CINCINNATI -- The annual showdown on the hardwood between the Xavier University and University of Cincinnati men’s basketball teams is more than a game for the students at the respective colleges. It's something they wait for all year.
Featuring two of the area’s top universities -- separated by three miles physically and an entire world socially -- the Crosstown Classic is an event that divides the city but unites both campuses.
The buzz has been missing this year, due in part to the success of the Bengals, the fact the game isn't being played on campus for a second straight year and neither team is ranked in the Top 25.
It hasn't help that most of the talk about town has focused on the pre-Christmas blasts of snow and icy cold temperatures.
But for students on both campuses the Dec. 14 game is a sweat-soaked present they can't wait to open.
Leah Jenk, a Xavier University student, is a member of the school’s X-Treme Fan Board of Directors, a campus group that helps pump up the student section and the Musketeer fans around the arena on game days. She said the organization prepared for Saturday night’s game for months and are anxiously awaiting the 8 p.m. tip off at U.S. Bank Arena.
“Before the game I'll be helping hand out the T-shirts that I designed to 700 Xavier students and then bussing the students downtown,” said Jenk, who is scheduled to graduate in 2017.
The reality is similar for Dulcie Jane Harstough, a Raleigh, N.C. native. She’s not from the area but says she’s known about the rivalry between the Muskies and the Bearcats since she was child.
“I had known about the rivalry growing up in what feels like the epicenter of college basketball (North Carolina). My aunt and uncle would add to the excitement by talking about their experience at the games. UC runs in the family so I needed to continue the tradition,” she said of her decision to make her way to Clifton for college.
The sports administration major at Cincinnati expects to graduate in August 2014. That makes the 2013 Classic the last she’ll experience as a student.
She called last year's meeting a "tragedy" even though the Bearcats pulled out a 60-45 win. It was her first Crosstown game and she hoped for a more competitive game.
While she hopes this year's game won't be as lopsided, Hartsough says she knows she'll have fun -- as long as the Bearcats come out on top.
“I plan to eat pizza, watch a great game and celebrate (a win) after the game," she said.
The intensity of the game adds to the excitement surrounding the college experience for some prospective students as well.
Michael Levy is a Cincinnati student and a graduate of Sycamore High School. He grew up watching the famed XU-UC battles on TV and experiencing the fanfare surrounding it.
“I never went to a game but I went to a couple banquets when I was younger with my mom,” the UC accounting major said. “It didn't play a role in my coming to UC but it's definitely something I looked forward to.”
Levy plans to attend the game with a several of his fraternity brothers. But growing up in Cincinnati, he knows he will run into a few childhood friends who ended up at Xavier.
“I know a couple Xavier students, so fun trash-talking will obviously be involved but nothing too harsh. It’s only a game,” he said.
If the Bearcats come out on top, though, he says he's going to make sure his friends hear about it.
“It's always a great matchup with two great teams that comes along with great bragging rights for the year.”
When he was a kid, Brenton Cates didn't know what side of the intracity rivalry he'd fall on.
The third-year mechanical engineering student at UC said he leaned towards Xavier while he was growing up in West Chester. “But now I'm 100 percent Bearcat,” he said, adding he believes it’s “best to avoid” his friends at Xavier during game week.
This will be Cates' first Crosstown Classic.
“I'm more excited than words can describe. UC-Xavier is my favorite college basketball rivalry because of the proximity of the two campuses,” he said. “Each fanbase has a crazy amount of passion for their team and it really shows during these games."
Nick Bauer will also attend his first Classic on Saturday. But unlike some locals, the Baltimore, Ohio native only learned about the seriousness of the after making the decision to transfer to UC.
“The Crosstown Classic was being played right around the same time I was making my decision to transfer last year. I watched the game on TV and got excited about becoming a Bearcat,” he said.
Since then, he says he’s gone to every home game and even made a few road trips to follow the team.
“Now, to finally be a part of the real thing, to experience my first Crosstown Classic from the student section is very exciting.
In addition to bragging rights, Bauer said he thinks the game will put the Bearcats in a good position heading into the new year.
“We are coming off of our first loss against a tough New Mexico team, so it makes this game even more
important. I have a good feeling the Cats will get back in the ‘W’ column this weekend,” he said.
What About The Students At Heart?
Every year, the Classic gives alums of both schools a chance to look back to their college days with fond memories -- and envy current students.
“(Now that I'm) growing up, there are obviously other concerns and reasons to be excited that I didn’t know or care about when I was at Xavier. However, I am still planning my day and hopefully my weekend around this game,” said Benjamin Clemons, a Xavier grad who works at a law firm in Cleveland.
While he has friends from Xavier in Cleveland, Clemons said watching the game at a bar in northeast Ohio doesn’t compare to spending time with college chums at a Dana’s or inside the arena where it's being played.
“I miss the atmosphere. There’s not much around here like it,” he said. “I wish I were in the city on Saturday. The atmosphere and excitement are second to none."
Clemons vividly remembers the details surrounding his first Crosstown game, which was then called the Crosstown Shootout. It was the first year students were allowed to line up early for tickets.
“I was put in charge by the X-Treme fans to run the line, and without power, in 20 mph winds, students by the hundreds lined up. By the time the tickets were released to students, almost 600 students in 83 tents were lined up circling Cintas Center,” he recalled.
Even though it occurred several weeks before the actual game, the overwhelming nature of the situation is something Clemons says he will never forget.
“There were rallies, chanting, alums swinging by and bringing us food. And there were still a few weeks from playing the game. It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “Though, I still have nightmares of students calling and waking me up at 2:30 in the morning to ask if they leave to use the restroom, if they’ll lose their spot in line.”
Xavier ended up beating UC in overtime that year, which made the craziness surrounding the game “absolutely worth it,” Clemons said.
Those memories are things Xavier seniors Tom Kelly and Lauren Vaughan look forward to being able to share with friends after they graduate in spring 2014.
Kelly says he has enjoyed his three and a half years at the North Avondale campus and thinks a win in the big game would be a perfect graduation gift.
“The game is always something to look forward to in December, but this time is a little bittersweet. It’s my last time I get to participate in the scramble for tickets and hear the hype going on around campus,” said the mathematics and actuarial science major.
Next year's game will be a little different.
“It won’t be the same coming back after graduation,” Kelly said. “The entire point of going to the game is to sit in the student section and scream as loud as you can with your classmates and enjoy a beer.”
While Vaughan says nothing will compare to watching the game as a Xavier student, there are some benefits to sitting somewhere other than the student section.
“I don't think it will be the same as being in the student section, but I'll admit, I don't think I'll mind sitting down instead of standing the whole game. I'm short so it's hard to see!” the Louisville, Ky. native joked.
Vaughan grew up in basketball-crazed city but didn’t know about the rivalry before moving to Cincinnati to continue her education. Now, as she's set to graduate, she says she couldn't be more excited about the Classic.
“I am extremely excited. Of course it's special to me as a senior, but I think it will always be special. I will always care about this game and if for some reason I cannot go, I will always watch,” she said.