mick cronin

What Cincinnati Must Do (And Avoid) To Make Its 5th Straight NCAA Tournament

Coreontae DeBerry (#22) and Octavious Ellis (#2)

Coreontae DeBerry and “Oc” Ellis

After suffering its second blowout of the season on Dec. 20, this time to VCU, Cincinnati sat at 7-3 with a head coach out of commission. At that point, hearing “the Cincinnati Bearcats” called on Selection Sunday for the fifth straight season seemed unlikely.

But the Bearcats did have the home victory over #18 San Diego State in the “quality win” category. And as head coach Mick Cronin’s situation settled and associate head coach Larry Davis assumed the leadership role, UC beat the tar out of NC State in Raleigh and followed that up with a Farad-Cobb-sparked 56-50 muscle flex against arguably the best team in the American Conference, hall of famer Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs.

Now, Cincinnati sits in the mid-30’s in the RPI. For those of you not familiar, the RPI stands for Ratings Percentage Index. It’s a computer ranking system that takes into account your winning percentage, your opponents’ winning percentage and your opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage, as well as a few other factors. The NCAA Tournament selection committee looks to RPI when deciding whether or not to invite a fringe team to the Dance. If your RPI ranking is 40 or below, you’re almost a shoe-in.

So here’s the issue for the now-Larry-Davis-led Bearcats: The American Conference is, all things considered, a pile of garbage. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Let’s just say that UC will have a hard time boosting its RPI ranking the rest of the way, and it will desperately need to guard against that ranking dropping like a sack of potatoes.

Tonight’s game (Tuesday, 7:00, ESPNU: Mike Couzens [who??] and Brooke Weisbrod on the call) will without a doubt hurt UC’s RPI ranking, win or lose. East Carolina comes to Fifth Third Arena sitting at #283. Cincinnati simply cannot lose this game. It’s out of the question. And so we’ll be watching on pins and needles, shoulders tense and fists clenched, sphincters coiled, until, hopefully, the game ends with more points on UC’s side of the scoreboard. And that will be the case in nearly every game the rest of the regular season.

Take a look at the RPI for each team in the American Conference:

Team RPI
Temple 33 Won at UConn
Cincinnati 34 They have Farad Cobb
SMU 39 My pick to win league
Tulsa 40 (I don’t know how)
Xavier 49 UC’s final non-conference game
UConn 84 Huskies usually wayyyy higher
Tulane 103 Sleeper team
Memphis 105 9 new players
South Florida 199 Get them away from us already
Houston 228 New coach is Kelvin Sampson
Central Fla 238 Pesky but not very good
East Carolina 283 RPI-killer

After battling Jeff Lebo’s East Carolina Pirates, the Bearcats then go to UConn (#84) and Memphis (#105). It’s tough to ask an inexperienced team to grab a sweep on the road, especially against UConn and Memphis, regardless of what kind of seasons the Huskies and Tigers are having to this point. But sh*t, man, you can’t afford to lose to teams near the bottom or outside of the Top 100.

The good news is that the Temple Owls surprised everybody by waxing Kansas by 25 a week and a half ago, so their RPI should hover in the 30’s as long as Fran Dunphy’s boys don’t lose to somebody from the bottom of the standings either.

In my estimation, here’s what has to happen for the Bearcats to make it to the NCAA Tournament (if Oc Ellis and the crew do not win the conference tournament):

1) Undefeated at home
2) Beat Xavier
3) 3 or 4 losses at the most (2 loss max to UConn/Tulane/Memphis)
4) 0 losses to USF, HOU, UCF, ECU

Gonna be a lot of “sweatin’ ’em out,” huh?

We continue the journey tonight, at home, against East Carolina. A loss is out of the question. And that will be the theme for nearly every game the rest of the way. But that can be a good thing, because if you’re playing for your life for two months, and you do sneak into the brackets, you’re tested and you’ve built enough toughness to win some more games.

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Game Preview Podcast: Cincinnati (9-3) vs SMU (10-3)

After a relatively stress-free road win against NC State on Tuesday, a challenging American Conference opener is on the slate for the Cincinnati Bearcats Saturday morning (11:00 AM EST, ESPN2) against Hall of Famer Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs.

