College Basketball Nation: Mick Cronin

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Even after a 61-57 win in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament -- and wins in consecutive tournaments -- Harvard is still one of the easier teams to poke fun at in the Big Dance. They’re the smart kids playing a rough game, the school from the Ivy League that is allowed into the tournament.

[+] EnlargeBrandyn Curry, Siyani Chambers
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesWith its win over Cincinnati, Harvard now has NCAA tournament wins in back-to-back seasons.
But in his seven seasons with the Crimson, coach Tommy Amaker has put to rest a few of those jabs. And, for the third consecutive season, Harvard has made an appearance in the Big Dance. Before Amaker arrived, the Crimson's last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1946.

In 2012, the Crimson lost in the first round. Last season as a No. 14 seed, Harvard upset No. 3 seed New Mexico -- its first-ever NCAA tournament win.

And on Thursday in Spokane, the 12th-seeded Crimson took care of business against fifth-seeded Cincinnati. Though the 5-12 matchup is one of the most common upsets in the NCAA tournament, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was reluctant to call it an upset.

"In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset," Cronin said. "They’ve got a great team. Tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year. … They did not catch us by surprise by any stretch of the imagination."

The Crimson took advantage of a slow start by the Bearcats, who opened the game by missing 14 of their first 17 shots, jumping out to a 36-29 halftime lead, which Harvard wouldn’t relinquish in the second half. Cincinnati broke out a full-court press, helping to cut the lead to one with just three minutes remaining, but solid play from sophomore guard Siyani Chambers kept the Crimson on top.

Harvard’s win adds to the argument that this is one of the deeper tournaments in recent history. With Louisville and Michigan State both playing as 4-seeds, several teams having a solid shot at the title and star players starring on some under-the-radar team, this season’s March Madness is sure to hold more games like Harvard-Cincinnati, upset or not.

[+] EnlargeSteve Moundou-Missi
AP Photo/Young KwakHarvard's Steve Moundou-Missi scored nine points in the victory over the Bearcats.
"In college basketball, you look around, and I’ve heard this before where there really aren’t upsets anymore," Amaker said. "There may be some surprises, but I just think when you’re looking at seeds and if you’re playing this time of year, you’re probably a pretty good basketball team. And I think you have to be lucky and fortunate to advance in this great tournament. And we were good, and we also were somewhat fortunate and lucky, as well."

There might have been some luck in the Crimson’s win, but it was mostly sticking to a solid game plan and playing fundamental basketball. The game as a whole was sloppy -- 23 total turnovers and more than 60 missed shots between the two teams -- but the Crimson looked like the team that better executed its game plan.

Despite Cincinnati being more athletic, Harvard kept the Bearcats out of the paint and stuck with them on the boards, losing the rebounding battle by just one, 34-33.

Defensively, the Crimson held the Bearcats to 37 percent shooting (six percent less than their average) and just five assists (eight less than their average) while keeping star guard Sean Kilpatrick in check most of the game.

"I think that we have become a program that has become relevant in the world of college basketball," Amaker said. "I just think our kids have worked hard, have represented our school in an incredible fashion, and we’re proud to be able to say that we’ve become a program representing our conference that can go on a national stage in a national tournament and be competitive and be a contender, and certainly to win a game or two."

We couldn’t boil down the list. That was the amazing thing.

Every year, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association board members and district representatives get together on a conference call to boil down the candidates for player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year. Usually it’s not terribly complicated. This season it was.

Not for the first two, but for the third. There were so many choices, we were worried we’d leave someone off.

Which got me to thinking, what would coaches say? Who among their peers would they deem the most worthy?

So I decided to ask. I polled 22 different coaches -- from big conferences and small, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest and South -- and asked them (anonymously so they wouldn't feel strange) to name their national coach of the year and why he earned their vote.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsGregg Marshall has led the Shockers to a flawless record heading into the NCAA tournament despite a target on Wichita State's back.
No surprise, there wasn’t a consensus.

A majority, yes, but not a consensus.

Of the 22 people polled, 11 said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, three picked Florida's Billy Donovan and two chose Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, while Creighton's Greg McDermott, Virginia's Tony Bennett, Villanova's Jay Wright, SMU's Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self and Michigan's John Beilein received one vote apiece.

Marshall got the edge for logical reasons. The head coach of the undefeated Shockers has already made history, leading his team not only to the NCAA's first undefeated regular season in 10 years, but also to a 34-0 record and the Missouri Valley regular-season and conference tournament titles.

