On Saturday night, toward the end of one of the worst days of his professional life, Xavier coach Chris Mack went out to dinner with his family, hoping he could decompress. As he sat at his table, Mack caught a glimpse of two of his players, Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, on a television. The video was from the players' postgame press conference. During his own press conference following the ugly brawl that marred the end of the Xavier-Cincinnati game, Mack had been asked about some incendiary comments his players had made before he got there, but Mack brushed it aside. When he saw Holloway and Lyons pop up on the tube, however, it started to dawn on Mack that something significant had happened.
Mack excused himself, stepped outside the restaurant, and watched the full video on his iPad. What he saw shocked him just like it shocked the rest of the country. There was Holloway -- his leader, his best player, his All-America candidate -- appearing to justify the fight with some extremely coarse language. "That's what you're going to see from Xavier and Cincinnati," Holloway said with a troubling nonchalance. "We got disrespected a little bit before the game, guys calling us out. We're a tougher team. We're grown men over here. We got a whole bunch of gangstas in the locker room, not thugs but tough guys on the court. We went out there and zipped 'em up at the end of the game."
We got a whole bunch of gangstas in the locker room. Mack was stunned. He immediately called Holloway and Lyons to make sure they understood the seriousness of the situation. He was especially concerned with Holloway, who because of his stature had the most to lose. "I really think Tu understood the gravity of what took place," Mack told me by phone Sunday night. "He said, I can't believe I came across that way. It wasn't my intent. It's not what I meant."
Holloway, of course, was far from the only player who was in the wrong on Saturday. But while the fight was reprehensible, indefensible and inexcusable, it was, on some level, understandable. These were kids behaving badly because they lost their heads in the heat of the moment.
Yet, when Holloway and Lyons walked into that interview room, they were not in the heat of the moment. They were speaking calmly after what should have been a brief period of reflection and remorse. Holloway had particular reason to feel regret because his woofing toward the Cincinnati bench instigated the melee in the first place. Not only did Holloway refuse to apologize for his actions, he relished the chance to own them.
"I talked to that whole staff. I said, 'This is my city. I'm cut from a different cloth,'" he said. "None of them guys on their team is like me. I let the whole staff know none of them was like me." Holloway later added, "I don't regret anything that happened."
Holloway was singing a different tune on Sunday afternoon. He met with Mack and Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski shortly before a scheduled press conference. They told Holloway they wanted him to read a statement to the media and then leave, but Holloway asked if he could take questions, too. Mack and Bobinski agreed.
During the 40-minute news conference, Holloway said all the right things and handled himself well. His body language matched his words of regret. He also tried to explain what he meant when he used the word gangstas. "I idolize guys like Kevin Garnett and Ray Lewis. I love what they stand for in their sports," he said. "When I used the term, I tried to clean it up and say we're not thugs. We're gangstas as far as having toughness on the court, making big plays, making big shots, playing team defense, and having toughness as a team.... We're not thugs. We're not doing things in the street and things like that."
Fair enough. But even if we give Holloway a pass for using that term, that still does not change the broader message he was communicating. He simply did not think there was anything wrong with trash talking to opposing coaches. He didn't quite condone fighting, but he did not seem to feel badly about what had happened, what he had helped cause. Mack told me that he had made a mistake by letting Holloway and Lyons speak to the media in the first place, and that is obviously true. But Holloway is a senior and he should have known better. His mistake wasn't just in his choice of words. It was the attitude behind them.
The apologies from all the parties ring especially hollow considering the lightness of the penalties that were meted out. Two Xavier players who threw punches were suspended for four games each, while Lyons was suspended for two games and Holloway for one. Cincinnati's penalties also fell short: Senior forward Yancy Gates was suspended just six games for leveling Xavier center Kenny Frease with a sucker punch to the face and throwing several more punches before being restrained. Two other UC players also got six games for throwing punches. The penalties are especially inadequate since both teams are entering the soft part of their schedules. (The Cincinnati players will only have to miss one Big East game.) Compare that with the University of Oregon, which two years ago suspended running back LeGarrette Blount for the rest of his senior season after he decked a Boise State player in the Ducks' season opener.
Still, I have no reason to doubt Holloway when he says he is now sorry, and I give him credit for facing the music on Sunday and handling himself with grace. "I'm not the picture I painted yesterday. I'm a son. I'm a grandson. I'm an uncle. I'm one of Coach Mack's players," he said. "From this day on, it's a part of changing our image at Xavier back to where it was before. So many guys before have made Xavier into a great place."
Tu Holloway has learned some hard lessons here, not least of which is that there's more to being an All-America than making clutch three-pointers. If his remorse is genuine, he can emerge a better, stronger person. Sunday was an important first step toward reclaiming his reputation, but the journey ahead is long.
• I spoke with UCLA coach Ben Howland last Friday night and put to him the question everyone is asking: Why did it take him so long to jettison Reeves Nelson? The Bruins' 6-foot-7 junior forward has been a major headache ever since he came to Westwood, and Howland had already suspended him twice before finally dismissing him Friday morning.