This team has 6 or 7 weapons that will present problems for the Bearcat defense. I’ll tell you everything you need to know about SMU:

UC vs SMU Preview Podcast (7:11)

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Defense Travels: Cincinnati’s 76-60 Win at NC State Continues Trend for Mick Cronin’s Bearcats

Coreontae DeBerry (#22) and Octavious Ellis (#2)

Coreontae DeBerry (#22) and Octavious Ellis (#2)

Tuesday’s 76-60 beatdown of NC State in Raleigh wasn’t the first road win in which head coach Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats put the clamps on somebody in front of their home crowd—-and it likely won’t be the last.

One of the major topics of debate among Bearcat fans is the inconsistency of UC’s offense under Cronin. I addressed that concern in a recent piece entitled “The Correct (And Necessary) Formula For Winning at Cincinnati” in which I shifted the focus away from offensive struggles by asking this question: What if UC’s defense was worse?

In that piece, I talked about the fact that Cronin’s oft-less-talented Bearcat teams have a whopping twelve wins against the likes of Bob Huggins, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino. In those 12 upsets, UC allowed an average of 38% from the field.

Defense keeps you in games against more talented teams, and being able to get multiple stops down the stretch of a game gives you a chance to win—-especially on the road.

Nothing takes the home crowd out of the game like shutting the home team DOWN. That’s exactly what the Bearcats did at PNC Arena on Tuesday, holding NC State without a single 3-point field goal in front of over 16,000 fans. And although it didn’t result in a win, UC did the same thing back on Dec. 13 in Lincoln, Nebraska, allowing the Cornhuskers just 44 points in regulation on 32.7% shooting.

Blowing the buzz of opposing home crowds has become a trend for UC under Cronin. Check out these suffocations:

UC 62, West Virginia 39 (2008)

Worst shooting night in Mountaineer school history: 10-50 (20%) from the field, ONE-for-22 from 3-point range! Huggins wore that mustard-colored suit that night.

UC 58, Louisville 57 (2008)

The Cardinals shot 35.6% from the field and made just 3 of 23 three-pointers as the Cronin’s Bearcats shocked mentor Pitino on New Year’s Day.

UC 67, UNLV 65 (2008)

38.6% from the field for the Runnin’ Rebels and 6-20 from beyond the arc.

UC 60, UConn 48 (2010)

The headline for the AP game recap: “Cincinnati embarrasses UConn in Calhoun’s return from leave of absence”

UConn shot 34.6% from the field, 3-15 on three-pointers and committed 15 turnovers.

UC 57, Georgia 51 (2011)

UC outscored the Bulldogs 36-21 in the second half. UGA shot 36.2% overall.

UC 58, #11 Georgetown 46 (2011)

I loved this game. Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright (3 steals each) were a nightmare at the front of the fullcourt press.

As a team, UC had 9 steals and 5 shotblocks and the Hoyas clanked everything: 25% (12-48!!!) from the field.

UC 66, #22 Pitt 63 (2012)

Pitt shot 5-19 from three-point range and committed 17 turnovers.

UC 68, #11 Georgetown 64 (2012)

Remember this game? The Hoyas could not miss a fuggin’ shot, finishing at 59% from the field. So how the hell did UC win this game? The Bearcats’ defense tightened up in a major way during the final six minutes of the ballgame, forcing five turnovers and allowing just four field goal attempts. UC also won the overall turnover battle, forcing 17 and committing just 9.

Wanna watch those last six minutes? Here you go…

UC 70, #13 UConn 67 (2012)

Sean Kilpatrick’s 3-point dagger in Jeremy Lamb’s mug won this game for UC.

UC forced 11 turnovers while committing just 5. And a major key was holding Shabbazz Napier without a 3-point field goal until the last desperation run of the game when he hit three of ’em.

UC 70, Pitt 61 (2012)

Pitt was 0-for-10 from behind the arc!

UC 69, #18 Memphis 53 (2014)

The Bearcats held Memphis to 33.3% from the field. Marksman Chris Crawford shot just 2-for-11 and coughed up five turnovers.

