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Why Xavier-Cincinnati is the Best Rivalry in College Basketball

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The Crosstown Shootout returns to the campuses of both schools this Wednesday. Now that the game is less than two days away, I give you my case for why this is the number one rivalry in all of college basketball.

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Less than 36 hours from now, the Crosstown Shootout will begin. Since it is so close, I think it’s appropriate to let the college basketball world know what many don’t already: The annual affair between the Cincinnati Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers is the best rivalry in college basketball. Yes, the best. Now, mind you, this opinion is coming from a Xavier fan. I am no less biased than a Georgetown fan who thinks their rivalry with Syracuse is the best. All I know are these five reasons below, and I’m hoping that from reading this piece you gain a greater appreciation for this great rivalry.

5) History

This season will mark the 82nd meeting between the schools. They first met in the 1927-28 season, didn’t meet again until 1942-43, and then began playing on an annual basis in 1945-46, right after the end of WWII. Between 1948-49 and 1957-58 they played one another twice per year. Throughout this history, the game has been played in six different venues; two on the campus of Cincinnati, two on Xavier’s campus, and two other sites in the city of Cincinnati. The game began alternating on a yearly basis between the two team’s respected arenas in 1989, all the way up until 2011. As a result of the infamous brawl, the game was played downtown at U.S. Bank Arena the past two years. This year the game returns to being played on-campus, with UC hosting the game.

The all-time series record is in Cincinnati’s favor, 49-32. Entering the 1957-58 season the series was close at 12-10 all-time, Cincinnati leading. Over 20 years later, Cincinnati had the edge 34-12. Since 1979-80, Xavier has the edge 20-15. Going back 15 seasons ago to the 1999-00 season, Xavier is up 10-5 in the series, and has won 12 out of the past 18 meetings. Don’t let the all-time record fool you, this series has pretty much been a coin toss over the last 35 years.

Xavier even beat Cincinnati two times when they were ranked No.1, in 1996 on a buzzer-beater and in 1999. Lenny Brown, Xavier's point guard who hit that buzzer-beater in 1996, has this to say about the rivalry, "The Shootout was something we looked forward to every year, playing those guys, and I'm sure they felt the same way. It just felt great. Back here in Delaware I tell people all the time – I know they hear a lot about other rivalries like North Carolinas and Dukes and all that. But I tell them, man, the UC and Xavier rivalry is something else too."

Welcome to a rivalry where you can be No. 1 in the country, but No.2 in your own city.

4) Cincinnati

Located in what many consider the "bread-basket" region of basketball in this country. The city of Cincinnati sits in the corner of Southwest Ohio, very close to Indiana and Kentucky, two states that are well known for basketball success. In this region of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio; people love their basketball. Besides the Pacers, this area is full of few die-hard NBA fans. This part of the country loves high school and college basketball. Basketball is, to these tri-state folks, as football is to southerners.

Rattle off the names of colleges within a three hour drive of Cincinnati north, south, and west, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Up north there are Dayton and Ohio State, and down south lie Kentucky and Louisville. Out west are Indiana, Purdue, Butler, and Indiana State. And of course in Cincinnati, are Xavier and the University of Cincinnati. That is 12 colleges with rich basketball history all less than 200 miles from the first major inland city in America. The same city regarded as the first purely American city, and historically the first major city founded after the American Revolution.

For Cincinnatians, the Crosstown Shootout is the city's game. There has not been an NBA team here since 1972, when the Cincinnati Royals left for Kansas City. Their stay was only 15 years and they left partially because of a lack of business. Attendance numbers were poor, mainly because here, people prefer their college basketball. A fun side note is that the Royals played many games at the Cincinnati Gardens, a former home for both UC and Xavier. They even played their home games in a 1963 playoff series against the defending champion Boston Celtics at Xavier’s former on-campus home arena, Schmidt Fieldhouse.

Former Bearcat and NBA player Nick Van Exel said when asked why Cincinnati-Xavier is such a heated rivalry, "Really, it's the city that makes it a rivalry. The players coming into it, like I said, I knew nothing about it. It's the city. It's the people who go to the two different schools that really pump this thing up."

In a city where there is no professional NBA team to root for; you are either a Bearcat fan or a Musketeer fan. One day a year the city is divided among the teams. And leading up to the game, there is a palpable buzz flowing through the city life. A buzz that can’t be found in any other city, because many cities have at least one professional NBA or NHL team, have little college basketball interest, or don’t have two competitive Division-1 college basketball teams. Pittsburgh is the only other city I can think of that is similar to Cincinnati in this regard. They have the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne, both with lots of basketball tradition. Even then, Pittsburgh has a loyal NHL fan base because of the Penguins. Also, Duquesne has not been relevant in years, and Pittsburgh is not a college basketball city if you compare it to Cincinnati. There is far less passion for the sport.

Cincinnati is truly one of a kind. The Crosstown Shootout would not be the same without Cincinnati, and vice versa. Jay Bilas even said, "Cincinnati and Xavier have created a rivalry that is unparalleled when it comes to outright passion and civic division." The city of Cincinnati has a lot to do with that.

3) Basketball Success

Of course, the combined success of these two schools doesn’t compare to the rivalry between Louisville-Kentucky, and can’t come close to the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. For any good rivalry, success needs to be considered. They might not be Kentucky or UNC, but many people consider both Cincinnati and Xavier as top 50 college basketball programs. According to this article done by Bleacher Report four years ago, five months B.B. (stands for Before Brawl), Xavier is ranked 47th and Cincinnati 14th. In an article written on Fansided late last year, Xavier comes in at 41st and Cincinnati at 9th.

