The Bearcats got a much-needed win yesterday in their 62 – 57 victory over the Seton Hall Pirates. Cincinnati is now 19 – 8 overall and more importantly 9 - 5 in the Big East. It’s no secret that UC’s out of conference schedule has, well, sucked this season and tallying 9 wins so far in the toughest, deepest league in college basketball is huge. For starters it gives them a higher seed in the Big East tournament. They will be matched-up against weaker opponents where, theoretically, it should be easier to tally wins. It never hurts to pad the resume in the days leading up to Selection Sunday. Secondly even though the Bearcats have 5 Big East losses, it says a lot more to being 4 games over .500 given the national perception of the difficulty of the Big East versus a conference like the PAC-12. The NCAA Tournament committee will certainly take that into effect. But there are some other factors at play as we begin the final two weeks of the regular season.
FACTORS WORKING IN CINCINNATI’S FAVOR
- Good Wins: Georgetown, Notre Dame, UConn
Beating a ranked team and having them finish as a top-ranked team is definitely a plus for Cincinnati. Not only were the Hoyas the 11th ranked team when the Bearcats beat them in early January but G-Town is now #9 in the country. In addition, Notre Dame and UConn were among the victims of UC early in the Big East schedule. The Irish got manhandled by the the Bearcats and weren’t ranked at the time. But since then they have been one of the hottest teams in the conference and are now ranked 25th. On the flip-side UConn was nearly a top-10 team when Cincinnati strolled out of Storrs victorious on January 18th. They proceeded to lose 6 of their next 8 games and are in danger of missing out on the Big Dance all together. Still, both wins will make UC look very appealing.
- Good Losses: Syracuse, Xavier, Marquette
This isn’t a deciding factor for the NCAA Tournament committee. In fact it seems more like a moral victory than anything but it is important to take some time and mention them. Syracuse, Xavier, and Marquette were all highly-ranked teams when they sent the Bearcats packing. While one of those teams (cough Musketeers cough) the other two are still powering through their schedule as top-ranked teams. Essentially, these losses won’t act against Cincinnati as much as those I’ll mention in the next section.
- The Big East
Like I mentioned there’s a national perception about the Big East is that it is the most difficult conference in college basketball. As a result, the Big East is regularly granted multiple March Madness picks each year. Last season a staggering 11 Big East teams, 69% of the conference, received invites to go dancing. But it’s a down year in the Big East and they will probably only receive 7 or 8 bids (still a lot). This means that as long as UC keeps itself in the top half of the conference, and it seems like these halves are becoming more and more separated, the Bearcats will be in a good position come tournament time.
- Four Conference Road Wins
Again, not a deciding factor but being road warriors will show the NCAA Tournament committee that Cincinnati does not have to rely on the friendly confines of 5/3rd Arena to get dubs. This point is only further emphasized with the fact that three of the Bearcats’ four road wins came against ranked teams, at least at the time. If anything it can’t hurt Cincinnati’s chances.
FACTORS WORKING AGAINST CINCINNATI
- The Out of Conference Schedule
It was full of cupcakes and teams that are absolutely killing Cincinnati’s strength of schedule. It was actually better compared to the 2010-11 season with teams like Marshall, Oklahoma, and Georgia filling the lineup. Marshall was expected to finish near the top of C-USA this season and Oklahoma, a 9 – 2 squad at the time, looked to be in-store for a good year. Those three teams are now a combined 41 – 37 and probably not going to win their respective conference’s title.
- Bad Losses: Presbyterian, Marshall, St. John’s, Rutgers
The non-conference schedule is laughable but to make matters worse the Bearcats lost to three of those teams. Xavier is forgivable, as I mentioned above, but let’s hope Presbyterian and Marshall don’t come back to haunt Cincinnati. A team in a bigger conference absolutely cannot lose to team in a lesser conference, especially one whose champion will probably get an invite to be a 15th or 16th seed in the Big Dance. That’s what UC did when they lost to Presbyterian. Also, dropped a few games in the Big East, the worst of which were St. John’s and Rutgers. While full of young talent, both teams have won just 8 conference games and will have to do a ton of work to garner a CBI invitation.
If the NCAA Tournament started today the Cincinnati Bearcats would probably be among the final four teams in, at the very least. Unfortunately it doesn’t start today and they still have some work to do. Paul Dehner mentioned early last week that UC fans can probably relax if the Bearcats won 4 of their final 6 games and we’ll be sweating out Selection Sunday if they finish 3 – 3. I’d say that’s a pretty solid statement and UC really does control its own destiny. They are now 2 – 0 in that six-game stretch. Unfortunately, the final four include games against a ranked Louisville squad that has won 7 of their last 8, a Marquette team that just whitewashed Cincinnati in their last matchup, a surprisingly solid South Florida team that is 9 – 4 in the Big East, and a Villanova team in their bandbox of an arena with Maalik Wayns who dropped 39 on UC the last time these two hooked up. Picking up two wins against those teams will be far from easy. But it has to be done to get UC to 21 – 10 and 11 – 7 in the conference. Cincinnati will have to buckle-down to ensure they aren’t left out in the cold on Selection Sunday.