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Published: Monday, 3/12/2012

Xavier, Cincinnati back in field


CINCINNATI — Three months after they traded punches and sullied reputations, the city’s two Division I teams had reason to be proud.

Cincinnati and Xavier overcame a scarring December day in their own way and at their own pace, fending up in the same place. They’re both going to the NCAA tournament.

The Bearcats (24-10) and the Musketeers (21-12) received at-large bids on Sunday, extending seasons that were very much in doubt shortly after they got started. Both reached the finals of their conference tournaments — Cincinnati lost to Louisville in the Big East on Saturday night, Xavier to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 on Sunday.

“I knew it was going to be a journey this year,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said on Sunday. “It was a little more eventful than I’d hoped.”

With an upbeat ending for both.

The Bearcats took another step in rebuilding a program that hit bottom after coach Bob Huggins was forced out. They reached the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in six years. The sixth-seeded Bearcats play Texas in Nashville on Friday.

Xavier is in the tournament for the seventh straight season and the 11th time in 12 years, though this appearance comes at the end of a trying season. The 10th-seeded Musketeers play Notre Dame — one of Cincinnati’s Big East opponents — in Greensboro, S.C., on Friday.

Three months ago, none of it was at all certain.

Xavier was No. 8 nationally and improved to 8-0 with a 23-point win over Cincinnati on the Musketeers’ home court on Dec. 10. With 9.4 seconds left, trash talk turned into taunting, pushing, and punching.

When Cronin and Xavier coach Chris Mack went home that night, they were staring at something that neither of them had ever encountered — teams about to take hits in their reputations and on the court.

“If you’d have told me the night of Dec. 10, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to have 24 wins, lose in the Big East championship game, beat more ranked teams than any other team in the country, be [here] doing these interviews,’ I would have taken it,” Cronin said.

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