If you’ve read any of my writing, you know I’m a big fan of the larger narrative. I guess I consider myself to be some type of storyteller, so I love the story lines. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl is cool. The Eagles winning a Super Bowl with a backup QB who bounced around the NFL before knocking off the greatest QB and coach in NFL history is way cooler. The Cavaliers winning the NBA Finals is cool. The Cavaliers winning the NBA Finals over the greatest regular season team in NBA history with the league’s first unanimous MVP to break a 52-year championship drought after trailing the series 3-1 is way, way cooler. I love the big picture because I think it can make sports something more. The average person finds no emotional connection with the Houston Astros winning the World Series. Tell them the story of the franchise’s rebirth and their fearless, 5’6” superstar and they can start to identify.
What will the narrative surrounding 2017-18 Bearcats basketball be?
Rarely ever have I experienced such a contrast between the bulk of the season and the end of it. From early November until Sunday night, the Bearcats checked nearly every box. Aside from winning the Crosstown Shootout, there wasn’t anything this team wasn’t able to achieve. They tied a school record for wins. They were ranked in the Top 25 each week, finishing the season at #6. The won the conference regular season title after their biggest regular season win in years. They won the conference tournament championship for the first time in 14 years. They had the conference Player of the Year, the Defensive Player of the Year, Sportsmanship Award Winner, and two players on the First Team All-Conference list. Mick Cronin won Sporting News’ National Coach of the Year award. By every measure, this was Cincinnati’s most successful team in 16 years.
None of that mattered in the final minutes of Sunday night’s historic collapse to Nevada. The legacy in college basketball is almost always determined in how the season ended. Did the Bearcats spoil 7,189 minutes of great basketball with 11 minutes of meltdown?
The truth is, I don’t know. We can’t say how this team will be remembered until we have time to separate ourselves. However, let's make a guess at how this will play out.
For those who want this year’s legacy to be more than a collapse, here is the bad news:
It was an unbelievable missed opportunity. Cincinnati had its best chance in 20+ years to reach the Final Four, and it wasn’t even close. For a program desperate for tournament success and existing in a conference where earning a great seed is nearly impossible, the whiff in this tournament is massive and can truly only be erased by another team making a Final Four run. Like it or not, that isn’t easy to do, given UC’s current situation. People aren’t going to forget the time the Bearcats finally had things fall their way and still blew it. It’s just how things work.
The collapse was historic. If Cincinnati had played a hard-fought game and lost to Nevada by six points, this heartbreak evaporates quicker and people are less likely to see it as a choke job. You can’t spin Sunday’s loss as getting beaten by a better team. Not after a 22-point second half lead. The way the Bearcats lost was nothing short of horrific. It was the absolute worst way to lose a game. That is going to be hard to forget.
The Bearcats won’t be that good again soon. After the 2017 tournament loss to UCLA, a big saving grace was the assumption that the 2017-18 team would be much better and have a great shot to avenge the loss to the Bruins. That isn’t the case this year. UC is losing its two (and most likely three) most important players. That’s a serious blow. Cincinnati’s ability to maintain a high talent level with consistent coaching from Cronin means they should be back in the tournament each year. However, their odds of reaching the Sweet 16 (much less the Elite Eight or Final Four) will be far longer for the next couple years. Those are just facts.
For those who want this season’s legacy to be more than a collapse, here is the good news:
This team did everything, as I mentioned above. To a certain degree, you can bury the postseason failure in a pile of wins, trophies, awards, and memories. Is it ideal? Of course not. But I’m personally going to have a hard time forgetting everything that went well for 99.9% of this season.
Nevada is good. Now, like I said, they are not better than Cincinnati and did not play better than Cincinnati for 75% of Sunday’s game. However, they’re no slouch. Cincinnati didn’t lose to a 16-seed or a middling Power Five team, they lost to a group that had 28 wins coming into the game and ranks #23 in KenPom. That was the Bearcats’ worst loss of the season. They didn’t lose a single game to a team outside of the Top 25. The way the loss happened was a disaster, but the #23 KenPom team beating the #5 KenPom team on a neutral floor isn’t an additional level of embarrassment. If you think this loss was torture, imagine if it had happened against Loyola-Chicago, Syracuse, or even Florida State. See, I’m right.
Xavier lost two hours later. Did this make me feel better? Nope. But it made me happy knowing Cincinnati’s collapse could be lumped into a larger narrative. It was a catastrophic day in Cincinnati sports, not just for UC. Doesn’t it feel a bit less like a program failure and a bit more like a curse? That will protect this team’s legacy a bit. Even though I wasn’t able to enjoy it (or even watch), this was probably my favorite Xavier loss of all time. They did a huge favor for how this UC team will be remembered.
Gary Clark is bulletproof. Seriously, this kid is impenetrable. People are going to have a really hard time covering up his incredible four years with a horrific 11 minutes. He may be the only player in the last 50 years of Cincinnati basketball with the ability to dodge this smudge. We’re talking about a fan base who likes a 2,000 point scorer significantly less than when he graduated because he’s corny on social media. UC fan are quick to diminish former players, but Gary is gonna beat that.
Nobody knows the future. I’m making predictions on how we’ll remember this season, but they’re ultimately just predictions. If the ‘Cats go out next year (or in two years) and pull an Elite Eight out of nowhere, this year’s nightmare is going to instantly shrink. The program can use this catastrophe as fuel. Cronin can re-evaluate some of his coaching tendencies and players can vow to never let that kind of collapse happen again. A better story can be written over top of this one.
In the course of my grieving, I’ve spent time wondering if there’s an alternate timeline somewhere that has me sitting here writing about a favorable matchup against Loyola with an Elite Eight on the line.
Unfortunately, that timeline doesn’t exist so my best option is to simply use brute mental force to do everything I can to separate this magical season from Sunday’s catastrophic demise. The 2017-18 Bearcats were far too fun and special to allow myself to erase every happy memory because of a bad ending. I think this team deserves it, and it’s the only answer I have.