During the recent resurgence of the Cincinnati Bearcats basketball team under Mick Cronin there were few things to be critical about. They were winning in a very difficult and deep Big East Conference, making regular trips to the NCAA tournament, and signing better and better recruiting classes. But one of the things that seemed to be a constant challenge for Mick and this program is scheduling strong opponents. As a result, it seems that Cincinnati becomes the target in the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday for critics of weak non-conference schedules.
Some of that has to do with budget. UC simply doesn’t have the green to pay marquee mid-major or better teams to visit 5/3rd Arena. Schools in the 100 – 150 RPI range can cost $100,000 – $200,000 more than a team with a RPI between 200 and 250. That’s what has killed UC’s strength of schedule the past few years. The Bearcats also don’t have control over who they play in non-conference tournaments or if they will even play in them at all.
In 2009-10, UC played in the Maui Classic against ranked teams Vanderbilt and Maryland but wasn’t selected at all the last two years. Typically those tournaments feature pretty solid teams and thankfully the Bearcats were selected for the Las Vegas Classic this upcoming season. There they will face Iowa State in the opening game and what could be a top-10 team next season in the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV and Oregon play each other first and the Bearcats will face the winner of that game if they take care of the Cyclones.
The same uncertainty occurs when teams are selected for conference v. conference tournaments. Cincinnati was picked to play in the Big East-SEC Challenge in 2011-12. Most Bearcat fans, myself included, were excited with the prospects of playing Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, or even the semi-local Kentucky Wildcats. All boast very good basketball teams and would certainly boost UC’s strength of schedule. Instead, the powers that be pitted Cincinnati vs. Georgia, who finished second-to-last in the SEC last season. That certainly helped give the critics ammunition.
Knowing that these circumstances are out of Mick Cronin or Whit Babcock’s control, they decided to get ahead of the game and schedule the Mountain West power New Mexico Lobos for a home-and-home beginning in the 2012-13 season. UNM will visit 5/3rd first with the Bearcats returning the favor the following year. My initial impression was elation. While Cincinnati struggled to schedule a marquee opponent from the bigger conferences, going the mid-major route, especially with a consistently great program as the Lobos, is a very smart move.
Over the past five seasons under head coach Steve Alford, New Mexico has a 73.3% winning percentage (126 – 46), has won the Mountain West regular season three times, and has made it to the post-season all five years, twice to the NCAA tournament. This is a very strong basketball program and will be a tough test for the Bearcats early. Win or lose, the Lobos provide a boost to the strength of schedule and should draw fans to 5/3rd. UC has struggled to fill the Shoe for non-conference games partially because of the lack of well-known opponents but New Mexico should help with that.
With this addition Cincinnati could have one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any Big East team. Of course the Bearcats will have their annual game with the Xavier Musketeers which always boosts the SOS. But UC, like I mentioned, has a game against Iowa State and either Oregon or UNLV, both of which should have strong RPI’s in 2012-13. There is also the unnamed opponent in the Big East-SEC Challenge to take into consideration. While a team’s RPI is dependent upon how they play throughout the season, this is shaping up to be one of UC’s most difficult non-conference schedules in years. That will help silence the critics.