Sunday, January 24, 1999

Shootout 'bigger than the calendar'




BY MICHAEL PERRY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For years, the coaches complained about the game being smack in the middle of their conference seasons.

        And here we are again, interrupting the regularly scheduled Conference USA and Atlantic 10 programs to bring you the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.

        City rivals Xavier and Cincinnati get to expend tremendous emotion and energy for Thursday night's annual showdown while vying for league titles.

        The past two Shootouts were played, respectively, in November and December — before conference play started. Which worked out well for the Musketeers, who won both games.

        “I didn't particularly like the results the past couple years,” UC coach Bob Huggins said. “But, oh well, we've just got to play.”

        This season's battle at the Shoemaker Center was moved to January so it could be televised nationally as part of ESPN's “Rivalry Week.”

        There is good and bad for Xavier about the timing.

        The Musketeers (15-4), who struggled to a 5-4 start, were ill-prepared to handle the Bearcats in the fall and are playing their best ball right now. XU would have had to play an early game without 6-foot-10 center Obi Harris, who was injured (finger), and 6-7 forward Aaron Turner, who became eligible Jan. 12.

        “It's easy to say that now, but when the schedule came out I was hoping it would be an early game,” XU coach Skip Prosser said.

        The downside for Xavier is it has just one day after the Shoot out to get ready for an important league game at noon Saturday at Dayton, where the Musketeers have not won in five years. Because that game is on ESPN, too, Xavier couldn't ask the conference to change the date or time.

        “That's obviously a tough 36 hours,” Prosser said. “We're in sort of like double-rivalry week this week.”

        Cincinnati (18-1) has to turn around and face Alabama-Birmingham at 1 p.m. Saturday, but at least the game is at the Shoemaker Center.

        UC would've been without 6-8 Jermaine Tate before mid-December.

        “There are a lot of things that really I don't like that go on,” Huggins said. “There are a lot of things we do for television that aren't ideal, like playing on the road at 9:30 on a Thursday and then coming home and playing Saturday at noon. But we do them.”

        That's just what UC did when it lost at North Carolina Char lotte on Jan. 14, then returned home to play host to Oklahoma. Both games were on ESPN.

        Neither team's conference is having a good year. That means this game might be somewhat less of a hitch than it might be in a stronger year for the leagues. However, it also adds significance to the matchup.

        The Musketeers will be one of UC's better challenges through the remainder of the regular season. The Bearcats' only ranked opponent left: No. 24 Louisville at home.

        Likewise, the Bearcats provide Xavier with an opportunity to move up in the Rating Percentage Index rankings and build on its 10-game winning streak against a ranked foe. UC is the lone top-25 opponent left on XU's schedule. The only remaining opponent to even get votes in the Associated Press poll is Temple.

        A victory would thrust the unranked Musketeers back into the national spotlight.

        Until 1996-97, the Cross town Shootout was played between Jan. 1 and Feb. 1 for 15 straight years, and it was held before the first of the year since the 1957-58 season.

        Coaches at both schools complained that playing the game during the conference season hindered the quest for a league title.

        It was tough at times to come back after such an emotionally draining game. For instance, after the Musketeers' 82-76 overtime victory over UC in January 1994, they went to Evansville and lost by 30 while the Bearcats lost at Memphis 62-55.

        XU is 9-4 in games after Shootouts in the Pete Gillen-Prosser years; UC is 6-3 under Huggins.

        Prosser would like to see the game catch on nationally. But he also would like it moved back to the non-conference season — ideally in mid-December.

        “I think both of us would rather right now be concentrating on conference games, but this is another one of those things you do for television, for national television in this case,” Prosser said.

        “I know the Atlantic 10 has a policy that if a national network wants to do your game, you pretty much do it where and when they say. Hence, our Thursday-Saturday deal.”

        For fans, the later date has provided more time for bickering and banter. Not to mention some mood swings.

        A month ago, talk-show predictions were that the Bearcats would blow out the Musketeers. Then XU won 10 straight while UC dropped its first game. Of course, after Cincinnati's convincing 26-point victory at Louisville on Thursday night, the Bearcats look like a heavy favorite again.

        “I think the game is so big they could probably play it in July,” said Andy Furman of WLW. “I think it's bigger than the calendar.”

       



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