It starts with defense. It always starts with defense because defense travels. Offense helps, of course (UC shot 53.8% from the field against NC State), but unless you’re prepared and tough enough to get multiple stops down the stretch, you’ll have a hard time winning on the road or beating a more talented team. The Bearcats have the formula: Defense keeps them in the game and if they hit shots, Good Night.

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Bearcats 76, NC State 60 Postgame Podcast (5:49)

This is why we follow sports. I am so daggum proud of the Cincinnati Bearcats right now! Without head coach and leader Mick Cronin for the third straight game, the young-but-growing-up-before-our-eyes Bearcats went on the road to Raleigh and dominated a good NC State team from start to finish.

I’ll tell you about the flawless execution of the defensive game plan and how the Bearcats did something they rarely do.

UC 76, NC State 60 Postgame Podcast (5:49)

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Cincinnati (8-3) at NC State (10-3): 3-Minute Preview Podcast

The Bearcats travel to Raleigh on Tuesday to conclude a home-and-home with the NC State Wolfpack (4:00 EST, ESPNU).

The inexperienced Bearcats will be without head coach Mick Cronin for the third consecutive game as he continues to rest and be observed by doctors for the unruptured aneurysm discovered week and a half ago. Although Mark Gottfried’s club is not ranked in the Top 25, this team presents problems for UC in a number of areas.

Here’s what you need to know about NC State:

UC at NC State 3-Minute Preview Podcast

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(My apologies for the stuffed nose – fighting off a sinus infection!)

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Mick Cronin’s Method, Part 2: “Moneyball”-Style Recruiting At Cincinnati

When Billy Beane took over as general manager of the Oakland A’s after the 1997 season, the franchise was far from rich. Beane knew that he would have no chance to retain his stars when they hit free agency, and he knew that he would never be able to lure big name replacements to his club. So the former first round draft pick decided to think outside the box. That born-out-of-necessity open mindedness led Beane to discover overlooked value in certain players. Despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the A’s made the playoffs four straight seasons from 2000 to 2003 (and have done so four more times since).

Beane’s approach to player drafting and acquisition became known as “Moneyball.” Michael Lewis wrote the book, Brad Pitt starred in the film.

mick cronin cincinnati

Head coach Mick Cronin

When Mick Cronin took over as head coach at his alma mater, Cincinnati’s basketball budget was bottom tier in the Big East Conference. In the college basketball world, most high major coaches have unlimited access to private jets for recruiting. (Even crosstown rival Xavier has one.) Cincinnati does not. Most high major programs play home games in lavish arenas. Fifth Third Arena is outdated and worn.

(I should also point out: When Cronin took the job, Cincinnati was on the verge of being slapped with sanctions for a low APR/graduation rate. [UConn was banned from postseason play two years ago for that violation.] UC’s public perception/image had been marred by a multitude of legal issues, such as players being arrested and a viral video of a certain former head coach being arrested for drunk driving. These issues further narrowed down the crop of kids Cincinnati was able to target in recruiting.)

In order to compete with other high-major programs, Mick and his coaching staff at Cincinnati have been running their own version of “Moneyball” on the recruiting trail. Like Beane, Cronin has had to identify value in players that is often overlooked by the blue blood schools. From my vantage point, there are three traits Cincinnati’s coaching staff has emphasized in its player scouting:

Long Arms

As I illustrated in Part 1 of this series, Cronin’s identity as a basketball coach can be summed up in one hyphenated word: Defensive-minded. The Bearcats have repeatedly been among the nation’s best on the defensive end, ranking in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency the past two seasons, and finishing in the Top 40 the previous two. (Cincinnati played in the NCAA Tournament all four years.) One of the reasons the Bearcats are so difficult to score against: Cronin finds kids with long arms.

Like his mentor Rick Pitino, Cronin and his staff chart deflections. The prevailing thought is that a high deflection game means your kids are being active and disruptive. (The magic number is 40.) Take a close look at Cincinnati’s players: Nearly every one of them has a longer-than-average wingspan.

An example: Former UC guard, Dion Dixon.

