Cover Story: Coming & Going

At Shootout time, UC and Xavier each face their own image problems

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Teams get lost when administrators make headlines, which is why Thursday's Crosstown Shootout is even more welcome than always this year. Now that euphoria over pro football's restored legitimacy in Cincinnati takes a well-earned offseason, the Shootout arrives as the unofficial start to college basketball in the sport's Midwest capital.

Odd that Cincinnati should be the Midwest capital of college basketball, because continental drift has landed the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University in the Big East and Atlantic 10 conferences, respectively.

In each case, the move to East Coast exposure promised brighter days ahead. But in neither case so far have the moves been everything we wanted, which isn't to say they were mistaken.

UC's move to the Big East this season suddenly made the university higher-ups quite sensitive about the program's image, instigating the purge of the basketball coach who put the Bearcats into the big time. Through no fault of Xavier's, its 10-year-old move to the Atlantic 10 suffers for the league's checkered fortunes.

Indeed, Xavier brings more to the A-10 than the league gives back — in basketball, at least. One could argue without gaul that Xavier belongs in the Big East, too.

We're lucky, though, because Cincinnati basketball fans get UC-XU every year anyway.

Even in a year when, for example, the Bengals are in the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons, the Shootout is the city's signature athletic event. It's a purely Cincinnati experience like no other, because these are two great basketball programs.

Seasons made and broken
Back to those image problems. UC's problem lies in the ever-present propensity to talk about the wrong stuff. Not that it's wrong to talk about the stuff, only that the stuff is wrong, the university needs it to go away and no one's letting that happen.

XU's problem lies in the lack of propensity to talk about the team at all. As UC's under manned and unlucky squad bolts to a 13-4 start, conversation there persists about good kids and bad kids, palace intrigue and angry fans. Meanwhile, XU bolts to 11-2 under the radar.

That changes this week, for at least a couple of hours, because the kids are center stage at the Cintas Center. Whatever college basketball's problems, it's up there with hockey as the best live show in sports, considering the fans' proximity to the action, the flow of play and the competitive intensity. The players make that much happen.

And the players will make it happen again. It's going to be about Eric Hicks and Stanley Burrell, Dedrick Finn and Devan Downey, just like games are supposed to be about players.

But games, in and of themselves, matter in a limited, if valuable, sense. Games matter more when people watch them, and people watch them because they're part of a larger, edifying narrative. And the Crosstown Shootout is two narratives in one.

The Shootout isn't merely about two crosstown basketball histories but their annual crossing, the way one reflects upon and exposes the other. Seasons are made and broken in this game.

More often than not, the Cinderella aspect of this game favors Xavier, which has knocked UC off the No. 1 perch twice in the past 10 seasons. Two years ago, the Musketeers saved a mediocre season with a win against UC, then turned up a hot streak that ended one game short of the Final Four.

The Cinderella story seldom redeems UC, the big-state research university with internationally famous programs like the College-Conservatory of Music and the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. Xavier is the tiny Jesuit school whose name is prone to mispronunciation.

UC is the high-profile basketball program with higher rankings, more to lose and fans who rankle with early losses in the NCAA Tournament. Xavier is forever the upstart, coming from nowhere, often accused of being happy just to make the NCAA field.

When dust settles, UC generally is relieved to win and damaged by loss while Xavier is lifted by victory and unfazed in defeat. In most aspects, UC enters with more to lose and Xavier with more to gain. But the bragging rights are always prized, and Xavier has won its share over the past 20 years, which makes the Shootout a full-blooded rivalry rather than merely a feud.

UC the lovable overachievers
The template changes a bit this time. This year's UC outfit offers one of those rare instances of a less heralded and more lovable team, the kind of team this program's unfortunate reputation too often forgets and sells short. One remembers the teams from 1997-98 and 2001-02, the latter of which began the season unranked and ended it in the Sweet 16.

