Cincinnati Basketball

 By Michael Schneid

"Started from the bottom now we're here"

The Cincinnati Bearcats hit rock bottom in 2006 and eight years later are 23-3, first place in their conference and ranked 7th in the AP poll. How did that happen?

Mick Cronin has been the Cincinnati Bearcats' head coach since 2006. Legendary coach Bob Huggins was fired amid off the court controversy in August 2005 and replaced by assistant Andy Kennedy. Kennedy coached Cincy for one year, before being replaced by the former Murray State head coach, Cronin.

All of Huggins' recruiting commitments for the 2006 season bailed due to uncertainty at the school. Kennedy was a lame duck and didn't even try to recruit. So when Mick Cronin was hired on March 24 2006, he was way behind in recruiting and people around the sport immediately dismissed Cincinnati from being a contender any time soon.

Huggins would later coach Kansas State for one year before moving on to his alma mater, West Virginia. Andy Kennedy has been the coach at Ole Miss since his Cincy interim run. 

In 2006, Cincinnati's roster consisted of two holdover seniors (Ronald Allen, Cedric McGowan), one true freshman (Deonta Vaughn), 5 junior college transfers (John Williamson, Marcus Sikes, Marvin Gentry, Jamual Warren, Timmy Crowell) one walk on (Branden Miller), and a football player (Connor Barwin). This is not a good formula for success. Needless to say, the Bearcats finished Cronin's first season 11-19 and won just 2 games in the Big East.
A good sense of how undermanned Cincy was, in 2006 forward Marcus Sikes was forced to guard Ohio St center Greg Oden. The following season, Sikes would be forced to guard Georgetown center Roy Hibbert. Both Oden and Hibbert are over 7'0 and both took care of business with ease against the smaller forward

In 2007 things would start to look up, even if it did not seem like it. Cronin was able to put together his first real recruiting class. A six-man class that would lay the foundation for future recruits to know that things are starting to trend upwards at Cincinnati. Those freshmen plus the four returning juco players were far from the best team in the Big East, but they had the characteristics of what Mick Cronin's most recent NCAA tournament teams look like. The team played hard and was scrappy defensively. But clearly, Cincy lacked the talent to compete with the top teams like Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Georgetown, among others in the country's best conference.

Only four of the six freshman would graduate. Those four, played in the NCAA tournament in 2011 as seniors - Rashad Bishop, Larry Davis, Darnell Wilks, and Anthony "Biggie" McClain. Those four would all play big roles in the future success of the Bearcats. Cincy finished 13-18 but 8-10 in conference and had some big wins early in conference play. In fact, Cincy started 8-5 in Big East play, but lost their final five games. Still, you could see promise and potential in the way the team played. They just lacked the talent to really compete every night. Cronin isn't completely excused though. He went from Murray State to coaching jucos in the Big East. Clearly, he needed to grow and adapt as a coach. Everyone struggled.

With those four freshman, and the four graduating former junior college players, the program was at least back on stable ground, with consistent recruiting classes to follow and stability in the program. In 2007, not many Cincinnati fans were optimistic about the future, but looking back, instead of focusing rage and anger on the coaches or on the school administration for firing Bob Huggins and hiring Mick Cronin, perhaps fans should have tried to see the light at the end of the tunnel and understood and significance of their situation, just how far the school had fallen and how realistically, they were on the way back up. 

More progress was made in the 2007-08 season. They made the Big East tournament for second time, after missing it in 2007, but lost to Pitt. Cincinnati was were invited to the College Basketball Invitation (CBI) tournament, where the Bearcats lost to Bradley. The CBI was a new inaugural tournament that fell just below the NIT in postseason hierarchy. The Bearcats, despite the loss, were thrilled to play in the tournament as it was a nice reward for the junior college players to play in a tournament game. It also gave the school a little more exposure and reason for optimism, despite finishing the season 13-19.

2008-09 Cincinnati Bearcats

Entering the 2008-09 season, the Bearcats had a roster full of four-year players. Gone were the jucos that are credited with keeping the program alive. And now Cronin had two full recruiting classes, one that included highly touted Yancy Gates. The Bearcats also added former McDonald's All-American Mike Williams, a transfer from Texas. After winning eight Big East games the year before, there was some reason for optimism, that Cincy could begin competing at a higher level.

