College Basketball Nation: Mick Cronin
There are coaching trees and then there is the forest birthed by Rick Pitino. Imagine crossing a redwood with a sequoia. And then adding the Rockefeller Christmas tree on top for good measure.
That gets you maybe a quarter of the way up the branches of Pitino’s tree. No fewer than 13 of his ex-assistants and/or players currently serve as college head coaches (Mick Cronin, Scott Davenport, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, Marvin Menzies, Richard Pitino, Kareem Richardson, Steve Masiello, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith, Reggie Theus, Kevin Willard, Sean Woods). And if you stretch the list to include former head coaches or current assistants, it goes on for miles.
Between them, Pitino’s disciples have four national championships of their own (two for Donovan, one each for Smith and Davenport). So trying to pick the best of this family tree is like trying to pick your favorite uncle. Highly subjective.
Consider this attempt just that, then -- an attempt to amass a list of the most successful ... with an out clause list of others who were left off.
1. Billy Donovan: Before he won two national titles at the University of Florida, Donovan was Billy the Kid, the feisty point guard who led Providence and Pitino to the Final Four in 1987. Two years later, Donovan and his mentor reconnected at the University of Kentucky, where Donovan cut his coaching teeth as an assistant until 1994. Embarking on his own as a head coach, first at Marshall and now at Florida, Donovan has rolled up 13 NCAA tournament bids and has been to at least the Elite Eight in five of the past six appearances.
2. Tubby Smith: Smith had the unenviable job of following in Pitino’s well-heeled footsteps at Kentucky, when Pitino’s one-time assistant returned to Lexington as head coach in 1997. Smith picked up right where his old boss left off, leading the Wildcats to their seventh national championship in his first season. Smith would go on to reach the 100-win mark faster than any other UK coach not named Adolph Rupp and collect five SEC titles. The former head coach at Tulsa and Georgia went on to Minnesota and is now at Texas Tech.
4. Jim O’Brien: The son-in-law of one Hall of Famer (Jack Ramsay), O’Brien would begin working alongside a future Hall of Famer in 1994, when he joined Pitino at Kentucky. Long a college coach in his own right, O’Brien helped Pitino usher the glory years back to Lexington and when Pitino jumped to the Boston Celtics, O’Brien went with him. Little did he know it was the beginning of his own career. It was O’Brien who would take over in Boston after Pitino epically flamed out, twice leading the Celtics to the playoffs. He’d then go on to two more NBA head-coaching jobs, with Philadelphia and Indiana, before retiring at the end of last season.
5. Herb Sendek: The master of his own pretty heavily limbed coaching tree, Sendek got his start under Pitino. The western Pennsylvania native joined the Providence staff as a graduate assistant before moving up to assistant coach. When Pitino left PC for Kentucky, Sendek went with him, spending four seasons with the Wildcats before launching his own head-coaching career. Sendek has gone from Miami (Ohio) to NC State to Arizona State and now has 20 years of head-coaching experience. He has made seven NCAA tournaments and has three conference coach of the year awards.
6. Frank Vogel: No one can trace their roots directly to Pitino quite as thoroughly as the Indiana Pacers head coach. After meeting Pitino at Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, Vogel, then a student at Juniata College, decided he was transferring on the spot to Kentucky. He had no promise of anything from Pitino but after loitering around the gym for weeks, he got a two-week trial period helping out assistant Jim O’Brien. A year later he was a student manager, and after graduation served as a video coordinator. The coach was so impressed with Vogel’s abilities that when Pitino went on to the Boston Celtics, he brought Vogel with him, hiring him as the team’s video coordinator. Vogel would outlast Pitino in Boston, staying on as an assistant coach under O’Brien. Six years later, when O’Brien was fired at Indiana, Vogel was named the Pacers’ interim coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers made their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2004.
7. Mick Cronin: The son of a head coach counts his father and Pitino as his two biggest mentors. He joined Pitino at Louisville in 2001 after five seasons at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Eventually becoming Pitino’s right-hand man and associate coach, Cronin was lauded for his recruiting savvy and eventually parlayed that into a head-coaching job at Murray State. He led the Racers to two Ohio Valley titles and NCAA tourney appearances before leaving to lead his alma mater, Cincinnati. Cronin has been credited with reviving the Bearcats, who had just one returning player when he arrived on campus.
8. Ralph Willard: One of Pitino’s closest friends and confidants, Willard worked alongside the Hall of Famer in three different stretches -- first as an assistant with the Knicks (1987-1989), then later at Kentucky (1989-90) and finally, at Louisville (2009-2012). In between, Willard forged his own impressive career, serving as head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky. He had his best success at his alma mater, Holy Cross, leading the program to four NCAA tournament berths and amassing a 192-117 record at the Patriot League school.
