Chris Mack stood gingerly in a hallway late Wednesday night in the basement of George Washington’s Smith Center, looking as if he had just been put through a ringer.
In a tangible sense, he had been. His Xavier team had trailed GW for most of the night before a jump shot by Tu Holloway rolled around the rim and in, allowing the Musketeers to escape with a 59-58 victory. “Any win on the road is a good win,” Mack had said moments earlier during his postgame session with reporters. “Winning on the road in college basketball is never easy.”
These days, a win on the road is a day at the beach for Mack and his players compared with what the last eight weeks have been like. Almost in the blink of an eye, Xavier went from a team ranked eighth in the country, one of those college basketball stories that people point to as proof that you can do things right and still succeed on the national stage, to a team and a school ripped and reviled almost everywhere it went.
“In today’s world, where you can get information on your phone in a matter of minutes, there’s almost no way for the kids to escape it,” Mack said. “I watch a lot of games on TV and I see players woofing all the time and it’s just part of the game. Right now, our kids can’t do anything like that no matter what happens. We’re under a microscope. We all know it.”
Life at Xavier changed on Dec. 10 at the end of what should have been a day of celebration on the 7,000-student campus in Cincinnati. That afternoon, the Musketeers crushed Cincinnati, their crosstown arch rival, 76-53 in a game that was never really a contest. The victory gave them an 8-0 record that included wins over Georgia and Purdue at home and road victories over Butler and Vanderbilt.
At that moment, the case could be made that no one in the country had a more impressive early-season résumé than the Musketeers.
That all went flying out the windows of Cintas Center in the game’s final minute. The game had been physical and full of trash-talking all day, as Xavier-Cincinnati games tend to be. It got ugly at the end and a benches-clearing brawl broke out that led to eight players — four from each team — being suspended after officials declared the game over with 9.7 seconds to go.
The fight began when Holloway began pushing and shoving with Cincinnati’s Ge’Lawn Guyn. It escalated almost instantly and ended only after Bearcats center Yancy Gates had decked and bloodied Xavier center Kenny Frease.
It got worse for Xavier after that. Mack sent Holloway and point guard Mark Lyons into the interview room to represent his team. They were, to put it mildly, unapologetic about the fight.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room,” said Holloway, an Associated Press third-team all-American last season. “Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. And we went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game.”
Mack has said repeatedly since then that Holloway was using the term “gangster” only in reference to the intensity Xavier brings to the court. The “zipped them up” reference — as in a bodybag — may be tougher to explain.
“By the time I got a chance to talk to Tu on Sunday he knew he’d made a mistake,” Mack said. “He’s a smart kid. He didn’t need any lessons from Coach Mack at that point. This is a good kid who is going to graduate on time, who works hard and goes to church every Sunday. He’s learned a tough lesson from all this.”
Mack smiled wanly. “We’ve all learned tough lessons from this. I think all our guys probably learned more in three weeks than they’ll learn in four years of college.”
One lesson they learned is that one less-than-shining moment can change your reputation 180 degrees overnight. Mack suspended Holloway for one game — pointing out that he never actually threw a punch during the fight — Lyons for two games and Dez Wells and walk-on Landen Amos for four games.
Xavier played Oral Roberts eight days after the fight without Holloway and lost, 64-42. From there it went to Hawaii and lost twice more. All four players have been back since the game against Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve (a 72-65 loss), but Xavier has continued to wobble. The win over George Washington made the Musketeers 7-7 since their season and their lives changed.
“In a sense we’ve had to start all over,” Mack said. “It wasn’t just missing key guys against tough opponents, it was everything that was going on around us. You can’t ignore it, you can’t pretend it isn’t there. It’s there.”
Even now, in February, it is there. Mack is still clearly wary about how much Holloway talks to reporters. Even though he scored a game-high 21 points including the winning basket Wednesday, he wasn’t available after the game.
“His parents are here,” Mack explained. “He wanted to go see them.”
It isn’t just that, he admitted: “We have limited him because every time he does an interview the fight comes up. It’s the same questions over and over again.”
Xavier’s basketball tradition is a shiny one. It has been in the NCAA tournament 10 of the last 11 seasons and reached the Elite Eight in 2004 under Thad Matta and 2009 under Sean Miller. Mack, who played for Pete Gillen at the school and graduated in 1992, took the team to the Sweet 16 in 2010 and had a 50-17 record his first two seasons.
Late Wednesday, he looked like anything but a hot young coach, even after a road win. He was limping because he tore a patella tendon in his knee during practice on Jan. 6 and had surgery two days later. A case of pink-eye didn’t help either. In December, his team appeared likely to be no worse than a top four seed on Selection Sunday. Now it sits squarely on the bubble, a situation Mack is almost certain wouldn’t exist if the fight hadn’t happened.
“No way would I have thought we’d be where we are before that day happened,” he said. “We still had some work to do on offense but we were monsters on defense. We haven’t gotten that back.”
He smiled when the question of when he and his players might put all this behind them came up. “If we were 22-0 right now this would have been over week ago,” he said. “But we’re not. Everyone loves winners.”
As he hobbled up the steps and into the night on Wednesday, it was apparent that all that winning didn’t make him feel especially loved right now.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. More more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.