"They simply haven’t made a mistake," one coach said of Marshall’s Wichita State team.

Added another: "Going undefeated is next to impossible. Going undefeated after a Final Four appearance is beyond impossible because of the target you have to wear into every game."

Donovan earned the respect of his peers for his ability to overcome suspensions and injuries yet still lead his Florida team to 23 consecutive wins, the first 18-0 conference record in SEC history, an SEC regular-season title and just two losses.

"If the guys weren’t hurt or out against Wisconsin, he could have one loss," one coach said of the Gators’ first loss, in which both Dorian Finney-Smith and Scottie Wilbekin did not play. "And he just does his job. That’s it."

Cronin, the only other multiple-vote-getter, earned props for Cincinnati’s relentless style. The Bearcats, picked to finish fourth in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference, instead shared the league title with Louisville.

"He’s just done a heckuva job with his team," one coach said. "They play the best defense and he’s gotten so much out of those guys."

Even though McDermott, Self, Wright, Bennett, Brown and Beilein each received just one vote, plenty of coaches mentioned them while whittling down their choices to a single name.

The stakes were raised this year for Creighton with the Bluejays' move to the Big East, yet thanks to McDermott and in no small part to his son, Doug, not much has changed. Creighton finished second in the league.

"I understand he has the best player in the country, but still, to move up a league, that’s impressive," one coach said of McDermott.

In the expanded and ever-more-difficult ACC, Bennett led Virginia to its first conference regular-season title since 1981, losing just two league games in the process.

"Sixteen-and-one and 13 in a row in the ACC is pretty impressive," the one coach who voted for Bennett said before the Cavaliers closed the regular season with a 75-69 overtime loss to Maryland to end that streak.

[+] EnlargeLarry Brown
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamLarry Brown has earned the respect of his peers for turning things around so quickly at SMU.
Villanova, another regular-season conference winner, surprised virtually everyone in the country by not only winning the Big East but racking up a 28-3 record. Wright and his team could be in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"This is an example of how a team with capable college players executing a cohesive brand of basketball can achieve at a very high level," Wright’s voter said. "Jay has masterfully orchestrated this championship team, pushing all the right buttons."

And speaking of unexpected, there is SMU. Larry Brown promised big changes when the school hired him two years ago. No one expected such dramatic improvement so quickly.

"No one else could have done what LB has done at SMU," Brown’s endorser said.

Self, meanwhile, essentially has rebuilt his roster with little change in results. Kansas won yet another Big 12 title, the Jayhawks' 10th in a row despite a roster heavily reliant on freshmen.

"He started brand new and here he is. That’s pretty amazing," another coach said.

Finally, Beilein is almost a combo of Self and Donovan. He led the Wolverines to a Big Ten regular-season title despite losing the player of the year (Trey Burke) and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year’s national championship runner-up team and Mitch McGary for the better part of this season due to injury.

"At the end of the day, it’s not all just about toughness," one of Beilein's peers said. “We talk about that too much. It’s about execution, and he’s the best execution coach in the game."

CINCINNATI -- Louisville's 58-57 road win Saturday bore some resemblance to Rick Pitino's new facial hair. Not always smooth. Definitely some scraggly patches.

But, like the beards Pitino and his players began sporting before Valentine's Day, the No. 11 Cardinals might not be going away anytime soon. Much as they did a year ago at this time, the defending national champions are displaying noticeable growth in February. Louisville (23-4) has won six straight and got its first major scalp of the season by nipping No. 7 Cincinnati in a close shave.

"This was big for us," swingman Wayne Blackshear said. "There were a lot of doubters out there saying how good are we because we can't beat a ranked team. But obviously we pulled one out today."

It took a signature moment of Russdiculousness for the Cardinals to finally earn that cornerstone victory. Russ Smith knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with 2.2 seconds left, helping Louisville avenge a three-point home loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30 and creating a virtual tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings with the Bearcats.

That Smith would take and make the game winner came as no surprise. The unexpected part was that his late-game unselfishness proved the difference in a back-and-forth street brawl of a contest.

Cincinnati erased a 10-point second-half deficit and led 55-52 with just 1:28 left after Justin Jackson sank two free throws. After a timeout, Smith dumped the ball to Montrezl Harrell for a dunk off a designed pick-and-roll. On Louisville's next possession, Smith contorted through traffic to find Harrell for an easy layup.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAfter finally beating a ranked team, Russ Smith and Louisville are getting better and better as March approaches.
Down by two points with under 10 seconds to go, Smith drove left off a Blackshear screen. The Bearcats met him with a double-team, so he passed the ball out to Terry Rozier on the wing. Rozier took one dribble and rose up, later saying he thought about shooting it. But, at the last moment, he spotted Smith standing alone to his left and passed it back, showing uncanny poise for a true freshman.

