CINCINNATI — The city's storied basketball rivalry is back in a very different format.
When Xavier and Cincinnati played last season, their annual crosstown game ended with punches and punishments — four players from each team suspended. The small Catholic school and large public school, separated by only 2½ miles, spent the rest of the season dealing with the black mark on their reputations and one of the city's marquee sporting events.
The overriding question: Should the rivalry end?
It'll be renewed on Wednesday night in a different setting. The game has been moved away from the campuses, bringing fans of both schools together in the stands at a downtown arena.
The mood is different, too. There's been no trash talking between Xavier (7-2) and No. 11 Cincinnati (10-0). Both teams are avoiding talk of the brawl as well, wishing they could move beyond it.
A good, clean game on Wednesday night would go a long way.
"It was a regrettable moment," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "We lived that a year ago. As an educator, someone who mentors players, the message has been that we need to learn from what happened a year ago. And I think our kids have."
The two schools and basketball fans around the city have learned what it's like when a sporting event gets out of hand.
Xavier was unbeaten and ranked No. 8 when it beat the Bearcats 76-53 on the Musketeers' home court last season. With 9.4 seconds left, words were exchanged, the basketball was flung and fists started flying — the darkest moment in the rivalry's 79-game history.
Four players from each team were suspended for up to six games. Coaches and players gave emotional apologies. The schools talked about whether to skip the rivalry game for a year.
With its top two front-line players suspended, Cincinnati went to a three-guard offense and took off, reaching the NCAA tournament's round of 16. Xavier fell apart and didn't regroup until the closing weeks of the season, also reaching the round of 16. Both teams had to answer questions about the fight's lingering effects the rest of the way.
Eventually, they agreed to keep the rivalry going, but wanted to remove its nasty edge. The game was moved to a downtown arena for the next two seasons. The name was changed from the Crosstown Shootout to the Crosstown Classic. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center became a partner. Students and players from both schools toured the center together.
Five of the eight suspended players have moved on, including four who started last year. There's been no boasting, no turning the game into a referendum on which program is better — a notable break from the past.
"Everyone on their team is very talented and very good as well," Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick said. "Their starters are as good as our starters and their bench can be as good as our bench. We don't know how it's going to be, but it will be a great matchup."
Part of the rivalry's edge comes from proximity. The players face each other during summer league games in Cincinnati. Fans from both schools work side-by-side during the week. They relish their once-a-year bragging rights event.
"The animosity that people outside the region perceived is not the case," Mack said. "And we have to make sure that's highlighted when we play on Wednesday night. It's going to be a hard-played game, it always is. But it's got to be one that's played the way it was played in the past, and it will be."
The officials are likely to call it close, which could benefit the Bearcats, who have a much deeper bench.
The Bearcats also are more familiar with the downtown U.S. Bank Arena, where Cincinnati plays more regularly and has won it last 17 games. Xavier hasn't played at the arena since 2007-08. The schools played their rivalry there 10 times from 1976-87 before moving it on campus.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin thinks the neutral site will be helpful to both teams.
"It readies your team for postseason because that's where the NCAA tournament is," Cronin said. "They're played at big arenas, downtown arenas at neutral sites. I think it's great for the city that we're playing down at U.S. Bank Arena, but at the same time I think it'll be advantageous for both of us come March to have a game like this at a neutral site."
For the coaches, it's a challenge to get their teams through a game that has so much buildup and tends to linger. That part hasn't changed.
"I think it's incredibly important to the community," Mack said. "It's a tough game. It's one game. There are a lot of eyes on the game nationally, locally, you name it, heightened this year a little bit.
"But at the same time when Wednesday comes and goes, both teams have to be able to turn the page. Cincinnati did that a year ago — they went on an incredible run. We didn't."