College Basketball Road Trip: Cincinnati made me a believer
Stop Eight on the Fox Sports College Basketball Road Trip brought us to Cincinnati, where two teams with a long, historic rivalry reconnected for a crucial late-season AAC game. Cincinnati and Memphis have played each other through three conference changes, from the Metro to Conference USA to the new AAC, and the intensity has never waned. Thursday night was no different, as the teams played a physical, offensive-oriented contest that saw both teams shoot the ball well and showcase a number of defensive holes. The Bearcats ended up on top 97-84, thereby leaving open a chance of winning the AAC regular season title. After watching the festivities, here are a few notes from the road:
Fifth Third is first in electricity
I knew very little about the Fifth Third Arena before tonight, having attended only one game in the arena four years ago. At that time, I remembered the place more for its random array of celebrities (Pete Rose, Oscar Robertson and Nick Lachey were all in attendance) than for the atmosphere during the game. Mick Cronin had his teams playing hard back then, but I was disappointed at the time at the relatively timid nature of the Cincy basketball fan base.
Not anymore. Fifth Third Arena was rocking from start to finish on Thursday night and had some of the loudest moments of any arena I have been a part of. They are helped by a liberal use of hip-hop music that blasts from the arena speakers and gets the crowd on its feet and dancing (the "old people busting a move" quantity here has to be Top 10 nationwide). But they also have a student section that was rowdy from the opening tip.
Cincinnati played probably the most complete game of any team we have seen on the trip, scoring 97 points against a solid Memphis team. The Bearcats’ ability to score almost at will, while shooting 53 percent for the game, is a very positive sign heading into March Madness, especially because the Bearcats usually win games on the defensive end. This Cincinnati team is so physically imposing upon sight that one wonders how it’s ever out-rebounded. Each player is a physical specimen and while there are no official statistics on the subject, they have to lead the nation in lowest body fat percentage. The Bearcats have some weaknesses that can be exposed — they aren’t a great three-point shooting team and can turn the ball over with pressure — but they will not be out-hustled or beaten physically. This is the recipe for a very tough out in March, when the game will slow down, and teams like the Bearcats could have quite an advantage.
Kilpatrick’s a man among kids
If not for the otherworldly game we saw from TJ Warren in Pittsburgh, Thursday night’s performance from Sean Kilpatrick clearly would rate as the most impressive of the trip. Kilpatrick threw in 34 points while going an efficient 11-for-18 from the field and controlling the offensive end of the floor for Cincinnati. What is so impressive about Kilpatrick is how smoothly he flows on the offensive end, rarely looking forced and getting to whatever spot on the floor he chooses. He averages 20 points a game but like with Warren, the vast majority of college basketball fans know little about him or his game. In a year when freshmen such as Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle came into the season with all the hype, these less-heralded veteran players are dominating games and as with the case of Kilpatrick, setting their teams up for potential deep runs in March.
Another bronze medal
Continuing the trip’s theme of meeting Olympians, the crowd was introduced to freestyle skier Nick Goepper during one of the early timeouts. Goepper won a bronze in Sochi and is probably most famous to the casual sporting fan for his decision to go on national television and ask for a date. Goepper’s quest to find the perfect date led to a number of requests and he ultimately picked a Kent State student, who made the video below as a song request to win his heart.
It takes a lot of gumption to believe yourself worthy of fawning attention from women all across America and I can’t decide if that decision makes me respect Goepper or come to the conclusion that he is the most self-absorbed human being. But either way, the decision brought him to Ohio and to this game, where he got a loud round of applause from the Cincy faithful. Two games, two bronze medals in our last three days on the trip. College basketball still has a small degree of Winter Olympics fever.
Pastner still looks like a player, not a coach
Even though he is now in his fifth year at Memphis, it is still striking just how young Josh Pastner looks. Faced with a nearly impossible job, following John Calipari as the Tigers’ coach, Pastner at the age of 31 took over the Memphis helm and has managed to stay afloat in a huge sea of Calipari-created expectations. He received the job only after other big names turned it down and the fact that Memphis had to go to an untested, young assistant should have showcased to the fan base that Memphis is not the elite job that many believe it to be.
Many refused to believe that truth and the pressure has been immense for Pastner from day one. But he has performed admirably, making three of four NCAA Tournaments and recruiting at a high, although not Calipari, level. Even with that pressure the 36-year-old coach still looks the same as he did during his playing days at Arizona and makes one realize that sometimes life is not fair. A head coaching job in college basketball, good looks and a fountain of youth … if only we all could be so lucky.
Say it ain’t so, Joe
It has to be disheartening for Memphis fans that with the NCAA Tournament quickly approaching, senior guard Joe Jackson is losing his outside shot. Jackson went 1-for-5 from three-point land against the Bearcats and most of the misses were way off, producing some of the ugliest shots we have ever seen from the star guard. Jackson’s career has been up and down in Memphis and his inconsistency often has mirrored that of the Tigers team as a whole. But when Jackson has been good this year, Memphis has shown it can play with anyone in the country. Now in the most crucial time of the year, his shot from deep looks off and he seems to be pushing the ball, hoping to have it go in. Now is not the time for these struggles.
When you travel as much as we have these past few days, you see lots of fan giveaways. Most are of the T-shirt variety (people honestly will throw children down a set of stairs just to get into position to catch a free $2 T-shirt), but we also have seen plush balls and towels thrown into the stands as well. However, Cincinnati took the entire experience to a different level when it threw pizza into the stands. After a first half timeout, the UC cheerleaders came to center court with a large stack of pizzas and began tossing them to the crowd. The scrum for the free slices was UFC-worthy and the joy it brought to the lucky winners was like a kid on Christmas morning. In the quest for what free giveaway will make your crowds the happiest, universities around the country should be put on notice that the pizza throw is second only to the Kiss Cam in terms of generating crowd energy.
Because of the timing of this College Basketball Tour, we have been privy to a lot of Senior Days. It has been great to watch all of these fan bases say goodbye to seniors, many of whom have had huge impacts on their program. Thursday night in Cincinnati, the goodbyes for Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles was louder than I have heard in any gym in America and the impact these kids have had on the Bearcat fans was easily apparent.
But as great as this scene was, there is probably no better scene in America on Senior Day than at Indiana, for the last goodbye of the Hoosiers. After the game, win or lose, Indiana players come out on the court and makes goodbye speeches to the fans. Some are long-winded, some are short, but fans listen to every word and the tradition is one of the best in college basketball. Watching it on Wednesday, I was amazed at the kids’ composure in addressing such a large crowd, particularly after a loss that ended up basically eliminating any chance the Hoosiers have of making the NCAA Tournament. There are other great moments: "My Old Kentucky Home" playing in Rupp Arena, Cameron Crazies chanting the names of seniors in Durham and the last "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" in Lawrence. But no one does Senior Day quite like the candy cane stripes in Bloomington.
Eight games down and we are starting to hit our groove. Friday we make the trek to St. Louis, where we will see four games at a mid-major conference tournament, the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley. We will get to see if Wichita State is for real in person and take in the sights and sounds at one of the most underrated tournaments in America. See you then…