9. Travis Ford: The beloved Kentucky point guard started his career at Missouri but transferred to his home state school because he liked the style of its head coach. That would be Rick Pitino. Ford, fashioned in the same spitfire image of Billy Donovan, would take the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments. With all that UK love and his coach’s endorsement, Ford landed his first head-coaching gig at the tender age of 26, taking over at NAIA Campbellsville. That led to a job at Eastern Kentucky -- and EKU’s first NCAA berth in 25 years -- which led to a job at Pitino’s alma mater, UMass (and an Atlantic 10 title) and now to Oklahoma State.
10. Scott Davenport: Maybe not as well known as others on this list, Davenport is every bit as successful. In his eighth season at Division II Bellarmine, Davenport has taken a program that was sub-.500 before he arrived all the way to a national championship in 2011. The former high school coach made the jump to the college game in 1996, joining Denny Crum’s staff at Louisville. When Pitino came aboard in 2001, Davenport stayed on staff, working with Pitino until 2005, when he moved on to Bellarmine.
11. Marvin Menzies: As a longtime assistant coach, Menzies' resume went on for pages before he joined Pitino at Louisville in 2005. Menzies’ career had hopscotched from the high school ranks to junior college to San Diego State to USC to UNLV. After just two seasons alongside Pitino, Menzies was a head coach, taking over at New Mexico State. He has since led the Aggies to three WAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths.
Others to be considered: Cal State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus (Louisville assistant, 2003-05); Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard (Louisville assistant, 2001-07); Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky); former NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson (Providence and New York Knicks assistant).
2. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said the Bearcats have benefited from Sean Kilpatrick playing on the USA World University Games roster, forcing his team to play in pickup games or workouts with another leader. Kilpatrick will be expected to take the big shots for the Bearcats and be a high-volume player. Cronin has consistently read his teams pretty well during his tenure. He senses this team needs other voices and having Kilpatrick in Russia for a few weeks will help.
3. UCLA and Missouri will continue their home-and-home series in Columbia and are in the same event in Las Vegas. They won't play each other, with each instead playing Nevada and Northwestern. Arizona State is already playing Marquette, but the two schools are in the Wooden Legacy in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif., and will have to be on opposite brackets. Connecticut is playing Washington in Seattle, so the teams won't meet in the first round of the 2K Sports Classic, as UW will play Indiana while Boston College plays UConn in New York City. These home-and-home series are getting harder to schedule. And the tournaments have a tougher time locking in the teams. But it does seem like there have been more repetitive situations like the ones upcoming next season.
Coach Mick Cronin has agreed to a contract extension with Cincinnati that would add at least one year to his deal and run through the 2017-18 season. Cronin, who enters his eighth season, could have another one or two years added to the deal if the Bearcats make the NCAA tournament in either of the next two seasons. The reworked deal gives him more compensation for his team's academic accomplishments and NCAA tournament appearances.
It is a modest extension, another year or two on an incentivized basis, hardly worthy of major announcement or fanfare. It's the kind of extension we sort of tend to take for granted. It's a hearty pat on the back. But the fact that we could be so nonplussed actually says a lot about the job Cronin has done. The Bearcats are steadily, unspectacularly good. They finish top half in the Big East. They go to the NCAA tournament. We casually expect this. It feels ... normal.
That boring-in-the-best-way quality could pretty easily obscure the miniature existential crisis the program went through when Cronin was hired in 2006. UC president Nancy Zimpher had essentially fired consistently successful, well-entrenched 16-year veteran Bob Huggins in a rather messy public battle. In 2006, Huggins was told to resign and take a $3 million buyout or be reassigned. His issues with Zimpher began in 2004 when he was arrested for driving under the influence on the same morning as Coretta Scott King's commencement address at the school. Bearcats fans at the time openly acknowledged Huggins' apathetic approach to the student half of "student-athlete" and didn't much care; Zimpher was determined to beef up Cincinnati's academic reputation.
It was an ugly institutional divorce, a school severing ties with its rebellious but lovable bad boy, and Cronin's challenges at the outset were immense. He had to follow a mostly well-liked and successful coach. He had to overcome a dearth of players. And he had to do it all in a community that had just had a very loud and contentious conversation about the whole point of college basketball in the first place. The Bearcats finished 2-14 in his first year.
Progress -- a couple of 8-10 Big East seasons, then a 19-16 NIT campaign -- came relatively quickly after that. Cincinnati has gone to the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons (including the Sweet 16 in 2012), and there's little reason to expect much different in 2013-14. Cincinnati won't be a title contender, but it will be solid, which is why it's so easy to forget how much the ground shifted less than a decade ago. I'd say that's worth tacking a year or two on the contract, yes?
