Complaining about the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout is as much a tradition around here as the game itself. The only things more Cincinnati than Bearcat red and black or Musketeer blue are, well, chili, and talking about either what the Shootout was, or what it should be.
I started working in radio in Cincinnati 20 years ago, as a snot-nosed, basketball-obsessed punk college kid. I remember vividly producing shows that were Shootout-centric. The theme:
The Crosstown Shootout wasn't as good as it used to be.
The more things change....
Since then, we've gone to extreme lengths to pick apart the game, and use it to air out our gripes. It's either too early in the season or too later. It's held too early in the day until it takes place too late at night. It should be on campus. No, it should be off. Let's not call it the Crosstown Shootout anymore. Until, you know, we should start calling it that again.
The game doesn't get the national love it deserves!
But no, it was better when only we got to see it.
There's not as much hype as their used to be.
Ah, but we make too big a deal about one regular season game.
I wish there was more bad blood.
Yeah, but not too much, because, well, the fight.
Sometimes it feels like the only thing UC and Xavier fans can actually agree on is that it's fun to gripe about the Shootout.
Not that I don't have my preferences. If I was in charge - which would be swell for everyone - the game would be played in early February, right when the season is approaching its crescendo and more eyeballs are on the sport. The later in the season the game is played, the better the chances for a high-level game.
I prefer the game be played where it's played now. It belongs on campus, with the element of one team having to go into the other's home being a part of the rivalry's essence.
And yeah, that whole "Crosstown Classic" business was dumb.
But the state of the Shootout itself has never been better.
Mick Cronin and Chris Mack both have their programs cooking. Both are NCAA Tournament perennials. Both are squarely on the national radar. Both will soon have state-of-the-art home gyms. (The people who re-did the Cintas Center did the unimaginable, taking an already fantastic college basketball venue and making it better) Both have coaches who seem happy in the gigs they have.
There's no guarantee, of course, that this year's game will be any good. But the matchup this season might be the Shootout's juiciest. We're a bad 20-25 Muskie minutes in Las Vegas from both teams potentially being ranked in the top ten. The two teams are loaded with star players and guys who've become program hallmarks. And while I think people lose sight of exactly how hard it is and how lucky a team has to be to go that far, it's not unreasonable to think about this year's Bearcats and Musketeers playing in the Final Four.
And yet....the game used to be so much better, right?
The Bob Huggins dynamic was always fun when the Shootout rolled around, and there's no denying he was as much the perfect foil for XU fans as he was a figure for UC fans to rally around. But he was a figure who, for reasons not entirely of his own doing, could dominate, and even overshadow the entire event. I always felt like fans of both schools talked so much about Bob Huggins that it felt like they forgot about both the team he coached and the one playing against it.
The game went national for the first time in 1998-'99, and it's been carried by one national outlet or another ever since. That's meant that the time and date of the game have been volleyed around more than it used to be, but it's also allowed the rest of the country to see an often-mocked sports town be at its best.
And yes, in a few instances, at its worst.
Even casual college basketball fans around the country at least mention UC v. Xavier when talking about the sport's best rivalries, and even when the game itself hasn't been a work of art, I've heard from plenty of people in other cities who've stumbled upon the game and want to know more about it.
The lack of hype is frequently lamented when the Shootout rolls around. There's not as much buzz, one will write. It's being lost in the shuffle, another will opine.
Maybe I'm just a little too into this game and this sport, but I never detect a lack of hype or buzz. The people that care about this game get into it almost year-round. And there's no shortage of places to find analysis, nostalgia, and, of course, trash-talk if you're into those sort of things.
And if you can't find the game amid the shuffle, that's more on you than anything else.
Every year, I hear in the days leading up to the game how the Crosstown Shootout has lost its luster.
And every year, in those few moments right before the ball goes in the air in front of a crowd that's collectively feeling excitement, nervousness, and even a little dread, I'm reminded that those people who say such things have no idea what they're talking about.
The Crosstown Shootout is the best sporting event we have, especially as languishing in the misery of being a Cincinnati sports fan has become so chic. The Shootout's place in a Cincinnati sports landscape that has the Reds and Bengals both in the middle of their third decade of no postseason advancement (we have people who call themselves Bengals fans actively rooting against the team, for God's sake) should be celebrated.
Especially when the teams are as good as these two.
Like the institution of the Crosstown Shootout itself, each game is unique, with some far, far better than others.
But the institution of college basketball's best annual rivalry has never been better.