Cincinnati found much success in the 50’s and 60’s. In their history they own claim to 28 Tournament appearances, 13 Sweet Sixteen’s, 8 Elite Eight’s, 6 Final Four’s, 3 Championship game appearances, and 2 National titles. Since 1970, they have 21 Tournament appearances, 6 Sweet Sixteen’s, 3 Elite Eight’s, 1 Final four and no championship game appearances. If we narrow those numbers down just to the past 15 seasons, we find that Cincinnati has 10 tournament appearances and 2 Sweet Sixteen’s.

Almost all of Xavier’s success has been in the past 35 years. Xavier did win the 1958 NIT, and were good in the late 50’s and early 60’s, but nearly all of their success dates back to 1980 until today. Xavier has 24 tournament appearances, 7 Sweet Sixteen’s, and 2 Elite Eights. Looking at their history since the turn of the century, the past 15 seasons, they have 12 tournament appearances, 6 Sweet Sixteen’s, and 2 Elite Eight’s.

What’s interesting is every decade one of the two teams was at least good. The Bearcats were great in the 50’s and 60’s, and were good in the 70’s. The 80’s were not as nice to them, but were for Xavier, as they began their upward trend. Xavier carried that trend into the 90’s, while Cincinnati bounced back thanks to the hire of Bob Huggins in 1989. In the 00’s, Xavier made their footprint as one of the best mid-majors in all of college basketball, and Cincinnati kept their 90’s momentum going. And both schools made the Sweet Sixteen in 2012, three months after the brawl, which is the only time they have ever made the Sweet Sixteen in the same season.

2) Opposites

People say opposites attract. Do I agree? Yes, schools that are the complete opposite of each other add to a rivalry. The idea of two opposites coming together for a game of basketball does add to its intrigue. Rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, Georgetown-Syracuse, and Wisconsin-Marquette, fall in this category. Of course, Xavier-Cincinnati does too, more so than any rivalry in college basketball.

The University of Cincinnati’s city campus has roughly 24,000 undergraduates; Xavier only a mere 4,500. Cincinnati is a state school; Xavier a Jesuit school. Cincinnati plays in the AAC and Xavier the new Big East. Cincinnati takes on the bad guy figure with black and red colors; Xavier has more welcoming colors, blue and white. Cincinnati's mascot is a Bearcat, a ferocious looking animal. Xavier's mascots are D'Artagnan, a noble fighting french Musketeer, and the Blue Blob, a lovable and adorable unidentifiable thing.

Cincinnati developed a "bad boy" and wild image when Huggins was their coach from 1989-2005. His recruits were mostly junior college kids who were disinterested in academics. Sometimes the players got in trouble with the law, and the team’s graduation rate was unsurprisingly low. Xavier on the other hand were looked at as the "good guys". They rarely got in trouble and since 1985, 94 straight Xavier men’s basketball seniors have graduated. This has added to the theme of opposites between the schools, some referring to this rivalry, right or wrong, as "Convicts vs. Catholics".

1) Proximity

2.7 miles separate the schools. That is it. You could walk from one school to the next in under an hour, and jog from one to the other in under half an hour. That is very close. To put this proximity in perspective, Georgetown University is 4 miles from the Verizon Center, where they play all their home games. How about DePaul? They are 14.8 miles from their home arena, Allstate Arena.

Let’s look at other college basketball rivalries and see how far apart they are. Ohio State and Michigan have 185 miles between them. Purdue and Indiana are 109 miles from each other. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are separated by 84.4 miles. Louisville and Kentucky are 78.6 miles apart. The only other major rivalry that can come close to this distance of 2.7 miles is Duke-North Carolina. Those schools are only 10.4 miles from one another, but that is still a distance nearly four times greater than between the Musketeers and Bearcats.

Bob Huggins was asked a couple years back which is the best rivalry he was apart off. He answered, "Cincinnati vs. Xavier is off the charts, I mean, it’s off the charts. Kansas State vs. Kansas is a rivalry, but it doesn’t come close." Then he was asked what makes it so good, "I think a lot of it is proximity…you got husbands who went to Xavier and wives who went to UC and vice-versa. It’s crazy. Skyline Chili is promoting the heck out of it. Everyone is eating Skyline and talking about it."

Huggins coached Kansas State for a season in 2006-07, which explains why he compared the two rivalries. He hits the nail on the head with the rivalry being so good because of the proximity. Knowing people who went to both schools makes it personal. Living in the same culture makes it relatable. After the game is over, or before the game starts, UC and Xavier fan alike will be eating a meal, maybe sharing a meal, at their favorite food joints of Cincinnati, especially Skyline Chili.

Conclusion

After the Crosstown Shootout nine years ago, former Xavier and now Arizona head coach Sean Miller gave his thoughts on Xavier’s 73-to-71 overtime victory over the Bearcats at the Cintas Center. Miller said, "I like to think this is about two basketball programs and teams. This game's bigger than any one person. It's bigger than that. Unless you're in Cameron Indoor, that may be the only place any better than the atmosphere tonight. … What a war. What an amazing game."

Huggins referred to the Crosstown Shootout as the "Super Bowl" of Cincinnati. That says a lot, maybe not as much when you realize the Bengals are 0-2 in Super Bowls, but it still does. Unless you have been to Cincinnati, you cannot fully understand this rivalry game, but you can appreciate it.  For one day out of 365 days in a year, Cincinnati is captivated by a rivalry; a rivalry between two schools who are so different, but on one day so similar. This is a day where Xavier and Cincinnati come together, and put on the best rivalry in college basketball.