Mick Cronin would like to think he saw a different version of his Cincinnati Bearcats last week during their two-game stay in the Big East tournament in New York. To Cronin, the Bearcats weren’t so uptight, even if it might have looked that way in a 19-point loss in the quarterfinals against Georgetown.
Cronin really hopes his team can relax now that it knows it is in the NCAA tournament for a third straight season.
UC will play Missouri Valley Conference champion and No. 7 seed Creighton in the second round of the Midwest region Friday in Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center. Tip-off will be at approximately 2:45 p.m.
The Bearcats are the 10th seed in the region after going 22-11 this season, including losing six of their last nine regular season games. They were 9-9 in the Big East and beat Providence 61-44 in the second round of the conference tournament before losing to Georgetown 62-43. UC came back from a 16-point deficit against the Hoyas to take a lead in the second half but Georgetown blew the game open with a 22-6 run to secure the win.
Prolonged scoring droughts have plagued UC throughout the season but Cronin is confident this team can be better now that it is in the Big Dance.
“I’ve been looking forward to the NCAA tournament, where I don’t think it will be quite the football game that it can be sometimes in Big East play or Big Ten play down the stretch,” said Cronin Sunday night after the tournament selections were announced. “This particular team of ours, we’re a more athletic, finesse team. We’re not built to play in a tug-of-war, football-type of game under the basket. Georgetown is a big, strong team but our effort was tremendous. We couldn’t have had any better effort to come back from down 16 to take a second half lead.”
UC reached the Sweet 16 last season by beating Texas and Florida State as a sixth seed and had high expectations entering this season with the return of guards Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and JaQuon Parker. The Bearcats won their first 12 games, including victories against tournament qualifiers Iowa State and Oregon, but have been under .500 since. They’ve scored as many as 70 points just three times in their last 21 games.
Beating South Florida in the regular season finale, even if it took overtime to outlast one of the Big East’s cellar dwellers, was the game that clinched the NCAA berth in Cronin’s mind. The pressure the Bearcat players were feeling – all of it internal, said Cronin – could be lifted.
“They’re worried about themselves, whether they’re playing well, but they’re very cognizant with how they’re doing and how their team is doing,” said Cronin. “Sometimes they’ve put way too much pressure on themselves and been too hard on themselves. We’re all equal now. Everybody is in. If you’re a two seed or a seven seed or a 10 seed it doesn’t matter. You don’t get 10 extra points to start the game because of your seed. Everybody is equal now and hopefully we continue to relax. I thought we were really relaxed and I like the way we played in New York.”
Any extra points against Creighton (27-7) would be useful. Scoring isn’t an issue for the Blue Jays, which won both the MVC regular season and conference tournament titles. They are averaging 75.4 points per game, 24th best in the nation, but are particularly dangerous behind the three-point arc. Creighton has made 298 threes this season, No. 2 nationally, and its 42.1 percentage on threes is No. 1. It is also averaging 17.2 assists per game and just 12.3 turnovers.
Junior All-American forward Doug McDermott averages 23.4 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Blue Jays. He is the only Creighton player averaging in double figures scoring.
UC is 20-1 this season when scoring at least 61 points.
“We play fast as well and that’s something we’re accustomed to,” said Kilpatrick. “We were just worried about getting into the tournament… We know that we’ll make our runs and we’ll be able to hold our own in the tournament.”
This is the second straight year in the tournament for Creighton, which beat Alabama in the second round last year before losing to North Carolina.
The winner will face either second-seeded Duke or No. 15 Albany in a third-round game on Sunday.