"It was a great play," Pitino said, "but it was an even better play by Terry."

There's little doubt that trigger-happy Smith would have jacked up a quick shot rather than work for a better one early in his career. But the senior -- who made only three field goals Saturday -- said he showed maturity by searching for his teammates against the Bearcats.

"That was the right thing to do," he said. "That was the basketball play, to give it up.

"I knew scoringwise that I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to be a team effort, and I was going to have to find people, get Montrezl going, get everybody else going. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."

Louisville won in an extremely hostile environment despite getting only 10 points from Smith and enduring one of Luke Hancock's worst games (0-for-6 from the floor, five fouls). That's because other players are starting to contribute more, which is a great sign for the Cardinals as March approaches.

In a fitting regular-season halt to this rivalry -- the two teams have no scheduled games in the foreseeable future after the Cardinals bolt to the ACC -- every play in the paint turned into a mosh pit of flying body parts. No one enjoyed that more than 235-pound Harrell, who led Louisville with 21 points and 10 rebounds. That marked Harrell's sixth double-double in his past 12 games, and Pitino said the sophomore forward is "really developing into a great basketball player."

"I just try to go out there and be that one to dive on the ball or hustle down to the block," Harrell said. "Just do something to get my team going and hope they feed off my energy."

Rozier, a nonfactor much of the season, added 11 points and has scored in double figures in three straight. He provided key minutes and defense Saturday as Hancock struggled.

"I never really played that much against good teams earlier in the year," Rozier said. "[Pitino's] confidence in me is definitely growing, and I'm getting more minutes and more looks. He's starting to trust me."

Even Blackshear, who has had a frustrating tendency to disappear in big games, came up with the key defensive play by blocking a Sean Kilpatrick layup attempt with 47 seconds left.

Pitino said he gave the same pregame speech he delivered before last year's Final Four game against Wichita State, telling his players the better defensive team would win. Neither team shot well in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a "bloodbath," but Louisville held the Bearcats to a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor. That included a 3-for-26 start to the game.

Kilpatrick matched the 28 points he scored in last month's win at the KFC Yum! Center but had to work much harder for his points as the Cardinals' aggressive zone often kept him far from the lane. He hit just nine of his 26 shots and -- after an 11-for-11 free throw performance in the first meeting -- missed a foul shot that could have given his team a three-point cushion in the final two minutes.

The Bearcats (24-4) lost for just the second time since Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be taking off at the right time. They vowed before last week's win at Temple not to shave again until they lost a game. Results have varied on that fuzzy front.

"I look like a 61-year-old, aging Al Pacino," Pitino joked after the game.

The most striking facial features among the Louisville contingent Saturday afternoon were the broad smiles through the whiskers. The beards will continue to grow. So, too, does this team's outlook.

Tough Bearcats don't get rattled

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As a 17-point lead evaporated against a hail of turnovers and dunks the other way, Cincinnati found its motto for resolve:

Keep calm, and get the ball to Sean Kilpatrick.

Senior guard Kilpatrick's steady hand and unflappable free throw stroke carried the No. 13 Bearcats to a 69-66 road win over No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night. In a place where so many other teams had wilted under the Cardinals’ pressure and big runs, Kilpatrick helped turn what could have been an excruciating blown lead into a key American Athletic Conference victory.

“He’s calm in big situations,” backcourt mate Troy Caupain said, “and that’s the best thing about him.”

Cincinnati (20-2, 9-0 AAC) saw its composure suddenly come undone after building a 44-27 lead early in the second half. A moribund Louisville offense sprung to life after the first media timeout of the half, allowing the Cardinals’ full-court pressure to finally do its thing. A technical foul on Titus Rubles helped fuel the 14-0 Cardinals run that cut the lead to three points in just 3:13 of game time. The KFC Yum! Center crowd roared its thirst for more blood.

That’s when Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin subbed Kilpatrick back in after a short rest, and Kilpatrick said he told his team, “OK, everybody calm down.”

[+] EnlargeKilpatrick
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleySean Kilpatrick had a game-high 28 points against Louisville and was perfect from the free throw line.
Moments later, he drew a foul and sank both free throws to stem the Louisville tide. Consider it foreshadowing.