Dion Dixon #3

Dion Dixon #3

Dion led the rough, tough Chicago Public League in scoring his senior year at Crane High School. When Cronin decided to offer Dixon a scholarship, Dion was being offered mostly by mid-major programs. My guess is the idea of a 6-foot-3 guard with an inconsistent jumpshot and below average ball-handling skills, despite being an elite athlete, didn’t grab the attention of the big schools. But Mick saw a toughness in Dixon and, like many of the other recruits, those long, potentially-disruptive arms. Put him at the front of the press or the top of the zone, and opposing point guards will find passing the basketball to teammates a bit more difficult.

After a couple of up-and-down seasons as an underclassman, Dixon emerged as a leader by the time he was a senior. And Cronin’s decision to offer up that scholarship was vindicated when those long arms came up with the biggest steal of the 2011-12 season, in the backcourt, in the final minute of Cincinnati’s NCAA Tournament upset of 3-seed Florida State. Dixon’s swipe and slam helped send UC to its first Sweet 16 in over a decade.

Cronin is not the first or only coach to covet players with long arms, but the consistency with which he has accumulated wingspan-endowed players has helped UC be a versatile, stingy defensive team for the majority of his tenure.

Hungriness/Chip on the Shoulder

You’ve heard the phrase “he has a chip on his shoulder” a thousand times. What does it mean? I think it means that you feel like you’ve been overlooked or slighted, and as a result you have a burning desire within to prove people wrong. A prime example is 2013-14 AP First Team All-American guard Sean Kilpatrick.

UC head coach Mick Cronin and Sean Kilpatrick

UC head coach Mick Cronin and Sean Kilpatrick

SK was not highly recruited out of White Plains, New York. But despite underwhelming athleticism and a 1950’s-ish method for shooting the basketball, Cronin saw in Kilpatrick the ability to put points on the scoreboard. Kilpatrick gladly accepted the scholarship offer to play in the Big East, which would give him a chance to show the northeast schools they had made a mistake.

When Kilpatrick arrived at Cincinnati for his freshman season, ready to get to work, he was soon informed by Cronin that he would be better suited to redshirt and work on his game for a year. Sean was angry, but angry soon became humbled and humbled became hungry. And hungry became starved. SK vowed to outwork everyone, often waking up before daylight to “grind.”

When the next season commenced, Kilpatrick packed his lunch and raised the level of intensity at every practice. Not only did SK improve, but so did the team’s level of toughness and resiliency. Sparked by that fire, Cincinnati got back to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 (after a five-year absence) and returned each of Kilpatrick’s next three seasons in Clifton. (Meanwhile, St. John’s and Seton Hall made one trip to The Dance combined in that four-year span.) Over his career, SK hit multiple game-clinching shots, including a dagger 3-pointer in future first round NBA draft pick Jeremy Lamb’s face.

Most of the players Mick and his staff are able to sign have been overlooked by the blue blood schools near where they played in high school. They all have something to prove, and that bonds the kids together. Oftentimes, close-knit teams become resilient teams.

Willingness to Work

These kids relate to their coach. Cronin was never handed a thing, but the West Side kid worked his way all the way up from video coordinator to head coach. The La Salle High grad knows what it means to work hard, and he seeks kids within which he sees that same willingness and drive. He hires assistant coaches cut from that same mold. In turn, every man out there on the recruiting trail for Bearcat basketball knows how to identify a hard worker. They won’t waste their or the kid’s time by offering a scholarship to somebody without that trait.

And it has paid off. The aforementioned Kilpatrick not only was a part of four consecutive NCAA Tournament teams, but his tireless striving to improve in all facets of his game resulted in the eventually-chiseled shooting guard becoming the second all-time leading scorer in school history.

For Cronin and his staff, the realization was this: Landing future NBA lottery picks may be far-fetched at Cincinnati, but what we can do is bring in kids capable (and accepting of the challenge) of stopping those future pros from scoring. That philosophy has kept Cincinnati in ballgames against more talented teams (Cronin has beaten Rick Pitino five times) and propelled the Bearcats to four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Mick and his staff continue to play “Moneyball,” and as the winning has increased, so has the level of talent available to choose from. The 2014-15 edition of the Cincinnati Bearcats is an inexperienced group (80% of the rotation is made up of sophomores and guys who didn’t play Division I college basketball last season), but if you look closely and you have an eye for talent, you’ll realize that when these kids grasp how hard they’ll have to work and how mentally tough they’ll have to be to compete at this level, and as this group goes through and handles adversity together and gels as a unit, (whether it’s toward the end of this season or not until next season with the addition of two big-time guards) this will likely turn out to be the most dangerous team Mick Cronin has fielded as a head coach.

