As if trying to devise a way to stop Xavier's Tu Holloway isn't tough enough, UC head coach Mick Cronin received another difficult task this week when Pete Rose called his cell phone before the sold-out Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.
"He was looking for tickets," Mick told me with a laugh. "Other than the fact that he is the greatest hitter of all-time, that makes him like everybody else in
Thanks to John Burns and the folks from CBTS, the Hit King will have a great seat for college basketball's best intracity jihad* - a game that the Bearcats are desperate to win after dropping three straight, six of the last eight, and 10 of the last 14 meetings against the Musketeers.
"I don't like 'em - and I'm pretty sure that they don't like us," Darnell Wilks said. "When I was a freshman, I really didn't understand it as much. It's the biggest game in my mind. This being my senior year, I really want to win."
"It's a big deal," Rashad Bishop said. "A lot of people around here live for this game and the seniors really want to go out with a win over Xavier."
Emotions are always at a fever pitch in this rivalry and last year it turned ugly. The Bearcats led 19-12 in the first half when Bishop and XU's Jordan Crawford got into a skirmish that resulted in each player receiving a technical foul. The Musketeers promptly went on a 12-2 run.
"It's a very emotional game," Wilks said. "Nobody wants to back down from the other team so that's really what it is."
"We have to make sure we don't get caught up in any stupid stuff emotionally," Coach Cronin said. "I thought that killed us last year."
Last year's game was a double-overtime thriller won by the Musketeers 83-79, as Holloway led the way with a then career-high 26 points (including 11-for-11 free throws). This year, the junior guard has scored 24-or-more points in seven of Xavier's 12 games.
"He's playing as well as anybody in the country not named (UConn's) Kemba Walker," Coach Cronin said. "His assist to turnover ratio is off the charts and he's not only averaging 21 points a game - he's averaging more than 5 assists a game. You can't play much better than he's playing. He's as fast with the ball in his hands as Isaiah Pead was on the football field - he reminds me of a running back with the ball in his hands. He does a great job of getting to the rim and getting fouled."
Holloway is also averaging 39.1 minutes a game and the injury-plagued Musketeers only have six players averaging double-digit minutes. The Bearcats have 10 such players and will attempt to wear down Xavier's starters with their depth and full-court pressure.
"We hope that it wears them down," Bishop said. "It's not going to have an effect early in the game because the adrenaline is going to be rushing, but we have to keep grinding and hope that it has an effect in the second half."
But as Coach Cronin points out, Xavier has been playing shorthanded for nearly two months, and the Musketeers are used to it. His biggest concern is getting good shots against a Musketeer team that is holding opponents to 41% shooting.
"They are extremely well-coached and have veterans who know how to defend," Cronin said. "They know how to shrink the court on you and make it tough to get the shots that you want. All teams evolve and they've played enough tough games that they know who they need to be to win. I think it's pretty clear that in order for Xavier to win, they need to be a great defensive team."
That's also true of the Bearcats who are holding foes to 54.4 points per game to rank third in the country. That's been the biggest key to a 14-0 start, and a spot in the national rankings . . . not to mention a ticket-seeking phone call from "Charlie Hustle."
"It's surreal for a kid who grew up in
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*I grabbed the term "intracity jihad" from Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy who recently called the Alabama/Auburn football rivalry a "Skoal-fueled intrastate jihad."