After Brawl, Xavier Experiences Painful Fall from Grace
Published: Friday, August 31, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 31, 2012 00:08
Each generation has its fond memories of a mid-major team experiencing success in the NCAA tournament and captivating a nation in the process.
For our parents, Indiana State and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas provided tournament excitement. Our generation, meanwhile, has experienced runs by Gonzaga, Butler, George Mason and Xavier. The arc of relevance for each of these teams has varied in length, with Indiana State and Mason achieving fleeting success, while Gonzaga has remained solid since the ’90s.
But the brilliant run for Xavier, a small Jesuit school situated off of Victory Parkway in Cincinnati, Ohio, came to a disappointing but necessary end last week with the news that Dez Wells had been expelled from the school following allegations of sexual assault.
With Wells’ dismissal, all five starters from last year’s Musketeers squad are gone, signaling the end of an era and a fresh start for head coach Chris Mack.
So as it comes to an end, an assessment of Xavier’s long boom must touch on the incredible talent the program has produced — both players and coaches — and the tournament success that it has achieved.
The roster of coaches who went on to lead major programs includes Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Sean Miller (Arizona).
And in the tournament, Xavier has done more than just knock off a 1990 Georgetown squad that included Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. It has reached two Elite Eights since 2004 and four of the last five Sweet 16s — an unprecedented run.
Yet Xavier’s fall as a mid-major powerhouse, which took years to build and lasted for so long, was caused in large part by the events of December 10 — an unfortunate day that still lingers over the school’s small campus in Cincinnati.
With just a few seconds left in a blowout win over cross-town rival Cincinnati, a violent brawl erupted that left the students in the Cintas Center torn between cheering and gasping in shock.
The team before them, ranked No. 8 nationally, was by all accounts a rough crew, known for its gritty comebacks and led by players like center Yancy Gates with swaggers rivaling that of Kanye West.
Before the game, Xavier’s players had adopted the motto “zip ‘em up” to describe their team’s tenacity with which it beat opponents and in the process implied that they intended to put the University of Cincinnati players in body bags.
With that mentality, the players relished the brawl, seeing it as a chance to demonstrate their toughness.
During the press conference immediately following the game, star senior guard Tu Holloway explained to the media that his team would never apologize for the brawl, justifying this attitude by saying, “We got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room.”
As a result, perspective about the brawl was lost. Nobody remembered that this rivalry has always been testy, as evidenced by former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins refusal to shake hands with Xavier’s coaches and players.
And many seemed to forget that Cincinnati players had punched and stomped on Xavier players that afternoon. Instead, the focus in the aftermath was solely on the Xavier squad and their self-labeled “gangster” persona.
Blasted by the media, the team seemed to spiral out of control. The video of seven-foot senior center Kenny Frease, face bloodied and screaming profanities, did not fade from national attention, and the team sputtered to a third-place finish in the Atlantic 10.
Though XU rallied behind its own strength — and considerable talent — to make yet another Sweet 16, the damage was done.
Previously thought to be a first-round pick, Tu Holloway is without an NBA contract. Fellow superstar Mark Lyons left Xavier for Arizona. Following Wells’ expulsion last week, the final epitaph can now officially be written.
The team that screamed “zip ‘em up” in the Cintas Center on that cold winter day now stands in shambles. Although his potential Final Four team fizzled and his starters are gone, Mack, the team’s always-agreeable coach, now has an opportunity to start anew.
Forced to cut ties with a team that brought national shame to a small Jesuit school, Xavier’s chances of making the Final Four in the near future have faded definitively into history. Yes, the Musketeers will still be competitive in the Atlantic 10, but they will not likely be heard from on the national stage any time soon.
In the blink of an eye, a team and program complimented and admired for its toughness, grittiness and swagger became villains. Xavier, unlike Indiana State, survived several rounds of graduations. But unlike Gonzaga, its success eventually caved in on itself in a singular moment of rage and fury.
The healing can now begin in Cincinnati, but success may never come with as much frequency as before.
Following Wells’ expulsion last week, the final epitaph can now officially be written.
Corey Blaine is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. THE BLEACHER SEATS appears every Friday.