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2-Minute Preview Podcast: Cincinnati Bearcats (7-2) vs VCU Rams (7-3)

We’ve seen how the Bearcats (7-2, 6-0 at home) have handled adversity and failure. Now we’ll see how this young team handles success, as Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams, nicknamed “Havoc” for their relentless full-court pressure defense, come to town on Saturday, Dec. 20 (Noon, ESPNU).

In my three-minute-long 2-Minute Preview Podcast, I’ll talk about what UC needs to do to win and tell you about VCU’s top players.

2-Minute Preview Podcast: VCU

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Next Day Reaction: Bearcats Handle Adversity, Knock Off #19 San Diego State, 71-62 (OT)

Coreontae DeBerry (#22) and Octavious Ellis (#2)

Coreontae DeBerry (#22) and Octavius Ellis (#2)

After facing and handling adversity last Saturday night but losing by one point in Lincoln to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats faced and handled even more adversity Wednesday night, this time coming out on top against a gigantic San Diego State team, 71-62, in overtime at Fifth Third Arena. (Click Here for Highlights)

Never ever underestimate the power of facing and handling adversity. Ever. I believe the toughness built by a team (or by yourself in your own life) in the face of adversity is much more important than, say, figuring out “offensive woes,” despite what certain people in the Cincinnati area think.

This is why I focused on four positives from UC’s difficult-to-swallow loss to Nebraska instead of throwing my hands up and bitching about the usual Cincinnati-bitchfest things (The list: 1) Head coach Mick Cronin recruits athletes, not basketball players, 2) Cronin doesn’t recruit shooters, 3) Cronin needs to hire an offensive coordinator). In fact, to further hammer home why it makes much more sense to be positive and patient and to maintain a big-picture, it’s-a-long-season perspective, let’s revisit my four positives from the Nebraska loss:

1) Big Stride From the Ole Miss Game: The young Bearcats didn’t know yet what it would take to compete against a big, experienced team like the Rebels, and allowed Andy Kennedy’s team to shoot 49% from the field while forcing just 6 turnovers. UC packed a better lunch against Nebraska, forcing 22 turnovers and holding the Huskers to 32.7% shooting.

Troy Caupain (#10)

Troy Caupain (#10)

2) Troy Caupain’s Leadership: The 19-year-old from Midlothian, VA laid an egg against Ole Miss, but played with confidence and strength against Nebraska, gutting out a team-high 45 minutes with 5 steals, 6 assists and just 2 turnovers.

3) ***Resiliency Points Gained***: Even though it was an L on the record, battling through a 19-6 early-game deficit with your starting center in foul trouble to cut it to 23-21 at the half registered a gang of points on the “Resiliency Scale.”

4) Cronin’s Masterful Matchup Zone Defense: 22 turnovers, just 3 team assists for Nebraska. For an inexperienced team, to be able to dial up that type of defense keeps the scouting reports simple and allows the kids to focus more so on little things like not fouling as they mature as basketball players.

Now that we’ve re-visited these positives, let’s take a look at how they translated to the next game on the schedule.

You take a look at what 19th-ranked San Diego State has been through to this point in the season: The Aztecs beat a high-powered BYU team in Maui. Steve Fisher’s team then went toe-to-toe with #3 Arizona, eventually losing by just two points.

Fisher sent 6’7″ and 6’8″ at UC’s guards in the backcourt all night. This team is tall, long, athletic and chiseled. I sat 5th row center for this ballgame, and early on, it looked like the Bearcats would never find a way to score enough points to stay in the game, let alone keep this enormous team off the offensive glass, out of the paint or from snapping one of the rims.

