The best thing about consistency is just that: Its established regularity can be used to inform expectations of the future. Consistency itself isn't sexy. It's a word that probably makes a portion of Bearcat fans roll their eyes at this point because it's evoked so often to describe Mick Cronin and his Bearcats. They're ruthlessly consistent. They're a week from punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive time. Only four teams (Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Gonzaga) have longer active streaks. The 'Cats have won at least 22 games in each season during that span. Today bringing Daylight Savings Time to an end serves as a reminder that you could set your clock to these Bearcats.
Since I got to Clifton as a freshman in the fall of 2011, I've watched nearly every single Bearcats basketball game. I could probably count on one hand the number of games I've missed. (I watched this season's South Carolina State game while driving to New York.) This means I'm good at knowing what to expect. Sure there have been upsets and unexpected wins and losses, but overall I'm never truly shocked by the Bearcats. There's a comfort to that.
When I visualized how Sunday's de facto AAC regular season championship game might go, I felt there were three options. In order of probability they were:
Single-digit Bearcat win
Single-digit Cougar win
Double-digit Bearcat win
The Bearcats are consistent, and I've borne witness to it some 275 times in the last eight seasons. I'm no soothsayer, but they don't shock me at this point.
Sunday's 85-69 beatdown at the hands of the Houston Cougars shocked me.
In the Mick Cronin Tournament era (since 2010-11), the Bearcats had lost 21 home games across nine seasons coming into Sunday. Cronin coached 18 of those losses (assistant coach Larry Davis piloted most of the 2014-15 season in the wake of Cronin's leave of absence to address health issues). Of those 18, just two have come by double digits. The first was an 11-point loss to West Virginia in early 2011 and the second was a 10-point loss to Pittsburgh in February 2013.
Sunday's 16-point trampling was the widest margin of defeat at home for a Cronin-coached team since the NIT-bound group lost by 17 points to #3 Syracuse in February 2010. That was more than nine years ago—3,319 days.
Cincinnati hadn't lost a Senior Day game since 2010.
Houston's 85 points are the most the Bearcats have allowed in a home loss since January 7, 2009.
Suffice it to say Mick Cronin Tournament Era home loss #22 is going to have me reeling for a bit.
It all started so well. With a championship on the line, the Bearcats had Fifth Third Arena primed for a party. A jam-packed, standing room only crowd of 12,701 got to their seats in time for Senior Day festivities and things were rowdy from tip-off.
Within six minutes, the Bearcats had staked themselves to an eight-point lead. The Cougars held tight, threatening to regain control throughout the half, but the 'Cats kept them at bay. A pair of Jarron Cumberland free throws 58 seconds before the half gave Cincinnati a three-point edge before the cracks started to show. A Corey Davis Jr. three-pointer 19 seconds later tied the game at 35 apiece before a last-second foul by Keith Williams allowed Houston to take a two-point lead into the half.
For 20 minutes that had gone relatively well for UC, a halftime deficit didn't feel right.
Cincinnati battled out of the half, though. A Nysier Brooks block set up a Williams layup. The Shoe was rocking and the Bearcats were up six points with 13:32 standing between them and a second consecutive regular season title.
The wheels fell off so quickly it was hard to process.
An 11-0 Houston run in just 91 seconds felt incredibly ominous. A group that has staked its season on resiliency tried to keep battling, but a hail of Cougar three-pointers made it immediately clear that it wasn't happening. Before I could process the shift in momentum, Houston had itself an unfathomable 17-point lead.
It all happened as confetti slowly leaked from the Fifth Third Arena ceiling, piece by piece, serving as a sick reminder of the party that would never happen.
Don't get me wrong, the Cougars are good. There's a reason they're #12 in the nation and trending upward. Not many teams go 29-2. However, the Cougars are not the best team Cincinnati has faced at home since that loss to Syracuse nine years ago. The dissonance between those two facts is going to decide the future of this season.
In some weird way, I think the best way for the Bearcats to have lost Sunday was precisely like this. This type of disaster, unseen in Clifton for more than 3,000 days, feels like the type of world-altering moment that might help. The UConn Huskies got massacred by Louisville in a 33-point loss on the final day of the 2013-14 regular season. Less than a month later, they were cutting down the nets following a national championship victory.
I'm certainly not suggesting these Bearcats are bound to shock the world, but I do think an embarrassing defeat in the season's final home game could help shake loose any remaining complacency.
Mick Cronin is already talking about re-evaluating the roster. While I don't expect anything to come of it, it's certainly the boldest I've heard his postgame comments since he threatened to kick the entire team to the curb in the moments after the 2011 Xavier brawl. That team answered the call, winning 10 of their next 11 games en route to a shocking season that saw them lead the nation in top-25 victories on their road to the Big East Championship Game and the Sweet Sixteen.
It's the last possible chance for the 2018-19 Bearcats to have a Come To Jesus moment because every game from here on out means a lot more. They've shown us they have the toughness, and the immediate future is going to test that. As the saying goes, pain is a wonderful teacher. Sunday was incredibly painful. Let's hope the lesson sinks in.
I feel for Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome. In a season that was supposed to look more like Sunday's game than it did, they did a lot to prevent that. We've talked a lot about how this year's "rebuilding" team didn't have to do any rebuilding at all, and the contributions of Jenifer and Broome are a significant part of that. Leaving town as the first seniors to lose on Senior Day since Deaonta Vaughn and Steve Toyloy will be a tough pill to swallow.
The good news for Cincinnati in the immediate future is that this trainwreck did nothing to alter their AAC Tournament bracket. Things still look rosy in that department. The Bearcats will play Friday at 7 p.m. against the winner of 7-seed Tulsa and 10-seed SMU. If they can win that game, they'll likely face 3-seed Temple, unless 6-seed Wichita or 11-seed ECU can manage to knock off the Owls. For as horrid as Senior Day was, it's a good feeling knowing the only team the Bearcats can face before the championship game that's beaten them are the Pirates. Houston, UCF, and hometown Memphis are all on the opposite side of the bracket, meaning Cincinnati can only face one of them, and not until the championship game. It's a rare break for a program that seems to end up on the wrong end of these types of scenarios.