Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon have been UC Bearcats for the last 1,252 days. Sometime in the next 41 days, their college careers will be finished.
“Time flies,” said Dixon. “I can remember my freshman year like it was yesterday.”
“We talk about how we came in together and everybody said we were ‘The Inseparables’ because we go to class together, practice together, everything,” said Gates. “Now we’re about to be on our way out together – it’s crazy.”
Their reasons for coming to Cincinnati were different. In Dixon’s case, the rebuilding Bearcats offered an opportunity to play right away in the nation’s best conference.
“I felt like I could come here and play, and I felt like they needed me to play right away to help the team,” said Dixon. “I thought that I could come here and have a good career and it turned out well.”
For Gates, the former Withrow High School star, it was the opportunity to help put UC basketball back on the map after the turmoil that resulted from the ouster of Bob Huggins.
“Rebuilding the program was the main thing for me,” Gates told me. “When Coach Cronin was recruiting me, that’s all that we talked about. I told him that I was willing to come in and do whatever I needed to do to help, whether it was hosting recruits when they came here, or playing my game. That’s been really big for me – especially being from here – helping to get the program in my home city back on track.”
Gates and Dixon helped the Bearcats return to the NCAA Tournament as juniors, and are determined to return to March Madness as seniors. As much as they try to focus on the next game, it’s hard to ignore the various bracketologists that have Cincinnati listed as a bubble team.
“I know for me, that it’s kind of hard not to pay attention to it – especially as a senior,” said Gates. “You’re constantly looking at where you stand and what you have to do to improve your status and try to make the tournament.”
“We don’t know if we are in or not right now, so we feel like our backs are against the wall and we have to win out,” said Dixon.
Their fate is in their own hands. Cincinnati’s next three games are against teams that are currently in the Top 50 of the RPI (Louisville-21, USF-50, Marquette-8), followed by a difficult road game at Villanova on Senior Day.
“We’re looking at these games as must wins,” said Dixon. “We don’t want to leave any doubt in anybody’s minds.”
“We feel we’re capable of pulling these last four games out, so that’s been our big focus,” said Gates.
Realistically, the ‘Cats probably need to win at least two of their last four games, and a win on Thursday night over 17th-ranked Louisville would be great for their tournament resume.
“Nine o’clock…ESPN…it’s hard not to be excited about it,” said Gates. “And it’s Louisville – college basketball at its best.”
“Everything is on the line…identical records…this is what it’s all about,” said Dixon. “You work all year for this.”
By then, they will have worked for 1,254 days.
Cincinnati’s non-conference strength of schedule has been a major topic of conversation in recent weeks, and one thing that would have helped it considerably, was if Coach Cronin had gotten his wish in the Big East/SEC Challenge.
“We were tabbed to be a road team and we were slated to play Georgia,” said Cronin. “I lobbied and requested to play Kentucky or Alabama – the two highest-rated SEC teams that were scheduled to play at home in that challenge. But ESPN gets to pick that, and I was upset with the Big East because I didn’t think that they fought hard enough. They sent St. John’s to the wolves at Kentucky, and I thought that was unfair to those kids because they have a team with no experience. I thought our league should have been stronger and never let that happen. Especially when you have a coach 75 miles from Lexington that’s saying, ‘I’ll go down and play ‘em win, lose, or draw.’”
One way to boost the non-conference RPI is to play tough opponents in early-season tournaments and the Bearcats are scheduled to do that next season.
“Next year at Thanksgiving, we’ll be in Las Vegas playing Iowa State in our first game and then either Oregon or UNLV in the second game,” said Coach Cronin. “So we’ll have a chance to get some decent wins early and establish our RPI.”
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