On Armageddon & Alchemy

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

Well, here we are. We've reached the final days of the 2018-19 regular season, and things are about to get wild, one way or another.

The Bearcats edged past the Memphis Tigers Saturday, setting up a penultimate game with the UCF Knights Thursday before a Sunday Armageddon against the Houston Cougars that might test the structural integrity of Clifton's newest sanctuary.

The Bearcats have done this—gutted out a close win against a conference opponent with relative ease—so many times that the weekend's 71-69 victory gave people a chance to prod at big picture storylines as much as anything else.

How about the fact that AAC Player of the Year frontrunner Jarron Cumberland couldn't buy a bucket for three straight games in late February and his "rebuilding" supporting cast didn't miss a beat? Recall how this team stunk up its new arena so bad on opening night that it managed to ignite a disproportionate amount of anguish? In my postgame column, I used the word "catatonic," and also evoked Yakety Sax. They're 16-0 at home since. Remember when, in the first week of 2019, UC managed to brick a game against East Carolina? They're the worst KenPom team ever to beat Mick Cronin's Bearcats, and they sparked a 13-1 streak that's put UC in the driver's seat. Did you know that Cincinnati's 86 wins (and counting) in the last three seasons is the most in the 118-year history of the program? Is anyone surprised that the 2018-19 Bearcats have the best combined football and basketball record in the country? When was the last time an athletic year has been this fun? And it's even crazier when you consider I was walking around, like the idiot I am, in August telling people my definition of success this year would be a December bowl appearance and a March tournament trip, no matter how they came.

Not to resurrect old demons, but when I watched Gary Clark lay on his back in Nashville that Sunday a year ago, part of the reason for my acute nausea was the fact that sane heads assumed we'd have to wait at least two more years for another Cincinnati team built to make any noise. Not only had the 2018 Bearcats dream died, but so had—at least temporarily—the era of watching the Bearcats pile up wins and ride roughshod through the American to March. The Bearcats were going to have to take at least a season to reload and figure out how to regenerate a period of success spurred by the best graduating class in nearly two decades. The university was coming down the home stretch on a gorgeous arena renovation, and it looked as if the wind had been rapidly sucked out of the sails of a program that was cruising at 80 knots. I felt emboldened enough to write that it was the end of an era; that "a pall is hanging over this program." It all seemed hopeless.

Cronin's Bearcats are magical though, so I sit here bracing for the season's defining week, not worried about how the Bearcats will play their way off the bubble, but thinking about how they can muscle out two more victories and earn an improbable conference championship.

That's not to say it will be easy. Anyone who's watched this team even once this year knows that it rarely has been. A road matchup against a team that just picked off #8 Houston in Texas appears daunting, and a Sunday afternoon deathmatch against that same Cougar team on CBS may spur hyperventilating from at least one blogger I know.

It's fair to wonder—as painful gap years hit fan bases around the country like a ton of bricks—when Cincinnati's might finally come. If not this year, when? If Cronin's alchemy can turn Jarron Cumberland & Friends into a team in the front of the conference championship hunt in early March, and look pretty good doing it, when will Cincinnati ever stop winning?

Hopefully, that question lives to see another Monday. Even if not, the fact that I feel sane asking it in March 2019 feels like blessing enough.