Kilpatrick went 11-for-11 from the foul line, all in the second half, including four in the final nine seconds. Other than muttering to himself before each shot, his free throw stroke was an artwork of minimalism, with no wasted movements and hardly any rim involved.

“I always tell myself to focus, to really lock in,” said Kilpatrick, who scored a game-high 28 points. “That’s something that really helped me on those free throws, when there were 22,000 fans against me.”

Louisville might be the defending national champions, but Cincinnati showed more mettle during crunch time. A prototypical Russdiculous moment gave the Cardinals their first lead since the opening minute, when Russ Smith drained a 28-footer with several ticks left on the shot clock to make it 64-61.

But the Bearcats’ defense, which mostly locked Louisville into a half-court slog, didn’t allow a field goal the final five minutes. Justin Jackson, who gritted through an ankle injury and turnover problems, made the key stop of the game by stripping Montrezl Harrell near the basket with 38 seconds left.

“A killer mentality is all I have,” Jackson said.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he told Rick Pitino before the game that “I’ve got three guys like Peyton Siva,” referencing the senior leader who guided Louisville to the NCAA title last season. When the game threatened to spin out of control, Cronin said his best coaching move was simply to make sure he put Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles on the floor.

“They’re the best three senior leaders in the country, period,” Cronin said. “They’re why we have the record we have.”

That record now includes 13 straight wins, plus road victories over the other top two American Athletic Conference contenders -- Louisville and Memphis. Cincinnati has a two-game lead over the rest of the conference, with the Cardinals and Tigers still scheduled to come to Fifth Third Arena.

“We’re up there,” Kilpatrick said. “Being able to come in and win in the Yum! Center, which is a great building and a great environment, was a test for us. But we came in and answered the bell.”

And it was another failed response for Louisville, which continued its pattern of feast (on weak competition) and famine (versus strong opponents). The Cardinals are now 0-4 against ranked teams this season and have an uphill climb in the AAC with home losses to Cincinnati and Memphis.

“We had them rattled and we let the game get away from us,” Pitino said.

It was almost as if the Louisville head coach could sense what was coming midway through the second half, when Smith committed a reach-in foul on Kilpatrick more than 30 feet from the basket. “Eighty-six percent!” Pitino yelled at Smith. “And you just fouled him.”

Kilpatrick actually entered the game shooting 84.9 percent from the line on the season, but Thursday’s performance raised his numbers to Pitino’s estimate. Kilpatrick said he has made as many as 22 in a row during practice, but he stopped trying to count free-throw streaks because it took too much time away from other drills.

Having forged his game the past three years in the heat of Big East battles, the AAC’s top scorer stayed cool while playing 37 minutes and running the point against Louisville’s press.

“People think he’s not an NBA player, but I don’t know how they can think that,” Cronin said. “He does so much.”

People didn’t think much of the Bearcats coming into this season, but this winning streak is changing that. They play defense as well as anybody, with an eraser like Jackson in the middle -- “the most valuable defensive player in the country,” Cronin said. Cincinnati has struggled in recent years on the opposite end but showed that is changing by shooting 63 percent in the second half against Louisville.

“We’re very different offensively than what we were just from a month ago,” Cronin said.

With a scorer like Kilpatrick, the Bearcats can keep this streak going for a while and angle for a top seed in March. But their floor leader says respect can wait.

“We’d rather keep that chip on our shoulder,” Kilpatrick said. “That lets us stay humble as a team and stay focused.”

Good things tend to happen when Cincinnati keeps an even keel.

Rick Pitino: His coaching tree

September, 4, 2013
Rick PitinoStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRick Pitino hasn't just won two national titles and taken three separate schools to a Final Four -- he also has provided a strong group of assistants who have had success of their own.
Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Tarkanian.

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.

[+] EnlargeClarence Weatherspoon, Jeff Van Gundy
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Van Gundy went from being an assistant under Rick Pitino at Providence to leading the New York Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals.
3. Jeff Van Gundy: The popular NBA analyst and former NBA head coach was part of a pretty impressive bench lineup at Providence. Van Gundy was the graduate assistant, alongside assistants Herb Sendek and Stu Jackson, when the Friars went to the Final Four in 1987. Van Gundy, who was working as a high school head coach before Pitino hired him, used that coaching gig to launch his own career. He’d eventually serve as head coach for both the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.