2. New Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said Wednesday that the timing was right and he just had a feeling that he needed to move after 15 years at Niagara. Mihalich is trading one set of problems for another. Niagara, north of Buffalo, N.Y., isn't exactly in fertile recruiting territory, but Mihalich has made it work and competed for league titles in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Hofstra, on Long Island, is in a fertile recruiting area but is in rebuilding mode. The MAAC and the Colonial Athletic Association are typically one-bid leagues at this juncture. Mihalich has had other opportunities to leave but chose to stay. He said every time he considers one, the same two questions come to mind: Who is the president and who is the athletic director? Mihalich felt comfortable with current AD Jeff Hathaway, who previously held the same position at Connecticut, and president Stuart Rabinovitz. Hathaway wanted a sitting head coach and stayed true to his goal in the search.
3. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin praised the "mature decision" by junior Sean Kilpatrick to return for his senior season. Cronin is convinced Kilpatrick will work on his game enough to be a draft pick next year. Kilpatrick will have a new backcourt mate with Cashmere Wright gone; those in the running to replace Wright will include freshmen Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain and junior Ge'Lawn Guyn.
2. NC State has made it clear that coach Mark Gottfried hasn’t heard anything from UCLA. Athletic director Debbie Yow also is quick to remind everyone of the $3.75 million buyout in Gottfried’s contract, which she terms non-negotiable. Much as he got many in the Research Triangle to warm to NC State, Gottfried would fit at UCLA. But it would be too hard for UCLA to pry him out of Raleigh. Multiple sources continue to think the Bruins may have to go with an NBA coach. But there are other options out there -- Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, hasn’t been contacted; apparently neither has Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has recruited Los Angeles well. USC, meanwhile, might end up going with a quality coach, albeit not a huge name. Remember, Oregon didn’t get its first choice, but did land a big-time talent in Dana Altman. It can be done.
3. Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway has made it clear he wants a current head coach for its vacancy, according to sources, making it seem more realistic he would lean toward coaches like Iona’s Tim Cluess and/or Tom Moore of Quinnipiac. Quality openings like Old Dominion and Siena remain. Meanwhile, sources close to former UCLA coach Ben Howland anticipate he’ll sit out next season rather than take a job.
PHILADELPHIA -- In this, the season of grind-it-out, ugly-it-up defensive rock fights that are meant to be basketball games, there is still one truth basketball holds to be self-evident:
The team that scores the most points wins.
And if you can’t shoot, you can’t score. Ergo, if you cannot score or shoot, you cannot win.
Case in point: Cincinnati versus Creighton.
The Bearcats’ approach is simple: physically beat teams into submission, crush them on the boards and score just enough to win games. It’s been a pretty effective approach for Mick Cronin’s team. It worked to the tune of 22 victories this season and played pretty well in the Big East, where a game without bloodshed is considered a shooting contest.
But eventually, you run into a team that can survive ugly yet also can score, and you cannot.
That’s called Creighton 67, Cincinnati 63.
In the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Bluejays shot 46.7 percent from beyond the arc; the Bearcats hit 5 of 20 3s. Creighton swished 22 of its 25 free throws, including nine of its final 10; Cincinnati hit 4 of 9 for the game and clanked three in the final minute.
“That’s sort of been our formula for success,’’ senior Grant Gibbs said of No. 7 seed Creighton (28-7). “We spread the ball and we’ve got a lot of guys who can score, and if we can get to the free throw line, we’re pretty good.’’
It’s been the opposite for the No. 10 seed Bearcats, who might get permanently stuck at H were they to put it to a game of HORSE.
Cincinnati (22-12) had a chance to tie it at the end, but Sean Kilpatrick’s decent look at a tying 3 rattled out.
He was surprised by that.
“It was a clean look, and then it just bounced and then it rolled and out,’’ Kilpatrick said. “It was surprising because it felt good going off in my hands, but it just rolled right out.’’
He shouldn’t have been so shocked. Cincinnati shoots just 31.7 percent from the arc for the season, so the odds of one falling when the game is on the line aren’t likely to be very good.
The real twist in all of this is, while Creighton’s shooting won the game, the Bluejays ought to emerge from it with an entirely different reputation.
In the basketball vernacular, high-scoring, offensive-minded teams also tend to be called something else.
That would be soft.
It’s a completely ridiculous generalization -- as most generalizations are -- and entirely inaccurate. But if you’re tagged with it, if you’re a team that usually outscores an opponent as opposed to outmuscling it, it’s a hard tag to drop.
The notion has followed Creighton through this season, even dogging star forward Doug McDermott. Fans sitting behind press row audibly expressed their shock when McDermott actually -- and adequately -- posted up to score.
McDermott finished with 27 points, which isn’t a surprise. What might have opened eyes up among the clueless: Only two of the seven shots he made were from beyond the arc.
And he had 11 rebounds.
