Cincinnati For Real?
On Cincinnati and its insanely easy non-conference schedule.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
When a program, which hasn’t experienced a ton of recent success, surprises everyone and begins the season with 15 consecutive wins and sits on top of the toughest conference in the country, it has definitely earned a closer examination. Cincinnati basketball hasn’t jumped out to this kind of start since the ‘98-99 season when the Kenyon Martin, Steve Logan, Pete Mickeal era was at it’s peak. And 15 games isn’t exactly a measly sample size… it’s more than half of the team’s schedule and already includes a couple of Big East conference games. So the question is simple: Is Cincinnati for real?
To be honest, there’s no way of knowing for sure… yet. While 15 wins in a row is an impressive accomplishment no matter what, the schedule usually doesn’t lie. Looking at a team’s non-conference schedule, it’s pretty easy to decipher the mindset of the coaching staff that put it together. You don’t have to be Ken Pomeroy or Jeff Sagarin to figure out that strength of schedule was not a huge priority for head coach Mick Cronin going into this season. Cronin most likely looked at his roster, saw what was awaiting in Big East play and figured (probably wisely) that it made more sense to build confidence early in the season than to shatter it by playing a Gonzaga-like schedule.
But, in his well-intentioned attempt to safeguard his team’s spirit and morale, Cronin may have: a) underestimated the Bearcats’ talent, b) under-scheduled to the point that his slate could be mistaken for a marshmallow (Cincinnati’s SOS currently sits at 326th in the country…for comparison, the Big East’s next lowest SOS is Rutgers at 170), or both. Cincinnati has also only played two true road games so far, neither of which required travelling outside the state (at Toledo and at Miami, OH). It looks nice to be 2-0 in Big East play, but most teams in that conference can beat up on DePaul and Seton Hall at home.
To its credit, Cincinnati has done what many major conference teams (cough… Tennessee) haven’t been able to do this year and dominate the games it is supposed to. Until last night’s annual cross-town slugfest with Xavier (which, by the way, was down to nine scholarship players for the game), the toughest opponent the Bearcats faced out of league was probably a tossup between Dayton and Oklahoma. A team with a schedule like this is one loss away from being booted from the top 25 and a few conference losses away from being an automatic bubble team on Selection Sunday.
Soon it will become very clear how serious these Bearcats are about contending in the super-rugged Big East. The Bearcats were competitive in conference play last year with largely the same cast. Cashmere Wright is a versatile and athletic guard, Yancy Gates has finally developed into a legitimate force down low, and Dion Dixon is rebounding from a down sophomore season to become a real scoring threat for Cronin. The team is playing its trademark airtight, Rick Pitino-inspired pressure defense while shooting at a higher percentage (I.e. better shot selection) and turning over the ball less (I.e. improved decision making). All signs point to increased maturity and growth among the Bearcats, but this upcoming stretch of games is a test that teams like Savannah State and Utah Valley honestly can’t come close to simulating.
Four of their next five games are at No. 7 Villanova, at No. 4 Syracuse, at No. 15 Notre Dame, and at fellow conference upstart St. John’s. It’s hard to expect Cincinnati to win more than one of these games, but if the Bearcats are more than just a product of an extremely soft non-conference calendar, competitive showings in these contests are a must. A 15-0 record, no matter how pillowy the schedule, is obviously a positive as long as Cinci is able to avoid too many confidence-crushing losses to the titans of the Big East. This upcoming gauntlet of games, which will seem like the Lakers, Celtics, Heat and Spurs compared to what the team has faced up to this point, will tell us a lot about Mick Cronin’s squad and whether that favorable early schedule helped or hurt its development. Until then, the verdict is out on the Bearcats.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.