The best season of the Mick Cronin era is rounding third and heading for home, so I wanted to take a moment to stop and collect my thoughts on where the Bearcats have been and where they're going.
The Bearcats are 22-2. They have won 15 games in a row. They're ranked #6 in the country. They're currently projected as a 3-seed, which would be their best since 2002. To repeat: This is, as of today, the best Bearcats team since Steve Logan wore red and black. (Even dating back to last season, the Bearcats are 52-8. Local boy Jarron Cumberland has been a Bearcat for 60 games and has won 87% of them.)
Some 12 years ago when Mick took the reigns of this smoldering dumpster fire, the days of being an elite program seemed lightyears in the rear-view and nowhere on the road ahead. A decade ago this week, the Bearcats had lost four of their previous six games. Following a one-point home win over USF, the Bearcats would lose their final seven games of the season, capping off the year with a loss to Bradley in the CBI.
In Mick's first four seasons, the team averaged 15 wins and 17 losses. In his next seven seasons, they averaged 21 wins, making the tournament in each of those years. Barring unexpected conference tourney runs, here are the programs in America who will take a longer March Madness streak than Cincinnati into next season: Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Gonzaga. That's it. Most programs would kill for the kind of consistency we've experienced.
I'm pointing this out to prove how good we have it and how easily we get distracted. I don't care about The Enquirer. I don't care about Xavier beat writers. I don't care what channel the game is on. I don't care about anything other than the Bearcats. They deserve to be cared about.
I'll have more about Gary Clark in the coming weeks, but he's going to go down as one of the best to ever wear the uniform. He has about a dozen or so games left as a Bearcat. Think about that. He plays his last game in Cincinnati in less than three weeks. Soak up every minute of this.
College basketball is a beautiful thing. One of my least favorite things about college basketball is having a team with high expectations. Because of UC's expectations and the amount of importance placed on March, there's this tendency I have as a fan to completely look past the entire regular season. When you have the belief that your team is destined for greatness, why would you relish games against Alabama State or Arkansas-Pine Bluff? I made this mistake last season. Every game was just a means to an end and I would've fast forwarded past the entire regular season if I could've. Before I knew it, the season was over, Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain were gone, and I had wasted the whole thing daydreaming about March. I was able to reflect back on things and appreciate it, but I really wish I had stopped to smell the roses along the way.
I think my favorite season of Bearcats basketball might be 2011-12. The expectations weren't too crazy, especially in the Old Big East, and then things completely cratered at the beginning with historically bad losses and the Xavier brawl. When the whole thing comes crashing down, suddenly every game is a part of the journey rather than something we have to outlast while we wait for the postseason.
I was a freshman at UC that season--six years ago. Despite the sheer number of games I've watched since then, I can still tell you where I was when SK hit the game-winner over UConn in Storrs. I can tell you where I was sitting when the Fifth Third Arena crowd heckled Chane Behanan or when the Bearcats boat raced Marquette on Yancy Gates' senior day. I remember exactly what I did after Dion Dixon's steal and dunk against Florida State. I can remember who I watched the Georgetown and Syracuse games with. I can remember rushing through my microeconomics final in Lindner to get home in time to catch the second half of the Texas game. There's no reason every season can't be like that, especially when the team is #6 in the nation.
Make the most of the rest of this season. Be a fan in the moment.
I won't tell you not to daydream. As an optimistic schmuck, I think it's a great use of time. All I'm saying is that we should stop and smell the roses. The Bearcats are rolling. This team is special. These players are special. Don't let this slip past you.