The Bluejays, in fact, managed to outboard a Cincinnati team that ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding. McDermott, with a huge assist from Gregory Echenique, controlled the paint. Echenique finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Echenique is no stranger to "physical" games. He started his career at Rutgers and when he transferred, plenty of folks scratched their heads, wondering why he would take the perceived step backward to a Missouri Valley Conference school.
Echenique ignored them then and is merely amused by it all now.
“It’s funny how somehow it always goes back to people questioning our toughness, but I honestly don’t think that’s true at all,’’ he said. “I think we can definitely play tough. We’ve showed it before and we just proved it again today. And yeah, we take it personal. Obviously it’s disrespectful when people say that, but it’s OK. We had a chance to prove it and we did, and if we get challenged again, we’ll be there.’’
OK, so of course everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But watching the past week or so of college hoops, you could have been convinced otherwise. Why, it was just last Saturday that basically every SEC bubble team lost a bad game, while Arizona State, St. John's, Iowa State, Indiana State and Akron, just to name a few, suffered the kind of losses that can cost you a bid in the tournament.
The weekdays since haven't been much better. Virginia spent all week undoing the résumé boost earned with its victory over Duke. Kentucky lost at Georgia. Baylor flopped against Texas. It got so bad we had to begin considering the fringiest of the fringe -- Southern Miss, Iowa, Providence, Maryland -- even though it was almost physically painful to imagine most of those teams in the tournament.
And then, finally, mercifully, some of these teams started acting like they wanted to play meaningful basketball in March. Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State and Baylor all got huge wins at home. Iowa State held on at West Virginia. Even Cincinnati, which had been quietly slipping toward the bubble in recent weeks, avoided a brutal loss to South Florida.
It wasn't all good news. Oklahoma lost at TCU. Arizona State fell flat at Arizona. Xavier, Providence and St. John's all missed chances to get somewhere near reality in this thing. There were, as there always are, a handful of head-scratchers -- how Louisiana Tech goes three months without losing once and then drops back-to-back games in the matter of two days is beyond this humble bubbleologist.
But the end effect is clear: The bubble is just a little more firm than it was at the start of the day, a little tougher to crack. Good things happen when players play like they actually care about making the tournament. Who knew?
Kentucky: The biggest bubble story of the day, and almost certainly the most impactful, Kentucky's win over Florida put the Wildcats back on the right side of the bubble in their final regular-season opportunity. Considering where Kentucky was after its loss at Georgia this week -- all self-recrimination and disbelief -- it was a bit remarkable to stand up at the last possible moment, once and for all.
I won't spend a whole lot of time here, because you can read my reaction from this afternoon here. Long story short: UK is no lock to make the tournament, and it still has to navigate a tangle of prospective bad losses in the SEC tournament, but right now, compared to much of the rest of the bubble, the Wildcats are closer to being in than not.
Baylor: I am not above making a tired and dumb bodysnatchers joke -- see pretty much anything I've tweeted about Keith Appling for the past three weeks -- but rare is the opportunity to do so in regards to a team that plays inexplicably well. Today, Baylor is that team.
I mean, how else do you explain the Bears not just beating Kansas in Waco, Texas, but blowing Kansas out? When in the past seven days we've seen a) Baylor lose at home to K-State on one of the most heartbreaking (and poorly executed) final seconds of the season and b) lose 79-70 at Texas? That team -- a team that was admittedly still playing hard but looking utterly lost in doing so -- turned around and beat the Jayhawks by 23 points in the penultimate game of the regular season. How does that happen?
Complete shock aside, the bad news for the Bears (sorry) is that they're just 2-10 against the RPI top 50, 5-10 against the top 100, and still have a prohibitively high RPI (No. 73 entering Saturday). As nice as Saturday's win was, and for as much as it helped the Bears, the damage they did in recent weeks isn't so easy to overcome in one fell swoop. They still need more -- and a first-round Big 12 tourney shot against Oklahoma State is an awfully good place to start.
Boise State: In case you're not up to speed on the Broncos -- and no, they don't play their home games on blue hardwood -- they established their potential tournament case all the way back on Nov. 28, when they shocked Creighton (then the No. 11 team in the country) on its home floor. (Eight days earlier, they had pushed Michigan State 74-70, and we all wondered what was wrong with the Spartans. Go figure.) Since then, they've trucked along in the Mountain West in almost exactly the fashion you'd expect: They've beaten some of the league's toughest teams (UNLV, Colorado State) at home and fallen to some of the league's lesser squads (Air Force isn't a bad loss; Nevada is) on the road. In other words, today's win over San Diego State wasn't exactly revolutionary; it was a realistic get, and the Broncos got it. The one thing really setting Jeff Elorriaga & Co. apart from the rest of the bubble dregs is their quality wins. Add one more.