After a J.J. O’Brien layup with 12:40 to go in the first half, SDSU led 13-6. Then, Deshaun Morman’s jumper hit the side of the backboard.

Aiiiish.

But, UC (toughness) got the offensive board and then 6-9, 280-pound junior-college transfer Coreontae DeBerry stuck it in the hole twice, pulling the Bearcats to within 3.

Then, after two free throws by the Aztecs created an 18-12 deficit for UC, Shaq Thomas and the ‘Cats answered with a 10-2 run to head to the locker room with a 2-point lead.

Staring that 19-6 deficit in the face in Lincoln, pulling together as a unit and clawing themselves back in to that game last Saturday instilled the belief in the Bearcat players’ minds that they possess the necessary fortitude. Again, as I’ll continue to harp away, never underestimate those resiliency points gained….especially when the team hasn’t been through the wars yet. (See also: Ohio State football this year.)

On to the second half, and on to more adversity. After an Angelo Chol (and no, I don’t have any idea how that guy’s name is Angelo Chol) dunk gave San Diego State a 43-38 lead, we hit the under 8:00 media timeout. Alright boys, you’ve fought hard, but you’re down by five and the Aztecs are starting to impose their will on the game.

We’ll start with #2 on my list of positives from the Nebraska loss. With the shot clock running down for the 89th time in the game, Caupain drove the lane, scored and got fouled. Huge, tide-stemming bucket. Now we’ll move to #4 on my list. Cronin’s matchup zone forced SDSU into a turnover. Jermaine Sanders then Far-Rockaway-New-Yorked a game-tying 3-pointer from the corner.

That’s how you respond!

Farad Cobb (#21)

Farad Cobb (#21)

From there, the Bearcats played smart on both ends. Junior guard Farad Cobb came up large on the offensive end (12 points, all after halftime), displaying the cojones grande that the team desperately needed. After freshman Gary Clark’s smooth end-of-shotclock finish, UC had built a 5-point lead with under a minute to go. But wait…..

More adversity! Much, much more adversity. First of all, the Aztecs (28% from 3-point range on the season) came down and banged in two three-point shots, sandwiched around two free throws by sophomore Kevin Johnson. Then, as UC held a 57-55 lead with 10 seconds to play, Aztec junior Winston Shepard drove wildly to the basket, tripped over his own feet and lost the ball out of bounds. But wait! A foul was called on Johnson! And, of course, Shepard bangs in both free throws. We’re going to overtime.

Your first thought is, “That was a horrrrrrrrible call.” Your second thought: “Shit, UC has to win this game twice???”

The Bearcat players could have folded or anguished over what could have been. But Caupain banded the crew together and led the way in overtime.

Add about five more “resiliency points” to the collective psyche of the 2014-15 Cincinnati basketball team. Better yet, add a quality non-conference win against a ranked opponent to this team’s NCAA Tournament resume.

You can either focus on stuff like offensive woes or missed free throws, or you can focus on the big picture. And in my mind, for this particular group of kids, I love the big picture potential. Remember, this is only Game 9. Eighty percent of the players in UC’s rotation are sophomores or didn’t play Division I college basketball last season. We’ve yet to see what the finished product will be with this group, and we may not see it until Game 20….or maybe even Game 45 (next season). But I’ll tell you this: Because of the coaching staff’s ability to teach and preach defense, when this team reaches its offensive potential (and despite what a lot of folks around Cincinnati may think, there is a great deal of offensive potential), it will be THE most dangerous team Mick has had as head coach at Cincinnati.

Thanks for reading. Stay positive. Stay patient.

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#Bearcats vs #19 San Diego State: The Most Important Game on Cincinnati’s Schedule?

Octavius Ellis rocks the rim.

Octavius Ellis rocks the rim.

It’s only mid-December and it’s only the ninth game on Cincinnati’s schedule, but Wednesday night’s battle with 19th-ranked San Diego State could turn out to be the most important game in the 2014-15 regular season.

As I sit here eating a giant Nestle Crunch bar, scouring through ESPN’s Basketball Power Index rankings, it’s becoming painfully evident that the American Athletic Conference may be one of the weakest leagues in the nation this year. The highest ranked team in the conference is SMU at 39. UConn is next at 46. The Bearcats check in at 64. The next highest team? Tulane at 119.

