College basketball needs more local rivalries — even if they sometimes boil over

The best rivalries in college basketball are local rivalries: Philadelphia’s Big Five, Duke-North Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville are all examples of that.

There’s also Cincinnati-Xavier.

The two schools are located three miles apart and play every season. On Saturday, with both teams nationally ranked going into the game, the Musketeers beat the Bearcats, 89-76.

During postgame handshakes, Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin had to be dragged away from Xavier senior J.P. Macura. Afterward, Cronin said that Macura had called him “the f-word” three times during and after the game and added, “If he was playing for me, he wouldn’t play.”

That was a clear shot at Xavier Coach Chris Mack, who was unapologetic about Macura’s behavior. He pointed out that Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson had directed the n-word at him during the game eight years ago and he hadn’t complained or done anything other than shake hands after Xavier won that day. Mack also defended Macura and called him “a great kid.”

Let’s be clear here: Mack, 47 and Cronin, 46, are two of the more accomplished younger coaches in the country. Mack has taken Xavier to at least the Sweet 16 in four of his first eight seasons at his alma mater — including last year when the Musketeers, without injured point guard Edmund Sumner, beat sixth-seeded Maryland, third-seeded Florida State and second-seeded Arizona to reach the Elite Eight in the West Region.

Cronin has taken Cincinnati to seven straight NCAA tournaments, been to one Sweet 16 and was 30-5 last season before losing in the second round to third-seeded UCLA. Each school has lofty hopes for this winter.

That’s all good. These are two good guys who can really coach. But although anger in this rivalry is nothing new, both need to be given a good talking-to right about now.

Six years ago, the hostility got completely out of hand when a brawl broke out with nine seconds left in an easy Xavier victory. When all was said and done, four players from each school had been suspended and the presidents had to intervene to help calm things down.

No doubt tempers will cool in the coming days, as well, and both coaches will kiss and make up. Both, however, need to do better in the future when the teams play. If Macura was directing profanity at Cronin, the Cincinnati coach should have first made the officials aware of it and, if that didn’t stop it, he should have made Mack aware of it. Then it would be up to Mack to let his player know that was unacceptable.

Years ago, when North Carolina Coach Dean Smith thought Clemson’s Iker Iturbe was trying to hurt one of his players in an ACC tournament game, he began shouting and pointing at Iturbe. Seeing and hearing Smith, Clemson Coach Rick Barnes began stalking in the direction of the North Carolina bench. Referee Rick Hartzell intercepted him and asked him what he was doing.

“I’m going to tell Dean if he has a problem with one my players he needs to tell me and I’ll take care of it,” Barnes said.

The officials decided to bring the two coaches together to sort the matter out. “That was a mistake,” said Frank Scagliotta, one of the other officials. “We should have gotten them as far apart as possible and told them both to cool it.”

Smith and Barnes had to be held apart while Smith yelled at Barnes — 20-plus years his junior — “Go ahead and hit me, Rick.”

It was ugly. But Barnes had done the right thing. If Iturbe was playing dirty, Smith should have told the officials and Barnes. The same was true of Cronin on Saturday. Having to be pulled away from a player is unacceptable. The coaches are supposed to be the grown-ups in all this.

Even though things got out of hand this past weekend, Xavier-Cincinnati remains a compelling rivalry because it means so much to everyone involved.

It is a perfect example of why local rivalries are always the best rivalries. It is a reminder to all of us who live here in Washington of how sad it is that the city’s two power schools — each a past national champion — don’t automatically play each other every season.

Maryland and Georgetown played the last two seasons in the Gavitt Games, a preseason challenge series between the Big Ten and the Big East. It was their first regularly scheduled game since 1993. Each game was compelling. Maryland won both, the first by rallying late against an unranked Georgetown team (Maryland was ranked No. 3) in a game in which little-known Hoyas center Bradley Hayes outplayed ballyhooed Diamond Stone. A year later, the Terrapins pulled out a wild game with a furious last-minute rally.

And that was that. Maryland played Butler in this season’s Gavitt Games and Georgetown, playing almost all of its pre-conference games against cupcakes — to put it mildly — didn’t participate.

Which is a shame, just as it is also a shame that Georgetown has refused to play George Washington since 1981. Maryland and GW have played on occasion in recent years, but only in the BB&T Classic. It should be automatic that the local schools play one another every season, creating important pre-conference games that players and fans would all look forward to annually.

In Philadelphia, the Big Five schools play one another every year — each playing the other four — regardless of conference affiliations. VCU and Old Dominion are no longer conference rivals but they still play each other every season. It took an order from the state legislature to get Kentucky to resume playing Louisville in 1983. They have played every year since in what is now one of college basketball’s most anticipated games.

Maybe the D.C. Council should intervene in the Georgetown-GW mess. Maybe Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser should get together on the Maryland-Georgetown issue.

Because this much is certain: Even though Xavier and Cincinnati went over the line Saturday, everyone involved will look forward to the teams’ meeting next year. It will no doubt be a dramatic basketball game. And, one hopes, nothing more than that.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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