Just moments after Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates landed a nose-crushing right hook on Xavier’s Kenny Frease, everyone had an opinion on how it would shift both programs.
Some thought the squeaky clean reputation of the Musketeers had been muddied, while others were sure that the Bearcats would take a step or two back in their progression under head coach Mick Cronin.
In the weeks ahead, the obvious angle was that everything had changed for both programs.
Xavier flat out stunk, losing five of their next six games and finishing 10-6 in Atlantic 10 play. By February, it was easy to write this team off and label their season as a major disappointment.
Cincinnati suffered more severe suspensions, but kept winning. Mick Cronin took an incredible amount of heat for tough love followed by lenient suspensions, and questions abounded as to the best way to handle Gates, allegedly their most important player but someone who the Bearcats proved they could win without.
But with all that, if you fell into a coma on December 9th – when Xavier was undefeated and the Bearcats were 5-2 but clearly talented to be a tournament team – and woke up this past Monday morning to scan an updated bracket, you’d have absolutely no clue how tumultuous things were for both programs throughout the regular season.
But here they are, both through to the second weekend of the tournament. A place that, in retrospect, would have shocked nobody way back when the season started. The fact that their still standing feels perfectly normal.
Preparing for their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in five seasons, the Musketeers have essentially become the de facto two-seed of the South Region, a seed that was theirs to lose pre-brawl.
Think about it.
It’s the same team as December; same players, and same talent level. They’re a little banged up but hopefully will play with a normal rotation against Baylor, and should be treated as the top 10-type team that they were to start the season.
It’s cliché to say it, but whatever turmoil they went through in-house during the winter is completely in the past. Irrelevant, really.
For Cincinnati let’s not forget that they were named a pre-season top 25 team by some publications, returning their top four scorers from a season ago where they won their first NCAA Tournament game since 2005.
While December 10th, 2011 didn’t seem to have much of an effect in the standings for the Bearcats, who knows what sort of residual undetectable impact it had.
If anything, losing by 23 to your hated rival could serve as proper motivation to right the ship.
Both teams will be underdogs in their respective Sweet 16 match-ups, but both have validated themselves as worthy of serving as two of the only Division I programs still standing. You shouldn’t be shocked that we’re still talking about both clubs.
We thought so much changed, but really everything is in line with what we originally anticipated heading into the second weekend of the tournament.
Xavier and Cincinnati are legit. We don’t need to fight over that.
Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN