Following Cincinnati's semifinal win over the Wichita State Shockers, I gave up trying to solve the Bearcat Paradox. This team doesn't make sense and hasn't all year. Rather than trying to figure out why they continue to defy logic, I embraced the illogical. This morning I woke up feeling it.
The day felt ripe for narrative.
I didn't have a reason for smelling a victory, but this team has proven reason doesn't matter. A week after getting cracked by Houston in Clifton, they turned around and ran the 31-2 Cougars out of the gym in the season's biggest game. Cincinnati 69, Houston 57. The Bearcats win their second-straight AAC Tournament.
A week ago, I left The Shoe fuming. Now it's the Cougars that are headed back to Houston looking Cincinnati Black and Memphis Blue. Going back the other way? Another AAC Tournament Championship trophy, bound for the Lindner Center.
When Jarron Cumberland secured his AAC Player of the Year honors this week, many questioned how Houston's Corey Davis Jr. had managed to miss out. He dazzled in the regular season for a 29-win group and was fresh off a beatdown of Cumberland in Cincinnati. I'll admit even I was a bit surprised. As it turns out, the logistics of the voting worked in Cumberland's favor. Conference coaches submitted their ballots more than a week before the close of the regular season, meaning none of Davis' efforts in the final week mattered. The stage was set for the Cougar to unleash his fury in the tournament, and the plot only sweetened when we learned Cumberland would be the opponent in the title match.
Like everything this season, we should've learned to expect the unexpected. Davis seemed exhausted, notching just 12 points, one rebound, and one assist on 3-for-13 shooting. His teammates followed suit, looking every bit as deflated as the Bearcats did in this game two years ago.
Cumberland, meanwhile, decided to prove his Player of the Year worthiness, grabbing the moment by the neck and strangling it for 35 dominant minutes. In the year's biggest game, he uncorked 33 points and eight rebounds, powering Cincinnati to its most dominant win in nearly two months on the unlikeliest of stages.
Things started to take a turn for the historical when Cumberland recorded points 20 and 21 and headed back to the bench for a timeout looking like this:
The scales had tipped from 'Cincinnati snuck up on tired Houston' to 'Cumberland two-pieced a 31-win team.' He silenced any doubt he was the conference's best player in a cloud of championship confetti.
When I left Fifth Third Arena a week ago, I thought this weekend’s results were an impossibility. Yet, here we are. The Bearcat Paradox strikes again.
If there were such thing as an AAC Tournament Sidekick Award, it would go to Trevon Scott. Someone forgot to tell him he's just a junior because he gave his team a senior sendoff in Memphis, following up a career-best night against SMU with a strong effort against Wichita State and a 12-point, eight-rebound game in the title fight. If it weren't for Cumberland going nuclear, I think there's a chance Scott sneaks up and wins the AAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award. He was that great for the Bearcats.
Cane Broome, playing in the final AAC game of his career, went for a season-best three triples. Cumberland's outing will bury his 15 points, but his scoring was pivotal, both in the late first-half stretch when Cumberland sat with foul trouble, and in the second half period when Cincinnati was trying to stave off Houston's last bit of fury. His pop off the bench could pay dividends next week if he can bring it like he did Sunday.
For their troubles, the Bearcats are a 7-seed facing Iowa Friday in Columbus. I'll take the virtual home game, but that seed placement feels like a slap in the face. Let's hope the advantage of a UC crowd is significant because the Bearcats have their hands full with a possible second-round game against a potent Tennessee team. Then again, does the path ever look easy on Selection Sunday? This Bearcat bunch has sneaky tournament potential with their Cumberland flamethrower and bevy of scoring guards. Hopefully playing close to home, and on Friday, will draw it out of them.