"That's a fair question," Howland replied. "I was optimistic about him being able to change and try to come around, and that didn't occur. He's a kid who's unique in that when there's adversity and things aren't going well, he just shuts down. He'll stop playing in the middle of a game or in practice. If I were an NBA coach, I would have done this sooner, but when you're dealing with kids, you're trying to do more than just run a business."
• If we're passing around blame for that Xavier-Cincinnati fight, let's be sure to include officials Tony Crisp, Jeff Anderson, Michael Roberts for letting the woofing go unchecked. Contrast that with the refs in the Ohio State-Kansas game, who teed up Kansas forward Thomas Robinson with 8:44 remaining because he talked a little trash to Ohio State freshman center Amir Williams. It was a good example of a referee nipping bad behavior in the bud.
• Vanderbilt senior center Festus Ezeli played for the first time at Davidson on Saturday after missing the team's first eight games because of an NCAA suspension and sprained knee. His return came not a moment too soon. Ezeli finished with 15 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 21 minutes in an 87-83 victory. Afterward, Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said the Commodores would have lost the game if he hadn't played. Ezeli is a good player, but he has special value because he is the only player who gives the Dores an inside presence and physical toughness. They certainly don't get that from Jeffery Taylor. I was courtside when Vandy lost at Louisville in overtime, and I don't know that I've ever seen a player who is as athletic as Taylor be so reluctant to attack the rim.
• Just so you know, if you're in a public place and Sweet Caroline comes on the sound system, there's nothing wrong with singing a few lines or bobbing your head a little bit. But if you get to the chorus and you shout "So good! So good! So good!" I think you've crossed a line.
• Between their blowout loss at Ohio State and their near-collapse against Washington on Saturday, it's becoming evident that Duke doesn't have a talent problem so much as a leadership problem.
• I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a great player deliver a complete no-show in a big game like Terrence Jones did against Indiana.
• If you didn't see Michigan State's Draymond Green hang 34 points on Gonzaga Saturday night, you missed a performance for the ages. I'm not sure what NBA scouts think about Green, but I'd be shocked if there wasn't a place for him in that league. Between his size, his skills, his intelligence, his leadership and his charisma, Green is just about my favorite player in college basketball.
• On the flip side, Gonzaga forward Elias Harris may be the most frustrating player to watch in college basketball. He has good stats but never seems to show up in big games. Harris made just 2 of his 11 field goal tries against the Spartans and finished with six points.
• I've been pretty tough on Tyshawn Taylor, but it's going to be interesting to see how Kansas plays while he recovers from a torn meniscus the next three weeks. One bright spot for the Jayhawks is that Kevin Young, a 6-8 juco transfer, had his best game in a Kansas uniform against the Buckeyes, contributing 14 points and four rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench.
• North Carolina's Kendall Marshall had another sterling night at the office in Saturday's win over Long Beach State: 16 assists and two turnovers. Marshall really excels at throwing the ball ahead in transition, but it's worth pointing out that he is not the traditional speedster with the ball (Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson) that Roy Williams' other championship teams had.
• Wisconsin's Ben Brust showed on Saturday why I included him on my list of breakouts sophs: 25 points off the bench (on 7-for-7 three-point shooting) in the Badgers' big win at home over UNLV.
• Sucks seeing Marquette junior center Chris Otule go out with an ACL injury that will sideline him for the foreseeable future. He was the only real effective man the Golden Eagles had.
• Khris Middleton put in a strong effort in his first game back for Texas A&M since the season opener. Middleton is a raw, but gifted 6-7 junior swingman who missed seven games because of an injury. He had 24 points and six rebounds in a win over Louisiana-Monroe. I think Middleton has a great deal of potential, and his return reinstalls Texas A&M as one of the favorites in the Big 12.
• Speaking of the Aggies, here's a stat you don't often see: They shot 0-for-17 from three-point range in a win over Alcorn State. You'd think after the 16th miss they would have shifted to Plan B.
• Illinois got itself a great find in Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, a 6-foot senior. He's not nearly as talented as Demetri McCamey, but he's much tougher and far more dependable.
• M.O.T. alert: Penn senior guard Zack Rosen is averaging 20.8 points and shooting 48 percent from three-point range. L'chaim!
• Florida center Patric Young had 25 points and 10 rebounds in the Gators' overtime win over Arizona, and it seemed like he could have scored twice that many. If the Gators had gone to him more down the stretch -- while Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker were shooting a combined 5-for-27 from the floor -- then the game would never have gone to overtime.
• A link worth clicking: CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander on the "Silent Night" tradition at Taylor University. The fans show up in costume and stay totally silent until their team scores its 10th point. Then they end the game linking arms and singing "Silent Night." Reason number 4,578 why I wish I were still in college.
• We usually think of Mississippi State as being undisciplined, but the Bulldogs are actually leading the nation in fewest fouls committed. Just making sure you knew.
• It's tough to see Washington junior point guard Abdul Gaddy struggle this way. He was a huge recruit coming out of high school and was finally playing well last season before tearing his ACL in January. Gaddy hasn't been terrible, but his inability to score has forced Lorenzo Romar to give freshman Tony Wroten more playing time than he should have.
