A brawl fuels the Bearcats

That was Dec. 10, 2011. No. 8 Xavier stomped cross-town rival Cincinnati 76-53, and bad blood came out. A massive fight erupted, and the Bearcats looked awful — on and off the court.

At that time, Cincy was just 5-3 early in the year with bad losses to Presbyterian and Marshall (not basketball schools, as you guessed). They never showed up for their game against Xavier; they only showed up for the fight.

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Usually, the team that loses a game and goes down fighting doesn’t come back. It’s normally a sign that the wheels have fallen off the bus and the program is in shambles.

That wasn’t the case for Cincinnati.

Mick Cronin has Cincinnati near the top of the Big East

After that blowout, Cincinnati rolled off seven consecutive wins, starting 2-0 in their Big East schedule. They beat Oklahoma, Pittsburgh (ranked No. 22 at the time) and Notre Dame, one after another.

They’ve won 10 of the 11 games since the brawl. Their only loss was to St. John’s on Jan. 7, a two-point loss against a more than capable team. After that loss, they beat No. 11 Georgetown on the road, Villanova at home and No. 11 Connecticut on the road.

Not bad for a team that seemed down and out.

At 5-1 in Big East play, the Bearcats are just a game and a half behind the top-ranked team in the nation, Syracuse. Nobody else in the Big East is above them in the standings. Today, they have West Virginia in another tough road test. After that, they host No. 1 Syracuse on Monday.

All the credit in this situation has to go to Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. I’ve always been a fan of his; I think he is a solid coach who is doing the most he can with a program that is no longer in its hey days.

After the Xavier brawl, he said all the right things. His postgame press conference was firm and unforgiving — he told the media that he would assess the damage, but he wasn’t sure those who were involved in starting the fight would ever wear the program’s jersey again.

He suspended some of his best players for multiple games, which many writers said was too lenient. They thought he should have booted a player or two off the team to prove his point.

I disagreed, because only Cronin and his players know what was happening behind closed doors. Maybe the kids who were involved in the fight showed their regret for what happened, and I have very little doubt they ran more suicides and stadiums than some of us have ever run in our lives. I wanted to give Cronin a chance to prove that his decisions after the brawl were the right ones.

His players have played harder for him than ever, and they’ve kept their head down and played basketball. No fighting, no trash-talking — just winning. Right now, Cincinnati is one of the hottest teams in basketball after being left for dead by just about everyone.

Including me.

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