Tennessee: What is it with Tennessee and late-season boosts? The Volunteers did this last season, too, when they turned a brutal first two months into a 10-6 SEC performance and a late desperate push to get into the NCAA tournament. It didn't happen then, but after Saturday's home win over Missouri -- a thank-you card addressed to Phil Pressey is currently in the mail - it looks very much like it's happening now.
I'm not saying that a home win over Missouri is this huge bubble landmark. It's at least a degree or four below a win over Florida. Missouri's only true road wins all season came at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Road warriors these Tigers are not, but combined with UT's other work -- eight wins in its past nine games, including a 30-point demolition of Kentucky and its own victory over Florida -- the résumé is now right in the middle of the bubble picture. Like Kentucky, or really any of these SEC teams, anything can happen going away. But for now, the news is good.
Iowa State: Of any of these bubble winners, Iowa State should be in the best shape. For one, the Cyclones are easily the best team in this group; even a cursory glance at their efficiency numbers (especially when contrasted with the rest of these teams) reveals one of the best offenses in the country and a top-35-ish team overall. I also happen to think the committee will go outside its nitty-gritty sheets and delve into Iowa State's two losses to Kansas, both of which came in overtime, the latter of which was ripped from them thanks to some truly diabolical officiating. Anyway, I wouldn't be able to say any of this had Iowa State lost at West Virginia on Saturday. It didn't, and so I can.
Ole Miss: The Rebels won by 14 at LSU. Were they in better position to start the day -- had they not lost to Mississippi State last week, perhaps -- I might have stuck them down in the "Survivors" category. As it is, they remain in the picture, but have a ton of work to do in the SEC tournament. One win won't get it done.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils are basically done. It's not just a loss at Arizona -- that is obviously forgivable, even if the Wildcats aren't nearly as good as we thought they'd be this season -- it's the four losses in a row (to Washington, UCLA and USC, the latter two of which were on the road, before today's loss at Arizona) as well as an RPI in the 90s, the 283rd-hardest schedule, and so on. Credit Herb Sendek and Jahii Carson for getting this program back in the mix in short order, but it's hard to see an at-large here.
La Salle: The Explorers aren't in bad shape, relatively speaking, and you can hardly fault any team for taking one on the chin at Saint Louis, which they did today. But La Salle has been sort of quietly sliding toward the bubble in the past couple of weeks, and losing 78-54 at this point in the season is hardly the best way to impress the committee. Definitely worth keeping an eye on right now.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma has been in great tournament shape for the majority of the past month -- the Sooners have been playing solid hoops, and their RPI and SOS figures are great -- but it nonetheless entered Saturday outside the comfort of lockdom. And then the Sooners lost to TCU. That probably isn't enough to put Oklahoma below a score of the teams you see here, but when you really dig in to its résumé, there's not much about it that screams "lock." A first-round loss to Iowa State next week could have the Sooners wavering by Selection Sunday.
Colorado: This week's Bubble Watch included a little homily on how the Buffaloes' résumé wasn't all that much different from UCLA's, but Colorado was frequently a No. 10 seed while the Bruins were most often placed on the No. 6 line. That was wrong, I wrote. Naturally, Colorado proceeded to lose at home to Oregon State. Like Oklahoma, the Buffaloes are still in better shape than, say, Baylor, but their regular-season finale was enough to introduce some serious questions going forward.
Minnesota: How do you follow up a win against Indiana? If you're Minnesota, you lose at Nebraska and Purdue. I don't really understand how that works, but I don't understand anything about this Gophers team. I don't think Tubby Smith does, either. The good news is Minnesota is still in much better shape than almost anyone on this list, thanks to its batch of top-50 wins and some pretty peerless computer numbers (RPI: 20; SOS: 2). But the Gophers did just finish the Big Ten season at 8-10, and what if they fall in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? You have to at least consider them to be on the bubble right now, right?
Alabama: The Crimson Tide scraped out a three-point home win over Georgia on Saturday. That is the definition of bubble survival: A loss probably would have knocked Anthony Grant's team totally out of the conversation. As it is, it's still a bit of a long shot -- the Tide were Joe Lunardi's last team among the first four out Saturday evening -- with absolutely zero good wins on its docket. Just a totally uninspiring résumé.
Southern Miss: Speaking of totally uninspiring résumés: the Golden Eagles, everyone! To be honest, it sort of baffles me that Southern Miss is even in the conversation; its best wins are at Denver and a sweep of East Carolina. But the Golden Eagles are hanging around the very fringes of the bubble, and Saturday's home victory over UCF preserved that ungainly status.
Iowa: If Iowa doesn't make the tournament -- and right now it looks very much like Iowa is not going to make the tournament -- Fran McCaffery will really only have himself to blame. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule was that of a team still in rebuilding mode, looking for some forgiving opponents and early-season wins. It didn't help that Northern Iowa wasn't as good as advertised, but still, the overall nonconference schedule rank of 308 looks like it is going to keep this .500 Big Ten team -- which would normally be a worthy distinction -- from serious bubble consideration, barring a big push in Chicago next week.
