Three months ago, the thought of Ohio State playing a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game against a team from Cincinnati was not only a tantalizing one, but a realistic one.
That team just would not have been the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Left for the scrap heap following a rocky start and an embarrassing brawl vs. crosstown rival Xavier on Dec. 10, the Bearcats might be college basketball’s best comeback story of the year — and one of the best of the last several years.
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Better yet, they might just be getting started.
UC’s strong finish included a fourth-place finish in the Big East and victories over Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East Tournament before losing the championship game to Louisville. The Bearcats also scored convincing home victories over Marquette and Louisville in the regular season’s home stretch. After starting 5-3 with home losses to Presbyterian and Marshall, UC enters the tournament at 24-10 and has won seven of its last nine.
The Bearcats are the No. 6 seed in the East region and open the tournament Friday in Nashville vs. Texas. The winner will play either Florida State or St. Bonaventure Sunday, with a possible matchup with Ohio State in the Sweet 16 looming.
All five Cincinnati starters average between 9 and 14 points per game, and coach Mick Cronin will go eight or nine deep when his team needs a spark. Hot 3-point shooting within that balanced attack have sparked the turnaround and make this UC team dangerous. Six different players have led been UC’s leading scorer in a game this season.
Sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick is the leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, junior guard Cashmere Wright has a pair of six 3-pointer games and junior JaQuon Parker might be the most versatile despite being the only starter to average single-digits in scoring.
6’9 senior Yancy Gates was one of three players suspended for six games after the fight. By necessity, the Bearcats started playing an up-tempo style in his absence — scrapping a slow-moving, post-oriented offense — and started getting better results. Gates remains an important part of everything Cincinnati does, but the guard-oriented offense has Cincinnati playing fast and keeping opponents guessing.
In that Georgetown win last weeks the Bearcats made just 2-of-21 3-point tries but stayed in the game and won in double overtime in large part thanks to Gates’ production around the rim. He had 23 points and 8 rebounds while playing 46 minutes in that game.
If the Bearcats win Friday, senior guard Dion Dixon will pass Steve Logan as Cincinnati’s all-time leader in games played on Sunday. Dixon and Gates are members of the 1,000-point club for their careers and hope to extend their careers past this weekend.
That Cincinnati wasn’t ranked in either of the final national polls proves that voters simply haven’t been watching this team. The NCAA Tournament gives the Bearcats a chance to make a lasting impression.
Why they can get deep into the bracket: The Bearcats have a bunch of good players who like to play fast, unselfish basketball. Gates won’t be bullied in the post, there are multiple shooters opposing defenses must find and Cincinnati is playing its best right now. If it can keep that momentum and carry it forward, it can make it to Boston next weekend.
Why they’ll flame out early: The draw in Nashville is difficult. Texas and J’Covan Brown won’t go quietly, and Florida State just won the ACC Tournament and has its best offensive team in years. The Bearcats are a streaky shooting team and can’t afford too many cold stretches. The margin for error decreases significantly once the Big Tournament begins.
Key to their hopes: Shots dropping from the outside, Gates playing smart, steady basketball in the paint and continued unselfishness/multiple contributions. Cincinnati doesn’t have a marquee, go-to guy, and that’s been an advantage through a rugged Big East schedule. Against both Texas and (potentially) Florida State, defending the 3-point line will be key.