(AP Photo | John Minchillo)
Believe it or not, I knew this team was destined for 30 wins within the first 10 minutes of the Red & Black Scrimmage. Believe it or not, this eternal optimist was all-in from the start. Believe it or not, I was right. (I’m always right. Please don’t research this.)
Jokes aside, the signs were there from the beginning. On October 22, a lively crowd filed into Fifth Third Arena for their first look at the new edition of the Bearcats. 67 minutes of oohs and ahhs later, we all knew Mick Cronin had something different on his hands. Gone were the hyper-athletic freaks like Shaq Thomas and pound-it-out guys like Titus Rubles (one of my favorite Bearcats). In their place came something else. It was like watching a full team of Sean Kilpatricks. Still clearly Bearcats, but with much more going on under the hood. They were still tough and athletic, but the deeper basketball instincts and old-school Bearcat confidence and swagger were also apparent. This team looked every bit like the kind that was going to win 30 games.
Six days later, I called my shot: 29 wins. D’oh.
(To be fair, the Tulsa comeback was not supposed to happen.)
Every year, the Bearcats blast through weak non-conference opponents in November and December. Every year, fans are tempted to point to games against teams like Robert Morris as a sign that the ‘Cats have turned the corner offensively. I’ve caught myself doing it a number of times.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that Cincinnati’s best offensive team in more than a decade seemed to have fewer of those moments. The Bearcats got Brown for “only” 84 points in the season opener and didn’t crack 90 until the final game of November. Sure, there was the 119-point decimation of Fairleigh Dickinson the week before Christmas, but I didn’t personally see this team’s offensive clout until the conference schedule rolled around. I think it’s fair to say many doubted this would be Cronin’s best scoring team after they managed just 70 on a putrid Samford squad.
As the season wore on, it became apparent that a new era of Bearcat basketball was upon us. From January 2012 to March 2016 — four seasons of conference schedules — the Bearcats tallied eight conference games of 80 points or more. In 2016–17, they did it another eight times. Sure, the AAC had a dreadful year, but for a fan base that has considered an 80-point game a track meet for the last decade, it was a very welcome change. This season, Cincinnati hit 80 points 15 times in 36 games. That’s hard for me to fathom.
Even harder to fathom was that the ‘Cats still did their thing by winning with defense.
One of the undeniable high points of the season came on the first of December as Cincinnati got one hell of a monkey off its back in Ames. After losing a heartbreaker at home to Iowa State in 2015, the Bearcats exacted revenge by picking up a huge non-conference road win and pulling out a close game — two things which have evaded this program in recent years.
Another hallmark of this year’s teams was the comeback. Not that Cronin’s teams have ever given up or rolled over, but rarely do they have enough offense to dig themselves out of any kind of substantial hole. They saw their first nightmare on December 22 against Marshall.
The Thundering Herd blitzed to a 15-point lead in under five minutes and it felt like one of those nights for the Bearcats. The deficit was reduced to four points late in the half, but a Marshall streak stretched the lead to 12 at the break. Things looked mighty grim.
With just under 15 minutes remaining, the Bearcats woke up. A layup by Justin Jenifer with nine minutes left erased the final bits of a 14-point second half deficit and knotted the game at 68. For the remainder of regulation, Marshall threatened to run away, but the Bearcats continued to answer, tying the game and forcing overtime on a Jacob Evans three-pointer with 11 seconds left.
The slugfest continued in the extra period but a Troy Caupain floater with two seconds remaining won it. The Bearcats escaped.
Marshall made SEVENTEEN three-pointers, shot 12-for-12 at the line, and seemed to get every call from the refs. Cincinnati found a way to win, and what was nearly a disaster ended up being one of the biggest confidence boosters of the season.
The most miraculous comeback came on the first of February. The Bearcats were in Tulsa facing an underperforming yet potent Golden Hurricane team. To put it mildly, they were not playing well. After trailing for nearly the entirety of the second half, Cincinnati found themselves down 11 points with under six minutes left. Their win probability was 2.9%.
For the final six minutes, Tulsa didn’t make a basket and the Bearcats came roaring back in the Sooner State, closing the game on a 16–3 run. It was the greatest escape act I’ve ever seen by the Bearcats.
A defining aspect of the season for Cincinnati — both good and bad — was UConn. After finishing second in the AAC Preseason Coaches Poll, the Huskies faced injuries before unravelling, losing to teams like Wagner and Northeastern. Their 2016–17 ineptitude helped define a conference that devolved into a laughingstock of college basketball.