Cincinnati: What if Cincinnati had lost to South Florida on Saturday? That would have been the Bearcats' seventh loss in their past nine games, would have put them at 8-10 in Big East play and, worst of all, would have been a loss to South Florida, which has been just flat-out bad all season long. Fortunately, Cincinnati didn't lose to South Florida. Mick Cronin's team held on 61-53 and should be in solid shape moving forward.
Belmont: This sort-of-kind-of doesn't count, because Belmont won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in thrilling fashion Saturday, and its Dance status is now of the automatic variety. But had they lost, it's entirely possible the Bruins would have missed the tournament altogether.
Xavier: Two weeks ago, despite the young Musketeers' growing pains, it was impossible to look at Xavier's schedule and not have your saliva glands start working a little overdrive. Chris Mack's kids would get VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis all at home, and then they'd finish the season with a trip to Butler. The Cintas Center is a difficult place to play; a 4-1 record was entirely believable, and could have been a season-changing stretch. Instead, Xavier went 2-3 -- it lost at Butler on Saturday 67-62 -- and its tournament credentials look about as so-so as they did back in mid-February. Alas.
Providence: An even bigger long shot than better-than-you-think brothers-in-arms Iowa at this point, at least Providence, which would close the season at Connecticut, had the best chance of notching an impressive road victory on the final weekend of the season. Instead, UConn held on 63-59. Keep an eye on the Friars going forward; like McCaffery at Iowa, Ed Cooley has them playing better basketball than anyone expected this early in his tenure. But a tournament bid will have to wait.
St. John's: After suspending D'Angelo Harrison, sitting Sir'Dominic Pointer for a one-game fighting suspension and losing three in a row, St. John's looked totally cooked coming in to the weekend, both on the bubble and on the court. But the Red Storm didn't roll over. Instead, they gave Marquette a genuine test, forcing guard Vander Blue to make a last-second running layup to win and secure Buzz Williams a share of the Big East title. It was an impressive showing by the Red Storm, albeit one that came up just short. No chance this team gets in the tournament now.
1. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have decisions to make in a month. The UConn season will end without a postseason on March 9 after the Providence game due to the Academic Progress Rate penalty. Napier was asked about this following UConn's win against Cincinnati on Thursday. He doesn't have to say anything since he has time to make a decision. But here's the deal: Napier would get drafted, but there's no way to guarantee where, while Boatright has less of a chance, according to NBA personnel. I can't pretend to know their family situations. But there's no guarantee that the money would be beneficial enough to make it worth it, while leaving behind what they sacrificed this season. Napier and Boatright decided to stay put after the sanctions. They could have bolted. Instead, they were committed to UConn and Kevin Ollie. I have no vested interest here but just an observation: Wouldn't they want to return so they could play in the NCAAs in 2014 and challenge for the Big East regular-season title? That's a sure thing. The draft, collecting money and actually contributing in the NBA next season is not.
2. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he received a call from San Diego State coach Steve Fisher about possibly moving back a home-and-home series with the two schools, which was slated to start in Cincinnati. The reason? Fisher loaded up his nonconference schedule with the anticipation that the Aztecs were going to be in the Big West next season. But the Aztecs decided to stay put in the Mountain West and now have an overload of tougher games, so Fisher is trying to pull back a bit. Cronin is cool with moving the series back if he can get a quality home-and-home series to start at home in 2013-14. The problems in scheduling for San Diego State and Cincinnati are occurring at a number of Big East schools since they don't know exactly who will be in the conference in 2013-14 or 2014-15, although there is an assumption everyone will be settled in the fall of 2014.
3. The Big East is preparing to have 18 schools in the conference for 2013-14 -- before the seven Catholic-based schools leave to form their own conference in 2014 and Notre Dame and Louisville leave for the ACC and Rutgers for the Big Ten. Temple, Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU are all coming next season while Syracuse and Pitt leave. The 2014-15 Big East could have 10 schools. Tulane is set to come in to be the ninth member, and, according to a source, there is a chance East Carolina joins as a full member for No. 10. Tulsa and UMass are the two most discussed possibilities of being the 11th full member.
New Mexico at No. 8 Cincinnati, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: I had this weird thing happen with my phone this week. The time just started skipping forward and backward an hour at a time, seemingly at random. I would lie down and take a nap -- disclosure: I took a lot of naps this week -- and when I woke up I wouldn't even realize my time was off until I made some comment about how I slept in until 10 a.m., only to have my mom give me a weird look and tell me it was 9.