Yikes. (And yes, Tulane really is in this league now.)

So, unlike those years in the Big East, and unlike last season when conference foes Louisville, Memphis and UConn all scored the Bearcats points in the computer rankings, grabbing wins against quality non-conference opponents will likely be necessary for UC to qualify for its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament.

After having dropped its first two opportunities to Ole Miss and at Nebraska, “Oc” Ellis and the Bearcats will be afforded four more chances to bolster that March Madness resume:

Dec 17    vs #19 San Diego State
Dec 20    vs VCU
Dec 30    at NC State
Feb 18    vs Xavier

While Xavier currently (and inexplicably) ranks ahead of the Aztecs in the BPI (15th), chances are, the #@$&in’ Musketeers won’t be ranked in either Top 25 poll when we get to the Crosstown Shootout. VCU was ranked a couple of weeks ago, but suffered defeats to Villanova, Virginia and Old Dominion, knocking Shaka Smart’s crew out of the Top 25. NC State just lost to Wofford, so we can safely assume the Wolfpack won’t be ranked by December 30th.

Of course, there’s a chance Connecticut could work its way back into the rankings, but a home loss to Yale will be tough to overcome.

As you can see, this means that San Diego State could be the only ranked team UC plays all season. And that’s why this 9:00 ESPN2 (Bob Wischusen and Dan Dakich on the broadcast) tilt against Steve Fisher’s Aztecs might be the most important game on the schedule.

Your San Diego State Aztecs 2-Minute Preview

As it turns out, San Diego State is virtually a mirror image of the Bearcats. Both teams struggle to score, both teams graduated a senior leader/playmaker and both teams play Top 10-caliber defense.

Click Here to Listen to my 2-Minute preview

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Thanks for reading. Stay positive. Stay patient.

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Next Day Reaction: Positives From #Bearcats 56-55 Double OT Loss At Nebraska

mick cronin cincinnati

Head coach Mick Cronin

Any time your team loses a game by one point, you can spend hours going back over the course of that game, lamenting over fifty different “What if” plays. Troy Caupain and the Cincinnati Bearcats battled in the team’s first true road game of the season, but lost 56-55 in double overtime to Nebraska in Lincoln. And there certainly were fifty “What if” plays to go back and take a look at in this ballgame. But, like head coach Mick Cronin says, we don’t deal in hypotheticals. UC lost the game.

We also don’t deal in moral victories. But, in the interest of “It’s a long season,” can we applaud the kids for playing their hearts out in a tough environment against a desperate team and focus on the positives UC can build on moving forward? Let’s do that. “What ifs” are a waste of time.

1. This Was a Big Stride From the Ole Miss Game

The first time the Bearcats faced an experienced Power 5 Conference team, Ole Miss suffocated and dominated UC. The Bearcats really didn’t put up a fight in that loss, falling behind by more than 20 in the second half and allowing the Rebels to shoot 49% from the field. UC forced only six turnovers in that game.

And, while UC’s offensive numbers weren’t much different in either game (30.4% FG vs Ole Miss, 31.7% vs Nebraska), this team competed and focused 100 times better on the defensive end in Lincoln. Nebraska shot just 32.7% from the field and committed 22 turnovers while registering only three assists.

I know it’s easy to focus on the rampant nausea you’ve felt watching the Bearcats try to put the ball in the basket in these two losses, but in the long run, in order for this team to win enough games to get to the NCAA Tournament, it will need to play defense like it did against Nebraska on a regular basis.

2. Troy Caupain’s Leadership

Sophomore Troy Caupain

Sophomore Troy Caupain

In that loss to Ole Miss, Caupain scored only three points, shot zero free throws, committed five turnovers and dished out just one assist in 23 lackluster minutes. You can’t have that from your point guard against a quality opponent and expect to have a chance.

Last night in Lincoln, Troy was a leader. He played (by far) a team-high 45 minutes. When it looked bleak early on, the sophomore from Midlothian, VA was aggressive, shooting the ball with confidence and without hesitation, and attacking the basket when driving lanes opened up. His final stats: 13 points, 3-3 free throws, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals and only 2 turnovers.