Even when the odds are longer than usual, the Bearcats have dependably entered the NCAA Tournament, making the field 14 straight times under the guidance of Bob Huggins.

Now that Huggins is gone, the streak is endangered. It's not a coincidence.

Recruits have reneged, competitive hopes have been dashed and the program finds itself in a downturning transition. Entering the season with an interim coach, nine scholarship players and the challenge of a tougher conference, the Bearcats face challenges unlike any year since Huggins first showed up in 1989.

If the Bearcats played with a roster of veteran McDonald's All-Americans, no problem. But many of their few players are crippled in their ways. Ronald Allen came to the program from Xavier of New Orleans as a Hurricane Katrina refugee, Chadd Moore has a bad back, Downey and Domonic Tilford are freshmen and Cedric McGowan is a junior college transfer new to the program.

That left the Bearcats with a good, small core of James White, Eric Hicks, Armein Kirkland and Jihad Muhammad plus a burning sense of mission to prove themselves, to say nothing of their resourceful interim coach, Andy Kennedy. So the Bearcats went about their season to show nothing has changed.

Through Jan. 15, UC held opponents to 40 percent shooting while accruing a plus-5.7 turnover margin. Despite their lack of size, they were outrebounded by only 2.2 per game. They won 13 of their first 17, playing the country's fifth-toughest schedule, according to Ken Pomeroy's version of the RPI duplication, where they ranked 15th.

Playing in the belief that a strong effort will bring them reward, the Bearcats continually are beset by adversity. In the middle of a ferocious effort at Connecticut Jan. 9, the country's fourth-ranked team, the Bearcats lost Kirkland, a 6-8 senior with three letters, to a knee injury.

Now less experienced and smaller than ever, the Bearcats took a 77-58 beating on their home floor from Syracuse last weekend. Yet this team's resolve, its insistence on pulling together, finally has charmed skeptics into buying tickets. Attendance at the Shoemaker Center against Syracuse reached 13,176 — that familiar number designating a sellout — after failing to reach 10,000 in 10 of UC's first 11 home games.

All the while, debate rages around this team, particularly about the future and Kennedy's role therein. The new athletic director, Mike Thomas, recently addressed the issues in the morning newspaper with boilerplate stuff about wishing to do a thorough search and find a coach who will bring good citizens into the program.

Well, you can't blame a new athletic director unfamiliar with the local sensitivities for a misstep like that, especially when it concerns such a polarizing figure as Huggins, who's earned every drop of support, derision, loyalty and enmity he receives.

If Thomas is the new sheriff is town, Huggins is the old deity. In a community that expects the law to conform to religion, Huggins still matters.

Which explains some of the controversy about Kennedy, Huggins' former right-hand man, but not all of it. At this point, the issue shouldn't be Huggins, not from the standpoint of administrators who wanted him gone or fans who wanted him kept. It should be Thomas and Kennedy — and since Thomas is the boss, he wins.

Thomas wants his own man. That's business. Fans want to see righteousness rewarded. That's passion.

Looking at how the players have responded to Kennedy, it's impossible to miss the fact that UC has a leader in its midst. Looking at UC's utter dormancy on the recruiting front, it's impossible to ignore the fact that UC is setting itself back years by resisting the obvious leader.

Most irritating of all is this notion that Huggins, whatever his faults, was such a destructive and deleterious influence on the university and community that the university must cleanse itself of all he touched. Which eliminates Kennedy. Which, if the case, is bizarre, mean-spirited and self-destructive.

Not to mention self-deceptive, as UC owes its present-day athletic stature almost entirely to Huggins.

If the university removed Huggins seeking heights to which he could not take it, fine. But if the university's goal is a comprehensive exorcism of the man who made us forget those lonely nights at Riverfront Coliseum ending in losses to Southern Mississippi, it's misguided and potentially very damaging.