Regardless, the Bearcats faced off with UConn three times and never trailed. That’s 120 minutes of basketball without facing a single deficit. If you’d like to be more historical, the Bearcats’ wire-t0-wire home win over UConn marked their third straight. The Huskies have won a national championship more recently than they’ve held a lead at Fifth Third Arena.
On March 5, Cincinnati rocked UConn at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. A week later, they again won by double digits, this time at the XL Center in Hartford. The Bearcats beat the Huskies on each of their home courts in the same week, and never trailed for a single second.
UConn is not a program that will stay down, so I’ll cherish sheer dominance while we have it.
Another major theme of this season was revenge. The Bearcats got edged out by so many teams in 2015–16 that it felt like 2016–17 was all about settling the score.
Last year the Bearcats lost to Iowa State. This year they beat them in OT on their home floor. Last year the Bearcats got swept by Temple. This year they swept Temple. Last year the Bearcats lost to SMU. This year they handed the Ponies their only loss between November 30 and March 17. Last year the Bearcats lost to Memphis. This year they hung 87 points on them in a win. Last year the Bearcats lost to Tulsa. This year they beat them three times, dished out the Golden Hurricane’s most devastating home loss, and ended their season in the AAC Tournament. Last year the Bearcats lost to Houston. This year they swept them, including a smothering loss on Senior Night in Clifton. Last year the Bearcats lost to UConn. This year they pounded them in Cincinnati, beat them by 20 on their Senior Day, and cruised past them on their home floor in the AAC Tournament to give the Huskies a losing season.
The biggest revenge came on January 26.
The Bearcats finally won the Crosstown Shootout. 2012 seems like so long ago, but Cincinnati has reclaimed the rivalry. To boot, the 1,112th on-campus game in UC history saw its largest crowd ever. The Shoe was bandbox.
Trevon Bluiett threatened to win the game by himself, but the Bearcats never quit, answering every Xavier punch with one of their own. Jacob Evans was stellar. Jarron Cumberland was magical.
With Xavier offering one final push with a minute remaining, Troy Caupain stretched a four-point Cincinnati lead to seven with a devastating three-pointer that nearly reduced Fifth Third to rubble six weeks earlier than planned.
The program needed that one.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Bearcats absolutely handled Kansas State in the opening round. As a fan that’s used to heart palpitations while watching any mildly difficult game, seeing UC throw it in cruise control in March was remarkable. Cincinnati got a rough opening draw, but K State was a team they were supposed to beat and they did it.
The second round game against UCLA was different. The Bearcats earned the wonderful distinction of being just the third team in NCAA history who could say “Oh look, a 30-win Power 5 team in the second round.” On top of that, the Bruins have a Top 2 NBA Draft pick and the game was played in UCLA’s home state, on the opposite side of the country from Cincinnati. Life isn’t fair, and that matchup in the second round certainly wasn’t.
Despite the cards being stacked against them, the Bearcats played a nearly flawless opening half. After the break, UCLA’s bevy of shooters became too much. It happens.
A lot has been said about this team and their early exit, and I’m sure the debate will continue until November. Here’s my piece:
30 wins is never a failure. College basketball is not the NBA. Obviously the postseason is a huge factor in success, and it’s what gets the most national attention. However, this is not a seven-game series, it’s a single elimination tournament played by kids. These kids choose a school where they can grow as people and players while winning as many basketball games as possible. To that end, this season was a flying success. Again, the Bearcats won thirty games — the second most in program history. On top of that, we got to watch three of the highest-character seniors you could possibly ask for.
No, I’d rather not lose in the second round. However, no, I’m not flushing 30 wins, three great seniors, and tons of great memories down the toilet because the Bearcats ran into another 30-win team in the second round. Be reasonable, people. Cincinnati’s basketball program has every little thing figured out except for how to win another game or two (or four) in the postseason each year.
On each Selection Sunday, there’s nothing I want more than to reach the second or third weekend of the tournament. Until that happens, I’ll probably never be 100% satisfied with a season. That being said, it isn’t the only metric for success. This season was a success.
The program is undeniably heading in the right direction. The Bearcats are one of the most consistent programs in the country, style of play is much better, recruiting is unquestionably improving, and there’s a brand new arena on the way in 19 months. Also, don’t look now, but next year’s team figures to be just as good, if not better than this one.
This season was 95% great, and it’s perhaps the first chapter in a fantastic era of Cincinnati basketball. I’ve got nothing to be sad about.