There comes a moment in time when you begin to see everything start to click for a basketball team that had just experienced a tumultuous period in the program’s long history. The coaching staff and players are fully in sync as they roll through their schedule and accomplish things never thought possible even a few months prior. If we pinpointed that moment for the Cincinnati Bearcats during the Mick Cronin era, you could probably place it at the Louisville win on February 23rd, 2012.
Up until that season, the Bearcats were synonymous with fast starts to their season, mostly aided by a slate of no-name opponents, followed by monumental collapses near the end of Big East play. The same narrative played itself our during the first three-quarters of the 2011-12 season with Cincinnati picking up 19 wins to just 8 losses. That was fairly impressive but wise UC fans were cautiously optimistic. The Bearcats were just 9-5 in Big East play with extremely tough games upcoming against #17 Louisville, South Florida, #8 Marquette, and Villanova in the hornet’s nest that is The Pavilion. UC could have easily lost all four games en route to a 9-9 Big East record, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament yet again.
But they didn’t.
No, Cincinnati took down Louisville at home and while South Florida eeked out a close win over them, the Bearcats beat 8th ranked Marquette and Villanova to round out an impressive 12-6 Big East record. But UC didn’t stop there. They battled their way through the conference tournament knocking off 13th ranked Georgetown and 2nd ranked Syracuse, advancing to the championship game. While Louisville ultimately ended their run, Mick Cronin and the Bearcats proved that late-season collapses were a thing of the past and Cincinnati had established itself as a perennial force on the basketball court.
And with that transition to stabilized success we began to see the same on the recruiting trail. I’m talking about the recruiting class Mick Cronin signed after the following season. Unlike in football (maybe a little in football but especially in basketball), coaches track players for years. In most cases it takes a while for them to establish relationships with these high schoolers. The fact that Cronin proved that Bearcats basketball could perform consistently at a high level allowed him to garner the attention of better and better recruits, culminating in his most recent full recruiting class.
The class as a whole was, on paper, the best Cincinnati had ever compiled under Cronin but one signee stood out above the rest; elite forward Jermaine Lawrence. The UC head coach and his assistant Darren Savino had been tracking him for years. Over the course of his recruitment, Lawrence garnered accolades from every recruiting service as well as offers from just about every major basketball program in the country. Everyone wanted him. But he only had eyes for Cincinnati. Ultimately Lawrence inked his John Hancock with Mick Cronin and the Bearcats, ushering in a new era of elevated talent gravitating towards Cincinnati.
Now that Cronin had proven he could sign the best of the best at the high school level, it opened more doors for him and his assistants. Recruits, especially those in the New York City/New Jersey hot bed, took notice of the Bearcats’ success on the court in recent years. But almost as importantly was the fact that they saw one of their own, Lawrence, giving his nod of approval to Cronin’s program. It was the mentality of “Oh, this elite player thinks Cincinnati is cool, I think it’s cool too!”
While some might claim that it was the Lance Stephenson signing that got the ball rolling, they have to understand that his situation was far difference from Lawrence’s. He was also an elite high school player but was an academic question mark. By the time the need for Stephenson to sign crept ever closer, his ability to become eligible to actually play collegiate basketball came into question. As a result, most of his suitors backed off aside from Cincinnati and Memphis. The Bearcats ultimately won out. That’s a far cry from Jermaine Lawrence who was always eligible to see the court at the next level and was actually pushing away colleges when it came down to signing his letter of intent. So while the Lance Stephenson may have helped UC get noticed, it was Lawrence choosing the Bearcats out of his own free will and not because Cincinnati was the better of his last two options that resonated across the recruiting world.
In a sense, signing players of Lawrence’s caliber had become the expectation for Cincinnati and Cronin delivered in the impressive trio of Quadri Moore, Gary Clark, and Coreontae DeBerry in the class of 2014. All three garnered interest from a number of strong programs from around the country. Quadri Moore himself had offers from Georgetown and Marquette among others with Cary Clark earning offers from Maryland and Pitt among a dozen more schools. As a whole, Cronin signed high-level prospects who will contribute right away next season and could develop into special players sometime down the road.
Thinking long term, I fully believe Cincinnati can continue to land upper-tier basketball recruits consistently, year after year. This despite the Bearcats playing in the AAC. While conference affiliation heavily influences a team’s “swagger” on the recruiting trail for football, consistent success on the hardwood as well as the ability to land and develop top players is far more important is basketball. Mick Cronin has accomplished both here and unless he leaves Cincinnati (all indications show he’ll be at UC until he retires), Bearcats fans can probably anticipate this level of recruiting going forward.