I believed this whole thing was pretty clearly a product of magnetic polarity caused by Santa's increased presence in the area. After some Googling, I uncovered a far more pedestrian answer. But whether thanks to Santa (Santa!) or rote telecommunications system operations, the point is this very fundamental thing I have been relying on since I first started using a cell phone (college), which has worked perfectly since, was suddenly unreliable? What? For a brief period of time, I was forced to totally rethink my entire relationship with technology -- if I could even trust any of it anymore. At the very least, I realized I needed to start wearing a watch, which is itself an unreliable piece of old technology! When you're on your 85th viewing of "A Christmas Story," the mind can wander.
Then I traveled back to Chicago, and the thing started working again. I left well enough alone. In fact, until now, I had completely forgotten it even happened.
What does this have to do with college basketball? I'll explain.
For pretty much all of my basketball-obsessed childhood, Cincinnati was really good at basketball. From 1991-92 to 2004-05, Nick Lachey's Bob Huggins' teams never missed the NCAA tournament. They went to three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and one Final Four. The Bearcats were talented and hard-nosed and carried an outsider's chip on their shoulder, and every year I totally took them for granted. They just were.
And then Huggins was fired. And then the Bearcats weren't.
Now they are again. Mick Cronin has UC squarely in the top 10. This team is undefeated thus far this season, and playing some of the best per-possession defense in the country (the seventh best, to be precise, not to mention the best 2-point-shot defense in the country), and gobbling up rebounds on the offensive end, and utilizing versatile junior guard Sean Kilpatrick and relying on the efficiency of senior guards Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker. The Bearcats aren't pretty to watch, but they guard like crazy, they rebound and they play really hard.
In considering that fact before writing a nominal preview of Thursday night's lone interesting college hoops matchup, it was hard for me to almost not take it for granted. Like, we get it. Cincinnati's good. These guys were pretty good last season. We all expected them to be good this season. And they're almost always supposed to be good, at least to the part of my basketball brain that will forever be 10 years old, the same way my cell phone tower time is always set to the absolutely correct time. But these things we take for granted almost always take something immense and unseen -- whether the magic of modern telecom or the grindingly hard work of restoring a proud program to national relevance -- to make them real.
My phone alarm woke me up at the right time Thursday. Win or lose against a good New Mexico team, Cincinnati is good at basketball. All is as it should be.
(By the way, did you watch the video at the top of this post? You really should. Seth Greenberg uses the telestrator to break down the key matchups in this game. It's worth your time.)
Everywhere else: There are other games Thursday night, but you probably shouldn't watch any of them. College basketball likes to ease its way out of the Christmas break. (Except for San Diego State-Arizona, that is. What a game.)
2. North Carolina coach Roy Williams looked great after his scare with two benign tumors in September and October. Williams had one removed from his right side but the left one remains. He said it will be looked at again in four to six months, adding that his doctors had given him an eight-week exercise ban. But he looked good and healthy, and said he feels much better after the frightening episode. Our former ESPN colleague, Hubert Davis, now an assistant at UNC, is loving his new gig. He said he absolutely enjoys being in the gym with the players and, of course, having a more regular schedule where he can be at home. I'm still convinced that Davis will be in play for the head-coaching job -- if he wants it -- whenever Williams retires.
3. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said the Bearcats can still improve their offensive efficiency and that turnovers were too high in the victories in Las Vegas over the weekend against Iowa State and Oregon. But he said the Bearcats are playing at a faster pace. UC continues to be a good watch and is a legit Big East title contender.
2. If there is anyone to feel sorry for among the possible alignment moves it is the schedule makers in the conferences. They spend countless hours working on plans for conference schedules only to possibly have the entire format discarded. It happened in the Big East. It may happen to the ACC, to the Big East again, and possibly the Big Ten. There could also be a domino effect in other leagues too.
3. Oregon State suffered a tough blow when Angus Brandt tore an ACL during the Beavers' win over Purdue Friday in New York at the 2K Sports Classic. Brandt had been the Beavers most versatile big man who could be a power player in the post, a stretch four, and probably one of the Beavers' best passers. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said the Beavers will lose some toughness with Brandt's departure but it does open up more opportunities for some freshmen to get quality minutes.
2. Cincinnati is a trendy pick in the Big East and for good reason. The Bearcats are fully capable of challenging anyone for second (with the assumption that Louisville is the champ). Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said Sunday night he has the best chemistry he’s had at UC. “The depth could be tremendous. I love our potential defensively. It’s the most athletic team we’ve ever had and we have veteran winners." Cronin said that after a few days of practice. If he keeps seeing this potential in January then the Bearcats will be a formidable force.
3. South Florida sophomore point guard Anthony Collins, who averaged 5.2 assists a game, should be ready for full practice and contact Tuesday after missing the first four days due to a concussion, according to coach Stan Heath. The Bulls, who reached the NCAA tournament last season, have depth with South Alabama transfer Martino Brock available. Heath said Brock is a combo guard who is extremely athletic and tough. Brock averaged 14.2 points a game as a sophomore at South Alabama.
