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Crosstown Brawl could re-shape Cincinnati, Xavier programs

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We’re only one month into the college basketball season, and I’m sure you’d agree with me that hopefully this is as jarring and salacious as it gets.

This year’s annual Crosstown Shootout between Xavier and Cincinnati resulted in the first ever Crosstown Brawl, and presented leaders from both schools with a moral dilemma on how to best handle one of the most deplorable endings to a sporting event since the Malice in the Palace.

Dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts” as a clever little way to describe the stereotypes these schools carry with them, the crux of power of this 79-year old rivalry has shifted to Xavier, the small Jesuit school, which has won 10 of the last 15 meetings and ascended into one of college basketball’s elite programs. Clearly, there were no choir boys playing basketball at the Cintas Center this weekend.

The Bearcats, despite a rich history and tradition of excellence, have been, for the past decade, mediocre in every sense of the word. But despite their struggles, Cincinnati has at least tried to clean up its basketball program’s bad boy images.

Or so we thought.

Seeking sweeping changes to both athletics and academics, former school president Nancy Zimpher fired long-time head coach Bob Huggins in 2005 on the heels of a drunk driving arrest. Eventually replacing Huggins with Mick Cronin, the media championed the hire as a true effort to apply a sharp shift to the perception of the basketball program: replace low-graduation rates and rugged  players from junior colleges, and implement a new order with at least a marginal commitment to academics. The thought was that in time, Cincinnati would shred the connotations it had developed through the ’80s and ’90s.

But with Zimpher’s departure in 2009, it appears that any foundation for building a high character athletic department was completely eviscerated with the soft suspensions levied in the wake of Saturday’s brawl. Preaching accountability and respect for the uniform you’re privileged to wear, Mick Cronin appeared to “win” the postgame press conference session, sounding fully invested in maintaining any equity in reputation his program had built in recent years.

It appeared that the school finally had its priorities in order. However, we learned Sunday that either it was all for show, or Cronin has zero influence in the decision making process of his basketball team.

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Senior Yancy Gates, who sucker punched Xavier’s Kenny Frease for the climax to the brawl, will miss only six games, including one Big East conference game. His partner in crime, Cheikh Mbodj who kicked Frease when he was down, was also docked six games.

If you even let out the smallest of gasps watching the brawl unfold, you’re dumbfounded by these weak suspensions.

Remember in 2009 when former Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount sucker-punched a defenseless Boise State lineman? Just two days after the incident, Oregon administrators AND Ducks head coach Chip Kelly suspended their star running back for the rest of the season.  The school was resolute in upholding a strict policy to the thuggery Blount displayed (Blount was reinstated by the team two months later, but his role was diminished).

The precedent was set then, and it should have been matched by Cincinnati administrators. Unfortunately, the unreasonable expectation this Bearcats team can earn a 2012 NCAA Tournament berth stood in the way of some much needed responsible decision making.

For Xavier, their suspensions were arguably soft was well, but the damage control they will seek to quell for the remainder of the season is seeded in the court of public opinion.

With a squeaky-clean image and high rootability score at stake, the school must learn how to handle with being relevant AND disliked by the general public for the first time in the history of the program.

For this season, at least, bandwagon fans lining up to cheer this team on in hopes of a deep tournament run will not come in heaps. National media members who may have sought to write a favorable puff piece on the character of coach Chris Mack or budding star freshman Dezmine Wells may table it for another story idea.

Now, with the current face of the program announcing to the public that their team motto refers to the handling of dead bodies, questions abound as to just what type of person resides on the Xavier roster.

Whether or not that is rational thinking is up to you.

Remember, this is a proud Jesuit school, and fans and students appear to be divided in regards to the lack of judgment Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons showed in their post game press conference.

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Should they be embarrassed that these are the guys they’ve been rooting for?  Is “ZipEmUp” going to be accepted by the Xavier student body? Or did distinguishing the roster as a group of “gangsters” just show this Musketeer team has a bit more grit then we’re used to from this program?

I suspect that, given the school’s close proximity to one another, we haven’t heard the last word from all parties involved. Be it a Tweet, local radio interview, or next summer when players share sweaty gyms to get some run, the war of words between the current Xavier and Cincinnati players are all but through.

In addition, both schools face a significant uphill battle ahead of them following this weekend’s mêlée. One may have lost the label of Good Guy, the other may have lost any opportunity to stop being the Bad Guy.

Either way, it’s a black eye for one of the game’s great rivalries.

Nick Fasulo is the manager of Searching for Billy Edelin. You can follow him on Twitter @billyedelinSBN.

Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft, according to multiple reports.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.

Gonzaga’s Karnowski returning for fifth year

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The man in the middle is returning to Gonzaga.

Przemek Karnowski will return to the Bulldogs for his final year after a medical redshirt waiver was granted allowing him a fifth season in Spokane, the school announced Tuesday.

“I’m excited to be coming back,” Karnowski said in a statement. “After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I’m staying positive about the upcoming season.”

The 7-foot-1 Karnowski, a Poland native, would have, at minimum, had professional opportunities overseas, but instead will return to play for the Bulldogs once more after a back injury limited him to five games last season. He averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.

With Karnowski returning along with  Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, Gonzaga coach Mark Few will be having newcomers Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Norvell, Johnathan Williams II and Zach Collins joining an experienced and talented group.

Gonzaga (shocker) will be the West Coast Conference favorite once more, but the Bulldogs will also be fielding a team that should open the season in most everyone’s top-15.

Michigan St. at Duke highlights ACC/Big Ten Challenge

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A matchup in Durham of likely top-10 teams is the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, whose schedule was released Tuesday.

Michigan State, expected to open the season in the top-10, and Duke, the presumptive preseason No. 1, will meet Tuesday, Nov. 29, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the most intriguing contest of the 14-game event.

The Spartans are losing Denzel Valentin, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, but the recruiting class of Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward is one of coach Tom Izzo’s best and has Michigan State positioned as one of the Big Ten’s favorites.

Izzo’s recruiting class, though, pales in comparison to what coach Mike Krzyzewski is bringing to the Blue Devils, with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson and Javin DeLaurier in their 2016 class, which is why, when paired with the likes of Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard, make Duke nearly everyone’s No. 1 heading into next season.

Krzyzewski is 9-1 all-time against Izzo’s Spartans.

Among the other highlights of the conference competition is Syracuse at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) Pittsburgh at Maryland (Nov. 29), Purdue at Louisville (Nov. 30) and Ohio State at Virginia (Nov. 30).  

Monday, Nov. 28

Minnesota at Florida State

Wake Forest at Northwestern

Tuesday, Nov. 29

Syracuse at Wisconsin

Michigan State at Duke

Pittsburgh at Maryland

Iowa at Notre Dame

Georgia Tech at Penn State

N.C. State at Illinois

 

Wednesday, Nov. 30

Purdue at Louisville

North Carolina at Indiana

Ohio State at Virginia

Virginia Tech at Michigan

Rutgers at Miami (Fla.)

Nebraska at Clemson