CINCINNATI (AP) — Halfway through the Big East season, No. 17 Cincinnati is in solid shape. The Bearcats have their point guard closer to full strength, and they’re only a game out of first place.
The best indicator of how well things are going: Coach Mick Cronin doesn’t want them thinking about it.
The Bearcats (18-4, 6-3) are tied for third at the midpoint of league play, trailing No. 9 Syracuse (18-3, 6-2) and No. 24 Marquette (15-5, 6-2). They’ve lost at Syracuse and beaten Marquette at home.
Cincinnati set a league title as one of its goals. The Bearcats are in position to contend for it, though they’re no longer interested in talking about it.
“At the end of the year, if we’re fighting for that, we’ll worry about that then,” point guard Cashmere Wright said on Monday before practice. “Right now, we can’t.”
Essentially, the Bearcats learned that lesson the hard way.
They won their first 12 games and moved up to No. 8 in the poll last December, their highest ranking in nine years. A 55-54 loss to New Mexico ended the run and started a stretch of three straight home losses that dropped them out of the rankings.
Cronin sensed that his players became a little caught up in the moment.
“I think what happened is when we were in the Top 10, we got ahead of ourselves a little bit,” Cronin said on Monday. “We started thinking about what could happen in March, what we were capable of, our standing on the national scene. We learned real quick that will get you beat.
“It’s not that we weren’t playing hard. I just think our attention to detail cost us.”
They’ve regained their concentration and moved back up the rankings despite losing Wright to a sprained right knee. He was limited or sidelined for four games.
Wright returned and went only 2 of 13 from the field during a 57-55 loss at Syracuse. He was only 1 of 6 during a 62-54 win over Rutgers, still bothered by the knee when he tried to shoot. The senior was much better on Saturday, scoring 17 points during a 65-59 win at Seton Hall.
“It’s a process,” Wright said. “It’s still not 100 percent, but it’s getting there. Day by day, I keep working and rehabbing it.”
Shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick has carried the offense during Wright’s injury. He said players are impressed by how the point guard plays even though the knee is painful and limiting.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve worked so hard to get right here, to get to this position,” Wright said. “I owe it to this team to at least try. That’s what I do as a leader.”
Kilpatrick has averaged 25 points in the last five games, including a career-high 36 points during a 71-69 overtime victory against Marquette. With Wright getting his knee stronger and his shot back, Kilpatrick won’t have to carry so much of the scoring load.
“If we continue to do what we’ve been doing for the past three or four games,” Kilpatrick said, “we should be all right.”
Cronin has managed to get the Bearcats to stop paying so much attention to their ranking and their standing, an approach that has gotten them out of their rut. They play at Providence (11-11, 3-7) Wednesday night.
After that, they play teams that are currently ranked in four of the next seven games — No. 23 Pittsburgh, No. 20 Georgetown, No. 25 Notre Dame and No. 11 Louisville. That stretch will determine whether they have a shot at the league title.
“We’ve been focused on eliminating anything that has to do with the big picture, whether it’s the Big East standings, the NCAA tournament, individual players’ futures,” Cronin said.
That includes a milestone for Cronin, who got his 200th career coaching victory on Saturday. He reiterated on Monday that he doesn’t put much stock in such numbers.
“I view coaching as the minute you’re a head coach, every year they tie you to the railroad tracks,” Cronin said. “And by the time the train rolls around in April, you’d better have gotten off. That means you get to keep your job another year.
“And you survive March and April with your job, just remember: Come fall, they tie you to the tracks again.”