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).
1. Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin said there is no commitment from the Mountain West conference to renew the MWC-MVC challenge. The Valley needs a conference-wide challenge to lock in a quality nonconference game for every team (at least almost every squad). The Valley lost BracketBusters, which provided a significant chance at a quality power-rating game. Elgin said he's hopeful there will be something in its place in the near future (not next season), with some of the best teams from a smaller number of conferences than were in BracketBuster.

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.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin's contract was, pending university trustee approval in June, set to receive a nice little boost:
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?
1. Creighton's Doug McDermott is nowhere near close to making a decision on whether to declare for the NBA or return to the Bluejays, his father and coach Greg McDermott said. Greg McDermott said Doug will take this call down to the NBA's April 28 deadline -- the only one that really matters. Doug McDermott isn't feeling any pressure about the April 16 NCAA deadline -- and that's good, because that one means nothing. The NCAA doesn't put out a list on that date and neither does the NBA. The only deadline that produces an early-entry list is the April 28 deadline. A player could say he's returning to school next week and then declare 12 days later without any issue. Doug McDermott has one of the toughest decisions of any player, because if he decides to leave his dad will face a difficult season in the Bluejays' first season in the new Big East. If Doug stays, Creighton has a chance to contend for the new league's title.

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.
1. Minnesota coveted VCU’s Shaka Smart, but his former boss, current Golden Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague, couldn’t convince Smart to come to the Twin Cities (he should know Smart is loyal to VCU) for the head-coaching job from which Tubby Smith was just fired. According to sources, the Gophers have now turned their attention to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Butler’s Brad Stevens. We’ll see, but I’ll be shocked if either were to go to Minnesota. Hoiberg is the Mayor in Ames (it's his alma mater) and has Iowa State in a good place after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. If Hoiberg were to leave for Minnesota, the NBA's Timberwolves, not the Gophers, would make more sense. I can’t see Stevens bolting, either, with how much he loves the Butler way and working for AD Barry Collier. Stevens can have a lifetime contract at Butler, much like Mark Few has at Gonzaga. If they can't convince either of these two, the Gophers may make a play for Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. But Cronin is from Cincinnati and loves his gig, too. The only reason he might listen is if he sees the need to go to a school in a more stable conference.

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.

[+] EnlargeGregory Echenique
Elsa/Getty Images"We can definitely play tough," said Creighton's Gregory Echenique (00). "We've showed it before and we just proved it again today."
They just can’t score.

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.’’
Well, well, well. Apparently, a few teams want to go to the tournament after all.

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.

[+] EnlargeKerron Johnson
AP Photo/Wade PayneAfter forcing OT, Kerron Johnson won the OVC title and an NCAA bid for Belmont by hitting this shot.
Louisiana Tech: Before this week, La. Tech's last loss was at McNeese State all the way back on Dec. 12. This week, the Bulldogs lost two in a row, and whatever slim chance they had of getting an at-large look is now officially gone.

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.

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It hopes you aren't doing one of those New Year's Eve plans where you pay $100 for watery drinks and bad appetizers. (You are, aren't you?)

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.)

3-point shot: Assembly Hall rockin'

November, 28, 2012
1. Indiana coach Tom Crean asked late Tuesday night if Indiana's Assembly Hall is better than Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and where it ranks among the other college basketball venues. I've been fortunate to cover all of the top schools and spots -- save Louisville's new KFC Yum! Center and Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena -- and I can safely say that this new fervor in Assembly puts it in the top tier. Kansas' Phog Allen Fieldhouse still is my favorite, with the sound deafening at times. But the atmosphere in Bloomington on Tuesday night was phenomenal, turning the venue into what I dubbed it during the broadcast -- the Heartland of Hoops. There are a slew of other candidates like Cameron, Rupp and, at times, others like the Breslin, Kohl, Petersen, Gallagher-Iba, McKale, the Palestra, Hinkle and the Kennel. But IU's Assembly Hall is back and now ranks as one of the best. Meanwhile, Crean is considering taking the Hoosiers back to New York next season after such a successful run last week in Brooklyn. The Hoosiers faithful came out in droves to Brooklyn and would do again at Madison Square Garden in November 2013 if Crean chooses to put it on the schedule.

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.
1. Cincinnati has received almost zero preseason buzz and yet Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said he may have his quickest, deepest and one of his most athletic teams since he arrived. The Bearcats will find out if they are a contender or a pretender with this weekend's tournament in Las Vegas with UNLV, Oregon and Iowa State. This is a golden opportunity for Cincinnati to prove itself. Cronin said the Bearcats still need to get more production out of his five spot but he's optimistic that Cincinnati is going to be a player in the national scene here soon.

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.