• I'll be interested to see how much of a contribution Missouri gets from Andrew Jones, a senior tight end on the school's football team who recently joined the hoops squad. The Tigers have plenty of scorers, but they're hurting for big bodies inside, if only to go up against Ricardo Ratliffe in practice.
• Incidentally, the best basketball-playing football player I ever saw was North Carolina's Julius Peppers. He was obviously big, strong and very athletic, but Peppers had genuine, high-level basketball skills as well.
• Odd stat of the week: Last year, Wisconsin led the nation in free throw shooting at 81.8 percent. This year the Badgers are 219th at 66.4 percent.
• I'm a huge Midnight Run fan. So whenever I hear someone mention the name of Maryland senior guard Sean Mosley, I instinctively yell out, "I'm Mosley!"
• Beware the elite big man who can't make free throws: UConn's Andre Drummond (33.3 percent), Duke's Mason Plumlee (38.1) and Xavier's Kenny Frease (30.0).
• Ohio State got some good news last week when it learned that its top freshman recruit, Jackson, Miss., swingman LaQuinton Ross, would be eligible to enroll in school for second semester. Thad Matta told me that because Ross has not practiced with the team, he has no idea what kind of shape the kid is in. However, Matta also pointed out that Ross is 6-8 and was a great shooter in high school. Those guys usually find their way on to the court.
• Have you noticed that when an announcer describes someone as a "typical foreign player," he's usually paying him a big compliment? It usually means the kid is skilled and savvy for his size. To borrow the title from the current best-seller by Tom Friedman: That used to be us.
• Finally, today's grammar tip for broadcasters, writers and fellow Hoop Thinkers everywhere: There's no need to modify the word "unique" -- as in, "He's a very unique player," or "He's a little bit unique." If he's unique, that means there's only one like him. You're either unique, or you're not.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Ohio State (2)
2. Syracuse (3)
3. Kentucky (1)
4. North Carolina (5)
5. Duke (6)
6. Florida (7)
7. Baylor (4)
8. Louisville (8)
9. Xavier (9)
10. Missouri (10)
11. Kansas (11)
12. UConn (12)
13. Marquette (13)
14. Georgetown (14)
15. Wisconsin (16)
16. Vanderbilt (17)
17. Mississippi State (18)
18. Michigan State (19)
19. Indiana (NR)
20. Pittsburgh (22)
21. Illinois (23)
22. UNLV (21)
23. Gonzaga (24)
24. Harvard (25)
25. Creighton (20)
Dropped out: Alabama (15)
The big decision voters had to make this week started at the top: Who should be ranked number one?
You could make a case for a number of teams -- including Kentucky. After all, the Cats lost a true road game against a good team on a buzzer-beating, three pointer. Are they still the best team in America? Maybe. But I generally don't like to leave a team in the top spot following any kind of loss.
That said, I went with Ohio State, even though it also lost last weekend. (Yes, I am selectively applying my reasoning. Voter's privilege.) The reason is obvious: The Buckeyes did not have their best player, Jared Sullinger, and they still hung with Kansas for most of the game. Moreover, Sullinger is only going to miss another game or two. You can make a case that Syracuse should get it based on the next-man-up theory, but I didn't want to put the Orange at No. 1 just because it's their "turn." The bottom line is this: If Syracuse played Ohio State (and a healthy Sullinger) on a neutral court tomorrow, I think Ohio State would win. So the Buckeyes got my vote.
Elsewhere, you'll notice that I dropped Baylor three spots even though it did not lose. I like to use my previous week's ballot as a guide, but I try not to box myself in. The Bears could rightfully lay claim to the No. 3 ranking, but I just couldn't see putting them there considering how weak their schedule is. Baylor's best wins have come at home against San Diego State and on the road at Northwestern. I understand that Perry Jones III was serving an NCAA suspension the first five games, but I cannot understand why Scott Drew didn't challenge his team more. So until they get into the Big 12 season, I'm going to keep Baylor out of my top five.
Meanwhile, the team that vanquished Kentucky makes its first appearance. Indiana fans have been all over me for not ranking the Hoosiers before now. Though I still think the expectations surpass what this team is prepared to deliver, there's no doubt that Hoosier fans have suffered the last four years. They have every right to savor this moment.
I dropped Alabama off my ballot because of its loss at Dayton last Wednesday night. The Crimson Tide also lost at home to Georgetown, which means their best wins were neutral-court victories over Wichita State and Purdue. A few other teams on last week's ballot also lost, but I couldn't justify dropping them out. Gonzaga, UNLV and Harvard all lost to teams ranked above them (Michigan State, Wisconsin and UConn, respectively.) I probably should have dropped Creighton after its loss at Saint Joseph's, but I figured I'd let the Bluejays hang on at No. 25 for one more week and see if they prove they belong.
If I did have one more place on my ballot, I would have given it to Murray State. The Racers are off to an impressive 10-0 start and won at Memphis Sunday night. The main reason I didn't rank Murray State is that, unlike my fellow AP voters, I did not have Memphis ranked. I'm sure my colleagues will see the light and leave the Tigers out of the rankings this week.