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This team continues to exceed my expectations. Back in October, I made my season prediction. I guessed the Bearcats would peak at #12. They reached #11 in February. I guessed 29 wins. They secured #30 on Friday night. My final guess was a Sweet 16. They’ll have a chance to meet that mark with a win in Sunday night’s showdown with the Bruins of UCLA.
We’re in the thick of March, and the Bearcats have come to play.
The ‘Cats dispatched their second Big 12 team of the season in the first round of the tournament. Here’s what happened:
- That game was a virtual cakewalk. Sure, I had to try not to get too ahead of myself when the Bearcats made every shot they took for the first 9:32. Yes, things got a bit hairy in the second half when the Wildcats made it a six-point game. However, by Cincinnati standards, this one was a breeze. The ‘Cats won an NCAA Tournament game by 14 points for just the second time in 15 years. That was fun.
- The confidence is flowing. The Bearcats suffered a deflating loss in the AAC Championship game to SMU and then were disrespected by the committee by receiving a 6-seed with a matchup against a Top 30 KenPom opponent. I knew these kids wouldn’t roll over, but I worried about how that sequence of events last Sunday was going to affect their mojo heading into the dance. For the first time in a while the Bearcats proved what UC faithful have said all season: This team is special. They’ve proven to themselves one more time that they can beat anybody when they play to their potential. Look out, UCLA.
- Troy Caupain is alive. After a rocky few weeks for the decorated senior, he lit up Sacramento on Friday night. The Bearcats guard unfurled 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with seven rebounds and a pair of assists. The Bearcats are a fairly potent offensive team with or without Troy. However, when he’s got the offense working, opposing defenses have nowhere to hide. If he can channel this kind of offensive power, we’ll be watching this team play at least one more game.
- Big Game Jake rides again. Cincinnati’s sophomore phenom loves to play in the postseason. On Friday he switched things up, allowing his offense to take the backseat. He recorded just nine points on 4-for-8 shooting, but added four rebounds, three steals, and three blocks. His defense was elite. It’s always a good sign when your leading scorer — a 6'6" wing — has the game-high in blocks.
- Kyle Washington scored a lot of points in not a lot of minutes. He saw just 21 minutes of action, but threw in 16 points, including a solid 6-for-8 from the line. Most importantly, he shot 5-for-6 from the field. An efficient Kyle Washington is a devastating Kyle Washington. His only downfall on the offensive end is shot selection. Friday’s performance was a great sign, and it’s nice that he’ll be extra fresh on Sunday after scant minutes against K State.
- Gary Clark is a problem, and I know this is true because his impressive game hardly jumps off the page anymore. 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting to go with seven rebounds didn’t even phase me.
- The offense just looked right. Obviously it helps when shots are falling, but Friday’s performance was beyond that. The Bearcats worked for open looks and made a point of feeding the bigs down low. The Wildcats are no slouch on the defensive end (34th in AdjD, per KenPom) and the Bearcats did a marvelous job of drawing double teams and kicking it to the basket where guys like Kyle and Gary were waiting for an easy finish. Too often this season the ‘Cats have settled for three-pointers, taken bad shots, or wasted clock until the only option is to heave a contested look or take a shot clock violation. That wasn’t happening on Friday. Keep that up.
- The Big 12 sucks.
- Not much. The only player the Bearcats allowed into double digits was NBA-bound wing Wes Iwundu. The game got a bit too close for comfort early in the second half, but the ‘Cats fixed that problem before any of us could even begin sweating. Cincinnati committed more turnovers than Kansas State, but the Wildcats entered the game #18 in forcing them. K State got some looks from outside in the second half and shot 5-for-10 from deep after the break. Obviously that is something that will be exploited by a team like UCLA, but it’s also something UC will be prepared for. The Bearcats made it to the second round of the tournament and I’m reaching for anything that worried me. I’m not used to this.
Let’s not change this formula. It’s working. Just keep winning.