Cincinnati and Xavier are at the center of college basketball’s universe

Known primarily for its love of professional sports and unusual chili, a funny thing has happened to the city of Cincinnati this winter: It has found itself existing as one of the focal points of the college basketball universe.

With less than three full weeks of regular season play to go before March Madness grips the country, the Queen City finds itself with two teams right in the thick of the national title hunt.

Xavier is 23-3, ranked No. 4 in the latest Associated Press top-25 poll, and received five first-place votes in said poll. Cincinnati is 23-2, owns the longest winning streak in the country at 16 games, and is ranked No. 5 in the AP poll. It’s the first time since 1958 that the arch-rivals have been ranked in the top 10 at the same time, and the first time ever that the teams have co-existed in the top five.

This unapologetically local rivalry — Cincinnati and Xavier are separated by just 2.5 miles — has always been an enticing one because of the stark contrasts between two programs that are just a stone’s throw away from one another.

Cincinnati is a public school with a current enrollment of just under 45,000. Xavier is a Jesuit school with an enrollment of only 6,700. The Bearcats have been a national player for as long as anyone can remember, winning the NCAA tournament in 1961 and 1962 and finishing as its runner-up in 1963.

The Musketeers were largely irrelevant to the rest of the country until the past three decades. They had never made a Sweet 16 before 1990 and had never even won a game in the NCAA tournament before 1987. Cincinnati is still perceived as the bruising bad boy, while Xavier, despite its status as a member of the Big East, still gets painted as something of a lovable little guy.

“Cincinnati vs. Xavier is off the charts,” former UC head coach Bob Huggins said in 2013. “I mean, it’s off the charts. I think a lot of it is proximity. The whole thing starts two weeks before the game with Xavier people calling WLW. It is non-stop. It’s like you probably shouldn’t play for two weeks, because those other people you are playing really don’t matter. You got husbands who went to Xavier and wives who went to UC and vice versa. It’s crazy.”

Typically the interest in the rivalry is limited to two hours in mid-December (or mid-January depending on the year). With both programs currently projecting as top two seeds, it would be impossible for that to be the case in 2017-18.

Xavier won its meeting with Cincinnati back in December with relative ease, cruising to an 89-76 victory that was discussed more for what took place after the final horn than before it. Since then, Bearcats fans have been resigned to waive the “OK, but if they played again” rivalry flag that so many fan bases before them have worn out.

That doesn’t mean a potential rematch in March — something which has never happened before — isn’t an intriguing thought.

Xavier is currently in the thick of the fight for a No. 1 seed, and has a real shot at being the first team besides Villanova to win an outright “new” Big East regular season title. Defeating the Wildcats on Saturday would go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. Helping the Musketeers cause is that the showdown will be played at the Cintas Center, where Chris Mack’s team is 13-0 this season and a dominating 241-35 all-time.

Cincinnati counters with being one of just six teams in Division I that still has an unblemished conference record. The Bearcats are 12-0 in the AAC, a full three games in front of Houston and preseason league favorite Wichita State. UC, as mentioned before, also owns the nation’s longest overall winning streak at 16 games, as well as the longest home court winning streak in Division I at 36 games.

Of course the Bearcats and Musketeers aren’t the only teams in the area that have treated their fan bases to a special winter.

Right across the river sits Northern Kentucky University, which currently sits atop the Horizon League standings. Just one game behind the Norse is Wright State, which calls Fairborn, Ohio — a suburb right outside of Dayton — home. Travel about an hour and a half north of Cincinnati and you’ll find arguably the most pleasant surprise in all of college basketball: The Big Ten-leading Ohio State Buckeyes. One more potential NCAA tournament team can be found in the MAC, where Toledo (19-7, 11-2) currently leads the league’s West Division by a full three games.

Still, the headline grabbers here both reside in Cincinnati, a city whose passion for the college game has long been underrated.

After 15 years of struggling to turn a profit, the Cincinnati Royals NBA franchise packed its bags and moved to Kansas City in 1972. Three years later the franchise would become the Kansas City Kings, and a decade after that it would relocate to Sacramento.

Despite the Bengals and Reds being mainstays in two other of America’s major professional sports leagues, Cincinnati has never even flirted with landing another NBA team. It’s not that the area doesn’t have a passion for roundball; it’s just that it doesn’t have a passion for the professional version of the sport. Just like in its border states of Kentucky and Indiana, college is still king in Ohio. And nowhere is that more evident than in Cincinnati.

“Really, it’s the city that makes it a rivalry,” former Cincinnati standout Nick Van Exel said in 2012. “The players coming into it, like I said, I knew nothing about it. It’s the city. It’s the people who go to the two different schools that really pump this thing up.”

It’s only right that the two men who have steered this rivalry ship to the peak of its existence are Cincinnati boys through and through. Both men are currently coaching for their alma maters, and both attended prominent Cincinnati high schools — Mack went to St. Xavier and Cronin to La Salle.

Despite the vitriol that is omnipresent when the two share a court, both Cincinnati and Xavier seem to share a pride when it comes to seeing the other’s national success overlap with its own. Perhaps because the Musketeer-Bearcat rivalry isn’t the type that commands national respect on mere mention the way Duke-North Carolina does, there has become a sort of late-season camaraderie that bonds the pair in a way you’d never see at any other time on the calendar.

“For once, we pull for each other in a certain way,” Cincinnati forward Gary Clark told The Athletic. “The fans that are huge X fans and UC fans, they might not say it, but they’re pulling for us and vice versa.”

For once, the major players in the new hotbed of college hoops stand on common ground.

At least until the tournament starts.