The darkest moment of the 2011-12 basketball season had to be the ugly brawl that erupted between neighborhood rivals Cincinnati and Xavier. The brightest moment might have been the swift and decisive action by both schools, especially Bearcats coach Mick Cronin.
Both suspended four players apiece, including Xavier star Tu Holloway of Hempstead for one game and Cincinnati star Yancy Gates for six games. Cronin was so mad at his players' actions that he said he literally took the jerseys off their backs in the locker room. He later said they had to make a public apology to put the uniform back on, adding ominously, "If I don't believe it then they won't be on the team, and if they don't demonstrate that they won't ever put on a jersey again -- period."
Flash forward and both schools are among the four from Ohio that made the NCAA Sweet 16. They would have to reach the championship game to play each other again this season, but the Bearcats are matched against Ohio State in the East Regional semifinals Thursday night in Boston.
Asked how his disciplinary action brought the Bearcats together and helped them renew their commitment to playing the right way, Cronin at first said, "I don't think it had anything to do with it." He said his team was playing mediocre basketball and was forced to make a choice to "sink or swim. Swimming wasn't going to be easy. We had to make a lot of changes. Our commitment on defense wasn't what it needed to be."
But ultimately, Cronin concluded that his players "changed their basketball personalities" when they were allowed to put the uniform back on. Gates, who threw the first punch of the brawl, decking a Musketeer, stepped up to become a team leader when he returned to action.
"I would have grown up anyway," Gates insisted. "But it really helped because, dealing with tough situations, you get time to sit back and think about different things and talk to different people. I took it as growing pains and my process of becoming a mature adult."
The validity of that claim undoubtedly will be tested, as it is for all young adults, but as a basketball team, it appears the Bearcats certainly have grown up and learned to act and to play more responsibly. They've learned the difference between playing out of control and playing hard, and they earned paid the necessary dues to wear the jersey again with some pride.