BIG GAMES AHEAD: Home and home with UConn, at Notre Dame, at Louisville
Unless this current losing stretch continues over the next three weeks, the Bearcats are going to be in the NCAA Tournament.
With the way they’re playing now, though, there’s no guarantee of anything.
A team that was unbeaten into the final days of December and once ranked in the top 10 nationally has fallen on hard times, especially when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. Cashmere Wright has been playing at less than 100 percent, and the offense has become too reliant on Sean Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick is having a great season, averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists. But the Bearcats are shooting just 41 percent as a team for the year, less than 65 percent from the foul line and even though they’re athletic and good enough defensively to overcome dry spells, those spells have become too frequent.
The Bearcats have five home losses, four in Big East play. They’ve lost three of their last four to fall into a three-way tie for seventh place in the Big East, and it’s hard to imagine the Bearcats right now being any better than a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee will appreciate Cincinnati’s strength of schedule (27th best by the RPI formula) — and any quality wins from here. But a team that once looked like a top-four seed that might get the added bonus of playing its initial NCAA Tournament games in either Dayton or Lexington now could end just about anywhere. If the Bearcats can’t beat UConn or Notre Dame this week, they could slip closer to simply hoping for the chance to play anywhere in late March.
Cincinnati’s overall schedule strength is upgraded from what it was in recent years, and the Bearcats scored early-season wins over Oregon, Iowa State, Alabama and Xavier. Those games and the win at Pitt in the Big East opener are probably keeping Cincinnati on the right side of the bubble right now. Cincinnati is 5-5 vs. top 50 opponents by the Sagarin Ratings, and this season that number compares favorably to most of the other teams against whom the committee will evaluate Cincinnati.
There are few bad losses — last week at Providence and home vs. St. John’s are certainly games the Bearcats wish they had back — and still opportunities for quality wins. Offensive woes have led to long weeks and much frustration of late — Cincinnati missed its last 14 field goals in a Feb. 9 loss to Pitt — and have put extra emphasis on finishing strong.
Winning the Big East, or even finishing in the top three, is now basically out of the question. The Bearcats need to get things fixed, regain their confidence and be ready for the Big East Tournament, which has been the springboard for many NCAA Tournament runs through the years. Over the next two weeks, the Bearcats need to make sure they go to Madison Square Garden looking at the Big East Tournament as a bonus of sorts, not as a method of NCAA Tournament survival.