CINCINNATI (AP) — It’s been a long time since the Bearcats have reached such heights.
Cincinnati had another breakthrough on Monday in its impressive start, moving into the top 10 of the Associated Press college basketball poll. The Bearcats came in at No. 7, their highest ranking in 10 years.
They’ve won 14 in a row since a lopsided defeat to crosstown rival Xavier. Their 21-2 mark represents their best start in 12 years. And they’re in control of the American Athletic Conference with a 10-0 mark, in line to win its first regular season title.
"We’re not done yet," senior forward Justin Jackson said, after a 50-49 win over South Florida on Sunday put them in position for their big jump from No. 13 in the poll. "We want to be on the big stage come March. That’s our focus: When we come to March to have a good seed and do what we need to do."
They’ve got one more month to make their case for a high seed that could help them advance deep into the NCAA tournament. The challenge is to keep the momentum going with a short-handed roster that might be starting to wear down.
The Bearcats haven’t been ranked so high since the 2003-04 season under coach Bob Huggins. They made it to No. 6 before losing to Louisville. The Bearcats won the Conference USA tournament that season and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Huggins was forced out before the 2005-06 season in a power struggle with the school president, leaving the program in disarray. The Bearcats were ranked No. 25 for one week that season under interim coach Andy Kennedy.
Mick Cronin returned to his hometown to start rebuilding the program the following season. The Bearcats made it back to the Top 25 during the 2009-10 season. They went 26-11 in 2011-12 and reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Ohio State. They’ve reached the tournament each of the last three seasons, making it to the round of 16 only one time.
"We understand the importance of seeding in the NCAA tournament," Cronin said. "The last three years, we’ve had terrible draws."
They’re in line for a good one, provided they can keep the momentum going. Cronin’s biggest concern is his lack of depth on the front line.
Jackson has developed into one of the conference’s top forwards, providing a front-line complement to senior guard Sean Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick leads the AAC with 19.4 points per game and was honored as the conference’s player of the week on Monday.
He scored 28 points during a 69-66 win at No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night. Despite an illness, he had 18 points during the win over South Florida on Sunday. Kilpatrick moved up to third on Cincinnati’s career scoring list with 1,891 points, trailing Oscar Robertson (2,973) and Steve Logan (1,985).
"He’s maybe the most underrated great player who has ever played here," Cronin said. "I think Thursday (against Louisville) it woke people up nationally to who he is. He has definitely not gotten the attention.
"He’s clearly the player of the year in this league, 10 games in, with everything he does for this team."
Freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence has missed the last month with an injured toe, leaving Cincinnati with nine scholarship players available. The Bearcats’ bench contributed only two points in the win over South Florida, a trend that can’t continue. The front line seems to be wearing down.
"I worry about fatigue with this team, especially with Jermaine Lawrence (injured)," Cronin said. "As much as (Jackson) tells you he’s a machine, he’s tired. There’s three times somebody jumped over him to get an offensive rebound, and that never happens."
Lawrence is expected to resume workouts this week, but the Bearcats have to go slow with him to avoid a setback.
The Bearcats are playing two freshmen and a sophomore regularly. Kilpatrick thinks one of the keys to keeping the momentum going is to make sure the young players don’t get caught up in the success.
Last season, Cincinnati made it up to No. 8 with a 12-0 start. The Bearcats went 10-12 the rest of the way, including a loss to Creighton in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
"The young guys pay attention to that (rankings) because they’re young," Kilpatrick said. "The older guys, they understand we’ve been in this position before and it went downhill. We’ve got to keep working to come out with a better effort every night."