#1: HOISTING THE AAC TROPHY
The Cincinnati Bearcats accomplished more than most expected in Mick Cronin’s 8th season at the helm. Most preseason rankings had UC pegged to finish 4th. Given the departures of Cashmere Wright, JaQuon Parker, and Cheikh Mbodj you could make the argument that the predictions were pretty much in line. But if you had said that to Cronin, Sean Kilpatrick, or Justin Jackson, they would have laughed in your face. They had much loftier goals in mind for their team.
Cincinnati opened the season on a hot streak, winning their first seven games before stumbling against New Mexico and Xavier. But thanks to a Titus Rubles put back to down Pitt in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Gardens, the Bearcats found their winning ways and reeled off 15 straight victories. It placed them firmly atop the AAC standings and opened up the very real possibilities of earning a conference championship. From that point on, though, it only got more difficult. UC failed to knock SMU from the ranks of the unbeaten at home then came up just short against Louisville and UConn. It shrunk the Bearcats’ lead in the AAC to nil.
Not to worry, though, this team was the epitome of resiliency this season. Cincinnati rebounded from the close losses to the Cardinals and Huskies to win their last games of the season and earn the AAC championship. It was UC’s first basketball title in the Mick Cronin era.
Hoisting the conference trophy was even more impressive knowing how underrated this team was to begin the season. Additionally, you have to wonder how Cincinnati accomplished such a feat with Justin Jackson and Justin Jackson alone holding down the low post. Even more so considering UC had nary a second outside scorer outside of Sean Kilpatrick.
But they did so despite those deficiencies because it’s not a Cincinnati championship if they aren’t overcoming some challenge.
Now the naysayers will claim that the AAC slate isn’t nearly as much of a challenge as the Big East the Bearcats called home for so many years. And they’d be right, but only because of the sheer fact that the conference was so unprecedentedly daunting. The Big East broke the record for sending 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament one season and continuously sent half of their teams to the tourney on an annual basis. No conference in the history of college basketball, save for maybe the ACC once Louisville joins, will have as many talented teams top-to-bottom*.
*DePaul absolutely excluded.
But the American Conference sent 4/10 teams to the NCAA Tournament this season with SMU narrowly missing the field. Plus their fourth best team, UConn, won the whole darn thing. So I just have to sit there and laugh at those people who try to rain on Cincinnati’s parade. I mean, how can they look at these players, these student athletes, who poured their blood, sweat, and tears on the court this season to bring a conference title home to Clifton and not be proud to their core of every one of them?
2014 American Athletic Conference Champions! pic.twitter.com/lrOVFH8rpT
— Cincinnati Bearcats (@GoBEARCATS) March 8, 2014