Two days before the annual Crosstown Shootout between Cincinnati and Xavier, Bearcats swingman Sean Kilpatrick delivered a ticking time bomb of a bulletin board remark: Asked by a radio host if senior point guard Tu Holloway, of the No. 8--ranked and undefeated Musketeers, would start for unranked UC, Kilpatrick said, "With the players we have now? I would say no."
The 6-foot Holloway, who spent part of his life in the projects in Hempstead, N.Y., will tell you he spent his whole life taking on challenges to his reputation, his possessions or his team's record on the basketball court. Some kid wants to play one-on-one for his bike, for a video game? Fine. Win and he keeps his bike and reputation. Lose? "Humiliation," he says. "Making those shots when I had to made me tough."
In college he has seemed impervious to pressure. Consider the recent back-to-back come-from-behind heroics that earned Holloway national player of the week honors from multiple media outlets and validated him as a player of the year candidate. At Vanderbilt on Nov. 28, Holloway scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half, including consecutive three-pointers in OT in an 82--70 win. Five days later, in a home game against Purdue, he scored 17 of his 21 points after halftime, including three consecutive three-pointers in the last two minutes as Xavier pulled out of a 19-point second-half hole to win 66--63. "No moment is too big for him," says Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski.
Holloway has generally been content to let his game speak for itself, but in the waning moments of last Saturday's Shootout, a notoriously heated contest between two schools located less than five miles apart, he let the moment get to him and opened his mouth. With the Musketeers up 76--53 thanks in part to Holloway's 17 points and six assists, he started jawing at the Cincinnati bench. "I was just saying that this is my city," he said later. "I'm cut from a different cloth. None of those guys on that team are like me."
With about 10 seconds left on the clock, he and the Bearcats' 6'1" freshman guard, Ge'Lawn Guyn, got in each other's faces. As Guyn raised a hand to Holloway's face, Xavier's 6'5" freshman forward Dezmine Wells pushed Guyn to the ground. Both benches cleared, and punches were thrown in the ensuing melee. Cincinnati's 6'9", 260-pound senior forward Yancy Gates landed a punch to the cheek of the Musketeers' 7-foot senior center Kenny Frease, who seemed to be trying to separate people. On the ground with blood gushing from under his left eye, Frease was kicked by UC junior center Cheikh Mbodj. Officials ended the game with 9.4 seconds to go. Musketeers coach Chris Mack, a Xavier grad who grew up on Cincinnati's west side, called the brawl "disappointing." Bearcats coach Mick Cronin, a UC grad who has known Mack since grade school, called it "a complete embarrassment."
No one called it a complete surprise. The Shootout, a game between two very different institutions, one large and public, the other small, private and Jesuit, has been an annual or twice-annual event since the 1945--46 season, and it's a pot that simmers all year long. Bobinski, who witnessed fierce rivalries during stints at Navy and Notre Dame, says UC-Xavier is "different, because of the intensity, the proximity and the fact their alums and our alums live, work and play together. It's something that you never get away from."
With the campuses so close, players see each other all the time—pumping gas, getting food, at parties, playing summer league games. "You don't want to be the ones to have lost that game," Gates, a former standout at Cincinnati's Withrow High, said last week. "And the fans around the city take it so seriously. Last year before the season was even over, people were already talking about the Xavier game for this season."
Given all the pride at stake, the Shootout features sustained high emotions and occasional low moments, including the infamous "nonhandshake" of 1994, when Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins refused to shake the hand of Xavier coach Pete Gillen after an 82--76 OT loss. There have been near brawls (two in 2009) and technical fouls aplenty (six in the '08 matchup). Yet there has never been a full-on bench-clearing donnybrook like the one on Saturday, inarguably the best game Xavier has played all season. "The crime of it was for 39½ minutes, it was probably one of the cleaner Crosstown Shootouts in terms of hard fouls and loose balls," said Mack, who earned the game's only technical for arguing a goaltending call.
Mack, who played for Gillen and was later an assistant to Skip Prosser and Sean Miller at Xavier, has witnessed much of the program's evolution from afterthought in its own city (UC won 22 of 24 Shootouts between 1957 and '79) to national relevance. In the last eight years the Muskies have been to two Elite Eights and two other Sweet 16s. (Not incidentally, they have also won seven of the last 10 Shootouts.) This year's team could be the school's best yet. Holloway and fellow New Yorker Mark Lyons, an explosive 6'1" junior shooting guard who averages 17.4 points per game, make up what is arguably the nation's best backcourt. They are complemented by a strong and improving supporting cast, including Frease, an agile 7-foot senior who had 13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks against the Bearcats, and Wells, a 6'5" athletic wing who has started every game as a freshman.
Holloway escaped with a one-game suspension, while Lyons will sit out two and Wells and sophomore Landen Amos will miss four. (Cincinnati suspended Gates, Mbodj and Octavius Ellis for six games and Guyn for one.) But there's no doubt Holloway's immature instigation of the brawl—and the comments he made later, including, "We've got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room, not thugs but tough guys on the court"—will tarnish what has otherwise been a great college basketball success story. Before he landed at Xavier as a freshman in the fall of 2008, Holloway had lived a frequently disrupted life, attending five high schools in four states, "trying to find a fit," he says. He had committed to Indiana and then, when coach Kelvin Sampson resigned in February 2008 for recruiting violations, decommitted. But as a senior at Cincinnati's Harmony Community School, he had seen enough of the Xavier program to predict he would thrive there.