In the future, perhaps, UC fans will look at their beleaguered coach and say something along the lines of: "We knew Andy Kennedy. Andy Kennedy was a friend of ours. And you, sir, are no Andy Kennedy." Nor is Kennedy a Huggins.

But Kennedy is in place, and he has the players busting it under conditions that practically demand defeat. What do you want?

Has XU outgrown the A-10?
Over on Victory Parkway, four different men coached Xavier during Huggins' 16 years at UC. In every case, XU found someone who could do the job, which is a stepping stone to a job like UC.

Of course, because Xavier is a stepping stone, its changes have come more conveniently. A coach moves to a more prestigious program in April, and an up-and-comer is in place before the end of July. Two of the three replacements in the last 15 years, Skip Prosser and second-year coach Sean Miller, came from within the family.

No Xavier coach in the last two decades has inherited quite the circumstances given to Miller. After Thad Matta drove a Herculean senior class to the Elite Eight, he moved on to Ohio State, leaving to his former assistant a young team with much to learn. Much of that learning took place early last season, when the Muskies lost four of their first six.

With no seniors starting regularly, Xavier finished 17-12, six of those losses coming by a total of 14 points, one of them in overtime. The Musketeers won 10 games in the Atlantic 10 but ended the season without so much as a sniff from the NIT.

Unlike UC, Xavier today goes to battle with a deep, healthy roster that blends youth with experience. XU fans have fallen in love with this team's toughness and defense, even if few others hear much about the Musketeers.

Only one game this season has elicited disappointment, a 61-59 loss at Creighton on Dec. 18. The other loss, 65-62 to highly-rated Illinois before nearly 20,000 fans at the United Center in Chicago on Dec. 3, practically stamped this team's legitimacy.

Lacking the power and fire once generated by players like Byron Larkin, Tyrone Hill and David West, the Musketeers are doing it with a defense that holds opponents to 37.5 percent shooting. Xavier's 11-2 start also is a testament to teamwork on the offensive end. Of 26.5 baskets the Musketeers average, 18.5 of those come from assist passes.

Which goes some way toward explaining Xavier's anonymity this year. Coming off a season with no tournament, lacking a single player to whet preseason chatter, playing the kind of game that wins without wowing, XU is on a silent climb.

Now comes the chance for Xavier to pop its head through the door and into the national basketball consciousness. The Musketeers already have dispensed with two of their toughest games in the A-10, winning at St. Joseph's and at Charlotte. That has the conference's attention.

But the Atlantic 10 no longer holds the nation's attention as it did when Xavier entered in 1995. Back in those days, the league seemed to be mounting a challenge to the Big East. Tom Penders had built a monster killer at Rhode Island, John Calipari built a monster at Massachusetts, John Chaney enjoyed high stature at Temple and Mike Jarvis put together a threatening operation at George Washington.

But all those fellows have moved on, except Chaney, whose well-publicized crack-ups have left him much less endearing, in addition to the fact that his teams have declined. Outside a comet like St. Joe's a couple of years ago, the Atlantic 10 schedule is an endless succession of Fordham, Duquesne and St. Bonaventure — about as dreary as the old Midwestern Collegiate Conference from which Xavier came.

With Xavier's entry, the league began putting four at-large teams into the NCAA Tournament. Lately, it's more likely to draw two at-large bids and, in two of the past four seasons, none.

So the Musketeers need to make their name some other way. Like in a nationally televised game against a name opponent. Like Thursday night on ESPN during the Crosstown Shootout.

By all forms and accounts, Xavier is the favorite on its home court against UC. That makes this Crosstown Shootout different than most. UC doesn't bring the size to deal with Brian Thornton, Justin Doellman and Josh Duncan, all 6-9. And UC doesn't have the depth to hold up against a Musketeer squad that scores 30 points per night off the bench.

But both teams have the motive. Both need this win for serious NCAA consideration — UC because the road ahead is tough and Xavier because the road ahead isn't tough enough.

And Thursday night will be tough. Like it always is. ©

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