They went down, but they went down swinging. They lost the game, but they didn’t lose the fight. The Cincinnati Bearcats, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, hung tough against the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats all the way until freshman guard Tyler Ulis dropped a 3-point dagger with 4:33 to go, eventually falling by the final score of 64-51.
As a Bearcat supporter and fan, it was one of my proudest days.
Kentucky starts two bulky seven-footers, a 6’11” forward and two 6’6″ guards. But the Bearcats drove the lane hard and posted up strong on offense, ferociously sent back numerous shots on defense and attacked the glass fervently on both ends. It was The Bearcat Way: We don’t care who you have on your team, we’re here to fight you to the end and impose our will.
When it was all said and done, the Bearcats snatched down seven more rebounds than the Kentucky trees and held UK to just 37-percent shooting (they usually shoot 47%). And really, when you look at the 2014-15 edition of the Cincinnati Bearcats, other than 6’9″ 275-pound Coreontae DeBerry, this is not a team with a lot of beef. Shaq Thomas, Gary Clark, Oc Ellis, Farad Cobb, Kevin Johnson, Troy Caupain and Jermaine Sanders……no big pipes, no broad shoulders. But led by the no-back-down mentality of Ellis and Caupain, UC took the fight to UK, and that’s a testament to the architect of the current program, head coach Mick Cronin.
We’ve Come A Long Way, Huh?
Think back to that butt-awful 54-49 win over Eastern Illinois in the 3rd game of the season. After, during his postgame interview, Mick said: “The expressions on our kids’ faces when we make a mistake are unbelievable. We look like somebody stole our dog. We need to develop some toughness, and in a hurry.”
A few games later, Ole Miss bullied the Bearcats in a 66-54 loss. NCAA Tournament, we thought, this team? I’m not seein’ it. But wait: An overtime home win over No. 18 San Diego State. Okay, okay, that helps.
But then: Cronin goes down with a vascular condition, the kids find out an hour before a Saturday home game versus VCU. VCU 68, UC 47. Oh shit. This season might be over.
But wait: A 76-60 bashing of NC State in Raleigh. And then: A 56-50 Bearcat Grinder Special over Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs. Hmmm, NCAA Tournament hopes still alive…
But then: What? A 50-46 loss down at East Carolina? Are you kidding me? But THEN: UC goes down to Dallas and fugging completes the sweep over SMU! Holy shit. Up goes the RPI. I think we’re gonna make this tournament!
But hold the phone: A buzzer-beating home loss to TULANE? A three-game losing streak? Uh oh.
And THEN: UC is struggling, down 10, in the first half at last place Houston when Oc Ellis gets ejected. It’s over. We’re gonna lose to HOUSTON. But wait: Enter Shaq Thomas. A career-high 18 points later, UC wins that game, goes home to crunch UCF, gets revenge over Tulane in New Orleans, goes down to Tulsa and owns those fools, and then sends Jermaine Sanders off with a win on Senior Day over Memphis.
The Bearcats are in! 5 straight NCAA Tournaments! (Only 10 other schools can say that.)
That toughness Mick was pining for back in November? Consider it developed. It was on display in a World War 3 loss to UConn in Hartford. It was there when the Bearcats faced a seven point deficit with 48 seconds to go versus Purdue. And that toughness reached its crescendo when Ellis, Caupain and the ‘Cats took it RIGHT TO the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday in Louisville.
Lemme quickly yell this: I LOVE BEING A CINCINNATI BEARCAT FAN!!
On The Brink?
If you’ve paid close attention to this 2014-15 Bearcat group over the course of the season, you’ve seen improvement on offense—a longtime area of weakness for UC. You’ve seen an identity formed: We’re going to punish you inside first and that’ll create space for driving lanes and open 3-point looks for the wing players.
It’s worked. UC has three low-post threats, two of which can pass the basketball. Caupain led the conference in 3-point field goal percentage, Cobb had room to operate and his firepower was the difference in several key victories, and down the stretch, Shaq found his confidence and identity and played an integral role in helping his team survive and grab the program’s fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
Overall, the team shot 45.3% from the field this season. That’s up from 42.5 last season and 40.3 the year before.
As we look ahead to 2015-16, other than departing senior Jermaine Sanders, everyone else will be back, and you’ve gotta believe that these guys will be extremely hungry to get after it this offseason on the heels of an opportunity to measure themselves against the nation’s best and finding out that they can hold their own.
The 2015-16 Bearcats will feature four seniors (Ellis, DeBerry, Cobb and Thomas) and two juniors (Caupain and Johnson). Gary Clark started every game as a freshman and was, in the words of associate head coach Larry Davis, probably asked to do too much, but Clark did more than enough anyway and showed that he may end up being an all-time great Bearcat. GC will be a sophomore next year and will likely add 10-15 pounds of upper body strength this summer.
With the emergence of DeBerry this past weekend and the experience gained by the rest of the group, Mick and Larry will have a solid core heading into next season. And then consider the two incoming freshman guards being added to the mix…
Yes, it’s a good day to be a Bearcat fan.
That was quite a season. I want to thank you for reading my blog, listening to my podcast and sharing both with other fans.
Enjoy the rest of March Madness!
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