That’s what this team needs out of Caupain. That’s a good sign moving forward. Remember, this was only his eighth start in college at the point guard spot…and it was on the road against a desperate team in what was at times a deafening arena.

3. Resiliency Points Gained

I’m sure you’re beyond sick of hearing about how inexperienced and young this UC Bearcats team is, but, well, it’s quite inexperienced and it’s quite young. Six first-year players (subtract redshirt freshman Jamaree Strickland from the mix, he’s transferring) and two sophomores make up 80% of your rotation right now. And, with inexperience comes mistakes. We saw a TON of mistakes in that ballgame last night: Bad shots on offense early, bad fouls on defense late.

That said, let’s focus on the big picture. With youth and inexperience will come mistakes. That’s the way it is. Like I always say about my own life: I have to learn by f***ing up. And when these kids watch the film from this loss to Nebraska, they’ll be doin’ a lotta that kinda learnin’. Now, in terms of the big picture, think about what last night’s game will do for the growth of this basketball team…

You know you’re facing a desperate team. It’s your first true road game as a group. And how does the game start off? As horribly as possible. Hell, beyond as horribly as possible. You can’t buy an outside shot. Your starting center and best rim protector (Octavious Ellis) picks up his second foul with 14:00 to go in the first half, relegating him to the bench until after halftime. And, AND, after you play tremendous defense for 33 seconds, you lose track of three-point shooting big man Walter Pitchford, who swishes a three at the shot clock buzzer to put you in a 19-6 hole.

Like I said: Beyond as horribly as possible.

At that point, you’ve got two options:

1) Hang your head, worry about the offensive struggles and lose focus on defense (see: The first 10 minutes of the second half against Ole Miss), and fall so far behind that you’ll never climb back in the game.

2) Focus even harder on defense, stay in the game and claw your way back.

The Bearcats chose Option 2. And wouldn’t ya know it? UC had the final possession of the half with a chance to tie or take the lead. At the break it was 23-21, Nebraska. UC had held the Cornhuskers to just four points in the final 6:21 of the first half while the ‘Cats gritted out 15, ignited by Farad Cobb’s “I’ve got big balls” perfectly-swished three-pointer answer to Pitchford’s. And THAT is why Cronin and his staff spend soooo much time on defense.

So, even though UC receives an L on the team record, going through a war like this and fighting through adversity should speed up the team’s growth and, perhaps more importantly, bring this unit closer together moving forward.

4. This Masterful Matchup Zone Defense

Say it with me: Mick Cronin and his staff are defensive wizards.

I mean, come on. You’ve got all these new players, it’s only mid-December, and you hold a team with two 20-point scorers to daggum 32.7% shooting on its home floor? How in the name of Stephen F. Austin did you do that?

With the matchup zone, that’s how.

Recently I heard Cronin say on the radio that he’s had to simplify what the team will do on defense so as not to confuse his young kids and overload their minds with in-depth scouting report lingo. Now, he’s got some liabilities out there to hide, he’s got a big point guard who will likely have trouble staying in front of ultra quick counterparts…..so he’s gone to this matchup zone. It basically does three things:

1) It allows the guards up top to switch everything. An offense that can’t set high ball screens will become stagnant right away.
2) It’s confusing. It’s got both zone and man-to-man principles, so the opposing team will run into problems if they try to run their normal offense or their zone offense. Nebraska committed 22 turnovers and had just the three assists. I’d say they were pretty effin’ confused, huh?
3) It allows you to keep a hand up on three-point shooters. Nebraska’s best outside gunners, Pitchford, Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, combined to shoot 3-for-14 from deep.

Moving Forward

Although this loss was excruciating, it’s a one-point road loss to a Power 5 team in December. Not the end of the world. The Bearcats still have four chances to grab NCAA Tournament resume-building non-conference wins. The next two will be at home: Wednesday Dec. 17 vs. #18 San Diego State (9:00 EST, ESPN2) and Saturday Dec. 20 vs VCU (noon, ESPNU). At least a split is probably necessary.

Thanks for reading. Stay positive, stay patient.

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