Tonight, Marquette and Cincinnati will play their first meaningful basketball game against each other since February 24, 2005, which was the last time these two teams met as part of Conference USA. In that game, the Bearcats came in ranked #24 in the country and the Golden Eagles was playing their first game since point guard Travis Diener went down with a season and college career ending injury. Since joining the Big East, these two teams have played each other just 4 times in 5 seasons, and the games have never really meant more to either team that just a run of the mill conference game.
This is sad.
When I attend home games, I can name every player in the "History of Marquette" video from Jim McIllvaine onwards. So my formative years as a Marquette fan happened to coincide with Marquette being a part of the formation of the Great Midwest Conference. This means that for 12 long years, through the Great Midwest Conference and through the first 8 years of Conference USA, I watched Marquette play Cincinnati twice a year, with the occasional third matchup in a conference tournament.
I hated every minute of it.
I hated those Bearcats so much.
And it was so easy to do so. Bob Huggins was the coach at Cincinnati when they co-founded the GMC, and he lasted right up until just before Cincinnati moved to the Big East with Marquette. Bob Huggins is the winningest coach in Cincinnati history, in both number of wins and winning percentage. And that's saying something, because this is a school that made five consecutive Final Four appearances from 1959-1963 with consecutive titles in 1961 & 1962. All he did is win at Cincinnati. Don't believe me? Watch this.
In the Great Midwest Conference, Cincinnati won 2 regular season titles and all four conference tournaments. Upon the formation of Conference USA, Cincinnati won or tied for the first 7 CUSA regular season titles. 7 straight years of looking up at the Bearcats at the top of the conference. Even when Marquette managed to break that streak in 2003, Cincinnati came right back and won the regular season title in 2004.
I don't mean to imply that Marquette wasn't competitive for all that time. Conference USA played 10 seasons with Marquette and Cincinnati as members. Of the 20 spots available in the CUSA title games in that stretch, 7 of them are taken up by Marquette or Cincinnati, with the two teams meeting twice, in 1996 and 2002. And games against the Bearcats were important because we were in the same division in CUSA for 8 years, and that division was the best division all 8 years. In the 16 finals spots in those 8 years, 14 of the spots were taken by teams in our division, and one of the other 2 was Charlotte, who ended up in the same division as Marquette and Cincinnati after realignment.
But that's just the big picture stuff. If we specifically look at the Marquette-Cincinnati rivalry from the formation of the GMC up to the move to the Big East, we see 31 MU-UC games. Marquette was 10-21 in those games. Like I said, all the Huggins Bearcats teams did was win. The fact of the matter is that 21 of the times when Marquette faced off with Cincinnati, the Bearcats were a top 25 team, and 15 of those times they were a top 10 team. Managing 10 wins in those circumstances is by no means a poor showing. Marquette wasn't without their successes at the time, of course. Marquette went into a game against Cincinnati ranked on 8 occasions. All in all, Marquette and Cincinnati played 23 games from 1992 through 2005 where at least one of the teams was ranked.
If we just wanted to take the on court results, that'd be a hell of a story and a hell of a rivalry which has drifted away over time. But what really burned the britches of any Marquette fan at the time was that Bob Huggins was winning games in a most unsavory matter. As discussed in a Stewart Mandel column on SI.com in March of 2006, during Bob Huggins' tenure as Cincinnati head coach, 19 players or recruits were charged with a crime and 5 ended up serving prison time for their charges. Most memorable of those 5 for me is Donald Little. This guy was a real winner. He managed to get himself dismissed from the team because of 2 alcohol related incidents before being reinstated for the the 2001-02 season. Then he decided to follow up hitting a game winner against Marquette in 2002 by following through on a plan where he, and this is not a joke, hit his roommate with a whiskey bottle, punched and kicked the guy repeatedly, taped him to a lawn chair, burned him with lit cigarettes and a heated coat hanger, and stabbed the guy in the leg. Little then told friends who were present to kill the roommate and dump his body in Columbus. This all happened because Little had $2,500 in the apartment that he could no longer find.
All these arrests and convictions led to a reputation which the Bearcats were more than happy to enforce on the court. What jumps to my mind first is the 2002 CUSA Championship game when Jason Maxiell punched Cordell Henry in the junk while Maxiell was setting a screen. To follow that up, I can relay a story I was told by a former Marquette player. While playing against Cincinnati once, he ended up fouling Kenyon Martin hard enough that it knocked Martin down. He told me that the look on Martin's face was SO angry that he immediately reached down to help Martin up and actually apologized to him, saying "I'm sorry, MISTER MARTIN."
It wasn't just the violence and general thuggery that irritated this Marquette fan. It was the behavior of the Cincinnati athletic department towards the basketball team. Stewart Mandel mentions in that same column from earlier that just 27 players graduated from Cincinnati while Huggins was head coach. 27 players in 16 seasons. To review: 19 charged with a crime, 27 graduates. And they won. Again and again and again and again.
It was a fantastic rivalry. A midwestern basketball version of Catholics versus Convicts. It was the kind of rivalry that made me think that, when Bob Huggins suffered a heart attack while waiting for a plane from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee in September 2002, the idea of having to go to Milwaukee helped cause the heart attack. But it was all undone the day that Nancy Zimpher took over as president of the University of Cincinnati. She wanted to move the university away from all the negative publicity, and when Huggins was picked up for a DUI the night before the first UC graduation under Zimpher, it was curtains for Huggins, and curtains for the relevancy of the Bearcats basketball program as they entered the Big East.
Luckily for us, current UC head coach Mick Cronin has the Bearcats on the verge of a return to the NCAA tournament. And he seems to be doing it with a bit of a throwback to the Huggins era, with noted headcase Yancy Gates as the feature player on his squad. Maybe this can be the start of a renewal of this old rivalry. Hopefully a renewal leads to a reversal of fortunes.