Bearcats playing with March in mind

UC was picked in the preseason to finish fourth in its conference. Now the Bearcats are aiming for a top NCAA seed.

Feb 15, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats forward Justin Jackson dribbles the ball in the second half at FifthThird Arena. The Bearcats won 73-62.

Frank Victores / USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- There is a month left until Selection Sunday, that day when college basketball teams learn their NCAA bracket fate.

Cincinnati doesn't have to worry about being in the 68-team field. The Bearcats are at the point where the last month of their season is all about impressing the powers that be and earning as high of a seed as possible. Unranked at the beginning of the season and only picked to finish fourth in their own conference, the Bearcats are very much in the race for a top-four seed at worst and could be higher.

The No. 10-ranked Bearcats improved to 23-3 overall and 12-1 in the American Athletic Conference Saturday with a 73-62 win against Houston at Fifth Third Arena in front of their first sellout crowd in nearly two years. It wasn't a pretty win -- rarely does this team win with beauty -- but it was a perfect example of why the Bearcats can be a threat in March. They can play defense with anyone in the country, turning up pressure and getting stops when they need it most, and they have as go-to of a go-to player in Sean Kilpatrick as any team in the country has.

Kilpatrick had a game-high 28 points and six assists against the Cougars, including 19 and five in the second half, as UC pulled away from a stubborn Houston team that played much better than its 12-13 record would indicate. Coming off a blowout loss at SMU last week, this win was much more in line with how the Bearcats have played all season.

UC finished off the game with an 18-5 run after Houston got a slam dunk and a plus-one free throw by forward TaShawn Thomas with 6:41 left to take a 57-55 lead. Up until that time Houston was doing exactly what it wanted offensively, finding consistent lanes to the basket and passing the ball to the open man. The Bearcats held Houston to 2-of-7 shooting with three turnovers in their decisive run. Houston had made 22 of its 38 shots (57.9 percent) before the run.

Kilpatrick had a hand in UC's final 20 points; he was 6-of-6 from the free throw line while scoring 10 points and he had four assists. Two of his assists set up dunks by Justin Jackson, the other two set up 3-pointers by Ge'Lawn Guyn within a 61-second span that gave UC a 9-point cushion, 67-58, with 1:53 left to play.

"I knew they were going to be collapsing on me, so as soon as I saw (Guyn) in the corner I just threw it and I told him to shoot it," said Kilpatrick. "That's what happens."

Houston entered this week with a RPI of 178 according to the NCAA. Losing to the Cougars wouldn't have been good for UC's tournament resume, not when the difference between a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed is closely scrutinized. UC's three losses are to teams all ranked in the top 40 -- New Mexico (24), Xavier (37) and SMU (39) -- at the beginning of the week. They have high-profile games remaining with Louisville (33), Memphis (28) and Connecticut (30), teams the Bearcats have already beaten once.

Each win for UC builds its resume.

"Any team in the top 10, you have to win your games if you want to stay in the top 10," said Jackson. "It's all about getting the seed and that's what everyone is doing. You have to win them games, even the big games. You have to win all of the games you can possibly win.

"Every team is the Miami Heat."

Jackson's point is that every team is going to bring their best at the Bearcats and the Bearcats have to play like they are facing the NBA champions if they're going to win games.

"I thought it was a great experience for us today to have to execute the way we had to execute to win this game in the second half," said head coach Mick Cronin. "When you get to March you've got to win a multitude of ways if you're going to try to win four to six games in a row. You're not going to shut everybody out. You're going to have to be able to answer a counterpunch when kids are making plays like Houston's guys were making plays.

"You can't panic. You've got to go down the other end and execute. I was definitely pleased to see that."