Bearcats undefeated, but unrespected

The University of Cincinnati basketball team won its 15th consecutive game Thursday night.

Beat Xavier for the first time in four seasons in the Crosstown Shootout.

Did it by 20 powerful points.

The Bearcats had Pete Rose, Nick Lachey, Vanessa Minnillo and the rest of its celebrity fans howling in appreciation of a fearsome defensive effort that left Xavier guard Tu Holloway wondering if he was ever going to make a shot. Holloway averages more than 21. He huffed and puffed and scored five.

Big deal. So what? Don’t go crazy about the Bearcats — even if they’re still hanging around as one of seven unbeaten teams in college basketball.

That’s not simply the considerable armada of Cincinnati skeptics talking, the skeptics who question the Bearcats’ 15-0 record because of a schedule that qualifies as one of the most user-friendly in the nation.

That was also the message coach Mick Cronin delivered to his players after the game, a game that saw Xavier fail to score 50 for the first time this season.

“We haven’t achieved any goals and nobody thinks we’re any good yet, so that’s a good thing,” Cronin said.

“I felt we were supposed to win the game (because of Xavier’s injury situation). For us, Sunday is a bigger game. It really is. Villanova has won 44 straight at home, at the Pavilion. So, we’ve got the ultimate challenge, and we have 36 hours to get ready for it.”

No hugs, high fives or congratulations?

“There were no congratulations needed,” said Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates, who punished Xavier with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

You’ve heard this ‘no respect’ thing a million and one times. Coaches love to play that card from both sides of the deck.

But Cronin isn’t exaggerating much. The Bearcats were picked to finish 12th in the Big East — behind Seton Hall — before this season by league coaches, and even today not many people are demanding a recount.

Sure, Cincinnati has now beaten 13 of its 15 opponents by double figures. Nobody is gaga about the victories over Florida A&M, Georgia Southern and Savannah State. It’s a schedule that is ranked among the 25 easiest in the country by three computer rankings, including the RPI, where it ranked the 326th-most difficult.

And Cincinnati fans aren’t exactly acting like Kenyon Martin and Nick Van Exel are in the house. The sellout with 13,176 fans against Xavier was Cincinnati’s first since Xavier played here two seasons ago.

Until Thursday, Cincinnati had not welcomed a crowd as large as 8,000, and the Bearcats were averaging less than 4,700 for 10 home games. The school’s marketing department has been advertising on the web site of the Louisville Courier-Journal to encourage Louisville fans to spend $100 for a four-game mini-ticket package that includes games against Louisville, West Virginia, Georgetown and Connecticut.

When Cronin went on his postgame radio show after the Xavier win, he talked about the dominant play of Gates and the defense Larry Davis, Dion Dixon and his other guards played on Holloway.

And then he told Cincinnati fans they needed to fill Fifth Third Arena for the team’s seven remaining Big East home games.

“The fans need to come out and support us,” Davis said. “It was good tonight. We need more of that.”

Win every Big East home game — and steal a few victories on the road. That’s Cronin’s strategy to bump the Bearcats back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the five seasons since he took over a program fractured by the dismissal of Bob Huggins.

Will it work?

It has a chance if the Bearcats keep defending the way they have been all season. This isn’t a team with a Martin or a Van Exel. Nobody in the Cincinnati lineup ranks in the Top 25 in the Big East in scoring. Not one of Cronin’s guys has been named Big East Player of the Week this season.

But defensively, it’s difficult to question Cincinnati’s credentials. The Bearcats are deep, they are relentless and they understand that defense is the credential that can separate them against many teams.

Xavier is the seventh consecutive team to shoot less than 40 percent against Cincinnati, a streak that also includes games against Seton Hall, DePaul, Miami (Ohio) and Oklahoma.

Ask Holloway. He scored 26 on Gonzaga, 28 on Iowa, 31 on Seton Hall and 25 on Florida. Against Cincinnati, he made one basket in each half and missed 11 shots. He failed to make a three-pointer for only the second time this season.

But now, of course, the skeptics are not convinced Cincinnati will be able to defend like that against Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and the rest of Jay Wright’s talented Villanova team Sunday in Philadelphia.

“If we get beat Sunday we’re a bad team, right?” Cronin said. “I’m sure they’ll say that. That’s good. I’ll use that and get us ready for Wednesday.”