Today’s press conference was, in a word, tame. Coach Davis, ever the elder statesman, was reserved. He was careful not to say anything that might be pinned to Xavier’s locker room bulletin board. Even so, you cannot help but imagine what might be running through the young minds of this Bearcats squad. They know the history. They have likely watched and re-watched the YouTube videos of the fabled brawl. And it is likely that every student that sits next to them in class has asked whether they are prepared for this game. If college basketball inside the 275 loop was the NFL, this game is the Super Bowl.
This afternoon Coach Davis did what any wizened coach ought to do the day before a game like this – he played down the rivalry. He emphasized that a lot of these Bearcats players are new or newer to the City and the game. He discussed match-ups. He talked about Xavier’s transition shooting, and he talked about containing Matt Stainbrook. He also bemoaned the Bearcats abysmal performance against Tulane. He said that his kids have to figure out how to grab more offensive rebounds, and defend the perimeter. Again, all of that is true. But there’s more here. You know it. I know it. Coach Cronin knows it. And Coach Davis knows it.
I left this afternoon with two indelible images seared into my mind. First, Octavius Ellis and Shaq Thomas walked into practice together. Actually “walk” doesn’t quite capture it, no those two glided into the gym. There was a discernible anticipation in their step. Those two seemed eager. Hungry, even.
Second, on my way to the elevator I walked by a group of players trailing the rest, walking together, stride-for-stride into the practice gym. A couple of faces stood out among the crowd. I saw Troy Caupain walking a little taller. He seemed to be wearing the same eagerness that I observed on Ellis and Shaq. In addition, another face stood out. That was the face of Jaquon Parker.
Like a young lieutenant, now-Coach Parker was leading his guys to their final practice before the Shootout. He paced just a couple of steps in front of Caupain and company. I couldn’t help but wonder what memories of the rivalry he shared with these young players. What stories of tight games, trash-talking, and bravery-in-battle has he passed down? Make no mistake, those stories have been told and re-told to these young guys. I’d wager a bet that Jermaine Sanders has shared experiences; Octavius Ellis, too.
How do I know this? Because that’s what people do; they share their stories with those closest. In a way, that’s what tomorrow night will be about – two counter narratives, a tale of two vastly different institutions in the same city.
One narrative comes from a private Catholic University that has earned credibility on the basketball court. Xavier has risen to a place of regional, and occasional national, prominence after landing several top-tier coaches over the past couple of decades.
The other narrative comes from the University of the City of Cincinnati – a school formed by the City, carved into the City, and that stands for the City. The University of Cincinnati’s narrative arc stretches way, way back to its golden years during the Oscar Robertson era of the 1950s. But more than that, the University of Cincinnati has experienced its fair share of success in the not-so-distant past, beginning with its resurgence during the Bobby Huggins era, and now gaining momentum in the Cronin era.
The narratives or stories, however, are not limited to just the Universities and their basketball programs. For these stories are ours. Tomorrow night may produce stories that fathers will tell their sons…and grandsons, someday. That’s because you will seldom find a city in which two large Universities occupy real estate a mere 3 miles apart. What’s more, you will seldom find a community where a fan base’s lives, families, identities, and even religion are so entangled with their school of choice.
Neither of these teams is undefeated. Neither of these teams is ranked. Neither of these teams is in a position to win their conference title. Neither of these teams won their last game. So what? You think that’s going to matter to any of the fans occupying seats in sold-out 5/3rd Arena tomorrow night? Nope.
For me, the bottom line is this: tomorrow night two strong Cincinnati programs will walk into 5/3rd Arena, each fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. Both teams will walk onto Ed Jucker Court with their community’s undying loyalty behind them. However, only one team will emerge as the winner.
That team’s fan base, no – that University’s storytellers – will emerge with a narrative to pass on to their kids and grandkids. Go Bearcats!
By Brian Fox