2. Marquette decision last week to fire assistant Scott Monarch and suspend head coach Buzz Williams for a game is another example of a school endorsing head coach penalties to head off any potential committee on infractions hits. The era of the coach not being held accountable is now officially over. Coaches can expect to be penalized a game or two or three by their school, conference, or the NCAA for failing to foster an atmosphere of compliance.
3. The Horizon League is desperate for good news after the abrupt departure of Butler to the A-10. Loyola (Ill.) returned from an Italy trip with some dramatic uptick in numbers. The Ramblers averaged a meager 57.2 points a game last season but on a 4-1 trip they averaged 82.3 points a game. The Ramblers also hadn’t had a player average five assists a game since 2003. But Iowa transfer Cully Payne handed out 9.3 assists in the four games. Porter Moser is hoping to see a turnaround and the indication is that this trip may give the Ramblers the necessary bounce.
2. Cronin is attempting to upgrade his schedule and has secured a top-25 home-and-home series, which isn’t easy in this era of schools looking for more neutral-site non-conference games. Cronin and New Mexico coach Steve Alford said they will play a home-and-home series next season, to start in Cincinnati. The Bearcats will visit the Pit the following season.
3. Murray State coach Steve Prohm said he has had discussions with Virginia Commonwealth about a home-and-home series but nothing is finalized. The Rams are searching for multiple games after losing Richmond and George Washington from the schedule now that they’re all in the Atlantic 10. VCU also needs two more games, since the A-10 plays 16 games and the CAA played 18. VCU coach Shaka Smart said many possibilities remain, but one certainty is that the Rams will continue the rivalry with Old Dominion, which will be off to Conference USA in 2013. Smart said the home-and-home series will start at ODU in 2012-13.
His Bearcats had just bulldozed No. 3 seed Florida State 62-56 in the third round of the East Regional at Bridgestone Arena to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2001.
Up next just happens to be Ohio State, which is about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati’s campus, but might as well be 2,000 miles away when it comes to the schools establishing any semblance of a hoops rivalry.
They’ve played only once since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in the 1962 national championship game, and that was at the Wooden Tradition tournament in Indianapolis in 2006.
“I have great respect for their program,” Cronin said. “Other than that, they’re the next team we play. You know, these guys have a goal. We have a goal, and we got into the tournament to win it. I want my guys thinking that way because I believe in them. It’s important that they know that I believe we’re capable of winning the whole tournament.
“We’re capable of winning any game we play.”
And that includes the No. 2-seed Buckeyes, one of four schools from the state of Ohio to make the Sweet 16.
The Bearcats (26-10) got there with toughness, defense -- and as Cronin reminded everybody Sunday -- a healthy dose of talent, too.
Whether it was Sean Kilpatrick going 4-of-6 from 3-point range, Jaquon Parker yanking down 11 rebounds, or Dion Dixon stealing Luke Loucks' pass out of three-quarter court pressure and sailing in for a tomahawk dunk, Cincinnati made every play it needed to in knocking off the Seminoles. A Florida State team that won the ACC tournament championship this season and beat both Duke and North Carolina twice.
“I think we get a lot of credit for playing hard,” Cronin said. “I think, hopefully, tonight people saw our talent level, to be able to do things some teams in the ACC couldn’t do last week on a neutral court. … I think our talent level is a lot higher than people give us credit for.”
It was the Bearcats’ eighth win this season over a nationally-ranked opponent, and they had that unmistakable look about them when it came time to win or lose the game on Sunday.
Not only did they hit 9-of-10 free throws in the final two minutes, but they made key stops on the defensive end and chased down all the 50-50 balls.
Dixon’s steal and soaring dunk with 1:30 to play swung a back-and-forth game in Cincinnati’s favor for good.
“That kind of sparked us a little bit,” said Dixon, who had 15 points and three steals.
Like their coach, the Cincinnati players also downplayed the fact that it was Ohio State standing in their way next week in Boston.
What they didn’t downplay was where they expect to be when this tournament is over.
“Going to the Sweet 16 is all cool,” Parker said. “But we’re thinking way better than that. We’re trying to get past the Sweet 16 and do bigger and better things.”
The deeper the Bearcats advance, the more people will forget about their ugly brawl with Xavier in December that resulted in multiple suspensions of players.
Cronin said it’s been a fight every step of the way to get out from under that stigma, but he’s proud of the way his players have responded.
“We’ve been on a mission to define what Cincinnati basketball is all about, what our university and city is all about, and the kids have banded together to do that,” Cronin said. “It hasn’t been easy. These guys’ backs have been against the wall since that day, not because of the issue, because we were 5-3 and our RPI was sky-rocketing.
“We were so far away from the NCAA tournament we couldn’t see it with binoculars.”
They can see it now. Matter of fact, they have a front-row seat.