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.

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.