CINCINNATI – Basketball games don't come much bigger than this, and Xavier fans were ready to back their fifth-ranked team to the hilt against No. 1 Villanova Wednesday night.
Students started lining up at 8 a.m. for the chance to get seats in the first row of the cheering section right behind the Musketeers bench.
There was a party atmosphere on campus as students looked forward to knocking off Villanova to avenge a New Year's Eve loss and lay claim to one of the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"I don't think there's a better environment for basketball than at Xavier," said senior Allison Badgely. "We have a lot of dedicated fans and all the students get really excited for it."
"Everybody's been pumped up, said freshman Michael Voor. "We had trash cans outside the cafeteria with the Nova starting five and they're trash cans. So everybody's been pumped up for this game big time."
Success on the basketball court is translating into millions of dollars worth of publicity for the university. The admissions office says applications for next year are 12,500 -- about 1,000 more than normal. Not all of that is due to Xavier basketball, but it doesn't hurt.
The team's 24-3 record also creates a lot of demand for Xavier wear, and that means extra business for area companies.
The machines were working overtime Wednesday at Vesi and Crable in Lincoln Heights. They were printing the trademark "X" on shirts for Xavier, and they were flying off the shelves.
"Xavier's been strong for a number of years, but our business this year is going to be up over 100%," said Greg Visconti. Business picked up even more the closer it got to the Villanova game, he said.
"Just this morning, we printed some T-shirts for the Villanova game that just says "Beat Villanova, Go X." We sold over 50 percent of them in 40 minutes."
At the One For All Shop on Xavier's campus, the racks were jammed with all sorts of blue and white sportswear. Charlie Pieper, a 1958 graduate, was shopping for something new to wear to the big game.
"Got to be decked out in the latest stuff for the No. 1 team in the country. I don't think they'll be No. 1 after tonight," Pieper said.
Ashley Murphy was shopping even though she had class Wednesday night and wouldn't be able to go to the game.
"I love to support my school. I'm very proud to be here. So, always got to buy new merchandise," Murphy said.
Father and son Chris and Nathan Bohn were looking at a wide range of items to buy. Chris is a Xavier graduate and Nathan is a prospective student. Both were going to the game.
"Got to have the family looking good in Xavier gear," Chris Bohn said.
"It's going to be electric," said Nathan Bohn. "Should be some good basketball. Good fans. I'm really excited."
Outside the Cintas Center, waiting for the doors to open, students cheered and jeered when the Villanova team bus drove by just a stone's throw away. That mood carried over with pro-Xavier chants until it was time to go through turnstiles and into the arena to back the Musketeers.
Xavier basketball has come a long way from the lean seasons in the late 1960s and 70s, when wins and fans were hard to come by. Mary Beth Bruns of White Oak remembered those days.
"This is a dream come true," Bruns said. "My dad coached here as an assistant coach in the 1960s and having our program go from 300 attending a game to a sellout here is just amazing."
Teri Powers of Amelia remembered when coaches Bob Staak and Pete Gillen revived the program in the 1980s. "I'm ecstatic," Power said. "I was here back in the days of Byron Larkin and Stan Kimbrough and the fun MCC tournament and then we've been moving on. And for the longest time, I've been wanting a game where we could be No. 5 with a chance to beat a No. 1 team."