The UC Bearcats began the season ranked 21st in the country, but after eight games, Cincinnati appeared more likely to play in the CBI than the NCAAs.
“We were so far from the NCAA Tournament that we couldn’t see it with binoculars,” said head coach Mick Cronin.
Here is Cincinnati’s resume after eight games (with opponent’s final RPI rating):
Wins: Alabama St. (308), Jacksonville St. (220), Northwestern St. (217), Miami (248), and Georgia (100).
Losses: Presbyterian (245), Marshall (43), Xavier (41).
That’s how things looked on December 11th. Oh yeah, the Bearcats had also just been in a little brawl that you might have heard about.
“I told the staff that we have to forget about anything other than practice today,” said Cronin.
While Mick knew that the season was on the verge of spiraling down the drain, he never shared that fear with his players.
“I didn’t want my players thinking that we were dead in the water and you can’t have them panicking,” Mick told me. “They had enough pressure on them at that point of the season.”
But the players don’t live in a hermetically sealed vault. They knew how bleak things looked.
“We knew that our backs were against the wall,” said Cashmere Wright. “Either your season goes downhill, or you go after what you want.”
Coach Cronin was able to turn the season around by relying on lessons learned during his first few years on the job.
“The one thing you learn when you rebuild a program is that you just have to control today,” said Cronin. “You can’t worry about February in December. On December 11th, you have to worry about December 11th. If your leader is worried about other things, than the players are going to worry about other things. You have to worry about the things that you can control, work hard, stay positive, and block out outside influences. That’s how you improve.”
Since the Xavier loss – and brawl – the Bearcats have gone 21-7 with eight wins over Top 25-ranked opponents. Statistically, their biggest improvement has been on offense where the Bearcats have gone from averaging 62 points to 70 points, but Coach Cronin says a commitment to playing defense saved their season.
“That was the metamorphosis of our team,” said Cronin. “It had nothing to do with a fight. It was Yancy, Cash, SK, and Dion – those four guys had to change their basketball personality. Their basketball personality was offense player – and good offensive player. We lost five (seniors) that had a defensive personality. Those four guys had to change their basketball personality or we weren’t going to win. And it took time to do that. We were soft early in the year.”
“Coach Cronin kept telling us that defense wins,” said Wright. “Early on I think we were more worried about our offense, but he told us that we’re not going to win games because of our offense. The better we play on defense, the easier the game is going to get. We just bought into it.”
As a result, the Bearcats are one of 16 teams still alive in the tournament. That’s the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT, CBI, or CIT.
“I was always confident because of the players that we have – even off the court – everyone on this team is competitive and I always had it in my mind that we weren’t going to let the season slip out of our hands,” said Sean Kilpatrick. “We are a lot stronger than that.”
“We just figured that sooner or later it was going to click,” said Wright. “The core group that we had from last year to this year is totally different. We went from seniors to a lot of freshman, so we really didn’t jell that well at first. But we knew that the more and more that we played together, we were going to get better. We kept grinding and knew the goal that we wanted to accomplish this year.”
The goal now is to survive and advance against the heavily-favored Ohio State Buckeyes. If any team is prepared for the win-or-go-home crucible of March Madness, it is Cincinnati since the Xavier game.
“We’ve been in must-win games since December 14th at Wright State,” said Coach Cronin.
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