right here inside I-275. The Bearcats return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001, and Mick Cronin’s crew beat a higher seeded opponent in the tournament for the first time in school history.
Meanwhile, the Sweet 16 is just another rite of passage at Xavier. The Musketeers returned to the second week of NCAA action for the fourth time in the last five years, something only three other teams — Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina — can claim.
But for all the celebrations and accomplishments, this season will still be marked by the events of Dec. 10, the last time all the eyes of college basketball focused on Cincinnati. Cronin has attempted to shy away from questions about the Crosstown Shootout brawl that had defined both teams’ seasons. Try as he might (and you can understand why he’d want to), it’s not going away.
The leadup to both the Musketeers’ matchup with the Baylor Bears and the Bearcats’ intrastate meeting with Ohio State will feature questions, replays and perceived deeper meanings and lessons learned from the fight.
Cronin has played the PR game in its aftermath better than anyone could have imagined, from his postgame comments to his defense of the sanctions handed down and the way his team reacted afterward, and he’s put a verbal arm around Yancy Gates’ shoulder at every opportunity. This is the easy story of the phoenix rising from the ashes — the team that lost to Presbyterian at home then was embarrassed during and after the game against Xavier is now a feel-good story about redemption, lessons learned and all those too-easy storylines.
“We were able to get past it because the leadership of our university — we disciplined the guys that did wrong, we apologized, and then we told them how much we loved them, what we expected of them and moved on,” Cronin said after Sunday’s 62-56 victory over Florida State in Nashville. “As a group we just focused on — we knew who we really are. We really focused on making sure we were having fun and not letting that define us, you know.”
Similarly, in Greensboro, N.C., Xavier’s Tu Holloway — who in the aftermath of the brawl was criticized for his choice of words after the game — was asked about his team’s reaction to the incident.
“[It] shows the character of our guts. I remember playing going to New York and we were just losing and Coach Mack was talking to us about how everyone’s taking shots at us around the country, and that really — I never forgot that day because I know that it was a head coach who was disappointed in the way we were playing,” Holloway told reporters after the team’s 70-58 handling of Lehigh. “And after going through so much, we’re still standing today in the last 16 teams. And it showed — just shows the character.”
Does it? Does it really show anything except that this is a group of young men who are good at the sport of basketball? All too often, it’s too easy to draw larger conclusions based on a scoreboard, just as it’s too simplistic to judge a person on a bad decision in a split second or a 21-year-old’s words after a fight.
In the coming days, we’ll hear too much about the incident, but any real lesson will be defined by where Gates is in 20 years, how his kids handle adversity. It will come for Holloway not in a postgame media session or even this year — it won’t be measured on a scoreboard or on a bracket. For now, let’s put aside any moralization or rationalization and enjoy it for what it is — the best basketball in the country.
CONTACT C. TRENT ROSECRANS:[email protected]