Last week I wrote a piece that hopefully uplifted the spirits of UC fans who were dismayed by the news that the ACC had barricaded itself from further raids of its teams. It touched on the main goals for Cincinnati to position itself in the best way possible in case they were stuck in the American Athletic Conference for the foreseeable future. If you were paying close attention, and like the amazing reader you are I know you were, I wrote very little about UC basketball’s possibilities in the AAC. And for good reason; I decided it deserved a post of its own.
In essence, UC basketball under Mick Cronin has the opportunity to thrive in the AAC. Unlike the Big East in its prime, Cincinnati’s new conference will be much more balanced. There will be teams who are perennially at the top and the bottom, that’s almost guaranteed in any conference. However those in the middle won’t be nearly as strong as before. That was one of the “problems” with the Big East – Depth. Syracuse and Louisville finished near the top most years but even the 7th, 8th, or 9th best team were still NCAA Tournament caliber programs. As a result, schools at the top would easy fall to the middle of the pack if they had 2 or 3 bad games and those at the bottom had a whale of a time climbing out of the basement. Essentially, the Big East was very top heavy with 10 out of 16 schools eligible to make the Big Dance in any given year.
That’s what makes Mick Cronin’s rebuilding job so incredible. First of all the fact that he was able to revive UC basketball is a minor miracle and why he is, in my opinion, one of the top 25 coaches in the game today. But even when the rebuild was complete, Cincinnati was still facing that gauntlet night in and night out with poorer facilities, a smaller budget, and more “project” recruits. The latter is starting to turn the corner but only after 7 years of grueling work. Still, as does everyone around here, Cronin was doing more with less and it showed in most games against the likes of Marquette and Georgetown. He built his teams to outwork and out scrap their opponents but the schedule wore on them over the course of the season. And really it did with every Big East team.
In more balanced leagues this is never the case. 63% of a conference’s teams being contenders to making the NCAA Tournament annually just doesn’t happen. There will be 25% at the top who almost always get in, then another 25% in the middle who have a shot, and 50% who don’t even come close. In the AAC, Cincinnati has a strong opportunity to be in that first group.
While money and conference affiliation are generally the drivers of success in college football, that’s not necessarily the case in college basketball. Exhibit A thru I: Butler, Xavier (fist shake), Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, VCU, Creighton, Wichita State, Murray State, Davidson. Those programs have played in what is considered “mid major conferences” for years but continuously boast 20+ win seasons, compete for conference titles, and make the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. They have thrived in college basketball because they boast a history of winning, strong coaches, and systems that work.
Cincinnati, too, boasts all of those qualities. UC can point to Bob Huggins’ 15-year reign where the Bearcats beat the piss out of everyone, 2 National Championships, as well as Oscar Robertson if recruits are interested in learning about true historical success. More recently, Cronin has guided Cincinnati to 3 straight NCAA Tournaments, 5 straight winning seasons, and coached Lance Stephenson who is currently competing in the playoffs with the Indiana Pacers. On top of that, he’s surrounded himself with strong coaches who have instilled a never-say-die mentality in their players that is showcased each and every game. And finally, Cronin’s defense has consistently terrorized opposing teams for years and has been instrumental in elevating UC basketball in the Big East.
So in the AAC, why can’t Cincinnati not only survive but thrive? Along with a few other teams, there is no reason why the Bearcats shouldn’t compete for conference championships in basketball on an annual basis. They have the coach, they have an established system, and they’re getting the recruits. After being battle tested in the Big East for so long the AAC should seem like a cakewalk to the Bearcats. It’s of my opinion that the best is yet to come for UC basketball and I can’t wait to see what Mick Cronin has in store for us.