When the clock in Moody Coliseum hit zeroes on Saturday night and the Bearcats were 22 points short of victory, many fans were understandably upset. This season has spoiled us. Barring an unexpected collapse down the stretch, or a first-round tournament loss, this will absolutely go down as one of the best seasons of Bearcat basketball in the past 10 years. What Mick Cronin has done with this team in a “rebuilding year” has even the biggest Huggins-era Bearcat haters eating crow.
Being ranked #7 in February cannot be understated. It’s the highest ranking ever for a Mick Cronin team, and it’s deserved. You may remember that this team hit #8 last year before the wheels fell off a bit. This is not like last year. Streaking through a soft non-conference schedule to start the year is not the same as peeling off 15 straight wins over the 6 weeks between mid-December and early February, and I think the loss at SMU proves this.
Any time your first conference loss comes in February, especially after playing a conference-high 9 games in January, you have a good team. I don’t care if you play in the Ohio Valley Conference, it’s not easy to win the first 11 games on the conference slate. There are the obvious marquee wins at Memphis, at (defending national champion) Louisville, and at home against UConn. There are also the “gimme” wins that you can’t afford to drop. It takes focus and discipline to avoid coughing one up against USF or Rutgers. The 22-3 record says a lot about this team’s focus. However, I think the Bearcats’ season goes beyond the numbers.
College basketball in this day and age is so much about perception. It’s the reason everyone wants to be in a better conference. It’s the reason nobody wants to be labeled a mid-major. It’s the reason we care about AP Polls and pointless ESPN power rankings. In the era of big money and big recruits, people have to believe that your program is a big deal. Seeing a packed house pour onto the floor after a Bearcat loss proves that UC has once again become the hunted. The hard-nosed, physical, and intimidating Bearcat tradition is back at the forefront of college basketball. For the first time since the end of the Bob Huggins era, the Bearcats are the biggest game on everyone’s schedule, and everyone is going to give everything they have to get a piece of Cincinnati.
The best part about this loss is that it cost the Bearcats very little. SMU is a very good team, and is undefeated at home. Those facts, along with some other top 10 losses, resulted in the Bearcats slipping back a mere 3 spots in the newest AP Poll, and actually moving up a spot in the RPI. The huge win vs UConn this week means Saturday night was perfect timing for a loss before the week off. Mick Cronin and the gang can sit on their top 10 ranking for a week as they rest up for a home game against .500 Houston.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so content to be ripped apart by an unranked team as I did on Saturday night. When the buzzer went off and those random-jersey-clad fans sprinted onto the floor, I had to smile. The Bearcats found their third loss on February 8th, but I didn’t feel defeated. The drubbing in Dallas proved that the Bearcats are back.