The Bearcats finished 18-14, certainly a major improvement from previous seasons where they won 11 and 13 games respectively. It was Cronin's first winning season. They went 8-10 in the Big East again. But they lost five of their last six, before losing in the first round of the Big East tournament to previously winless Depaul. Depaul finished the Big East regular season 0-18.

It was the second straight year the Bearcats finished the season on a sour note, after strong starts. Despite inexperience and a talent gap between other teams, people were questioning whether Cronin was the right coach to continue to guide the Bearcats. The rebuilding was going to take time. It's hard to blame the two collapses solely on the coach, but he certainly wasn't exempt from blame. They had a very young team, learning to play together and win and through a long and taxing season, just fell apart two straight years. Following the loss to Depaul, there would be no postseason. No return to the CBI, and no NIT, where many people had expected them to end up before the season-ending collapse.

If you ignore the 2007 CBI appearance (most people do), 2010 was this Bearcats' team's first postseason appearance. They would play in the NIT after finishing the year with a 19-16 record, 7-11 in the Big East. A year after adding highly touted freshman Yancy Gates and transfer Mike Williams, Cronin continued to add talent - junior forward Ibrahima Thomas, transferred from Oklahoma State and Lance Stephenson, Rivals' #11 player, and the top ranked player in NYC, committed to Cincinnati. 2010 would also be the final year for guard Deonta Vaughn, Cronin's first freshman recruit.

The Bearcats would crack the top 25 rankings for the first time under Cronin after a solid run in the the Maui Invitational tournament that saw them beat Vanderbilt and Maryland, before losing to Gonzaga in overtime, in the championship game.

Despite, having his most talented team, Mick Cronin's squad still failed to make the NCAA tournament but did make the NIT. They beat Weber State (led by Damian Lillard) at home before losing to Dayton. Still, the NIT, while not exciting too many people, still meant progress. But once again, Cincinnati collapsed, losing five of their final six games and seven of nine. However, the Bearcats recovered to win two Big East tournament games, beating Rutgers and than upsetting Louisville. They lost to West Virginia on a heartbreaking, buzzer beating finish.

Cincy's win totals continued to improve every year and they continued to trend upwards. There was a vocal group of fans in Cincy who had enough of Mick Cronin, though at this point. Four years of no NCAA tournament appearances as well as an arguably boring style of offensive basketball took its toll on a disgruntled group of fans, most of whom were still bitter over Bob Huggins' departure. Late-season struggles were a huge issue. At most schools, in most situations, four years of no tournaments might mean a new head coach. Cincinnati was not most schools. They were a unique situation and Cronin deserved a lot more time. Luckily for the Bearcats, he got it.

2011 was the year these Bearcats would finally breakthrough. Cincinnati went 26-9, 11-7 in the Big East, finishing 6th place in the conference. Cincy began that season 15-0, unbeaten in non-conference play. They were ranked 24th heading into Big East conference play. In fact, all 9 losses came to Big East teams as they lost 7 in regular season play, Big East tournament, and Uconn in the NCAA tournament.

They were led by a pair of juniors in Dion Dixon and Yancy Gates. The previously mentioned seniors - Rashad Bishop, Larry Davis, and Darnell Wilks also played major roles. While Bishop was a starter, Davis and Wilks came off the bench as part of the "good squad." The Bearcats' second unit was known as the goon squad, a group that came in and brought energy and toughness that most teams' couldn't match. Sophomore PG Cashmere Wright and freshman Sean Kilpatrick also played major roles on this team.

While Cincy had previously been plagued by late-season collapses the last three season, this team learned from their mistakes. The Bearcats won five of their last six, including a season finale victory over 14th ranked Georgetown, that many people believed clinched the Bearcats their first NCAA tournament appearance in Mick Cronin's tenure. To fully seal the deal, they knocked off South Florida in the Big East tournament, avoiding what would have been a big upset to knock them back onto the bubble. They lost by 38 to Notre Dame, but they had done enough to go to the NCAA tournament.

They entered the tournament as a 6 seed, and knocked off Missouri in the first round and lost to eventual champions, 3rd seeded Connecticut in the second round.

For the first time, serious progress had been made and the future was very bright. Yancy Gates, Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and Jaquon Parker would all return in 2012, which was even more reason for optimism.

However, the 2011-12 season started a little rough. A loss at home to Presbyterian was pretty brutal, would probably be rock bottom for most schools but considering where Cincy had come and what was to come, it wasn't rock bottom. Although they would get close again on December 10, 2011, after a 23 point loss to rival Xavier. A huge brawl ensued, that resulted in Octavius Ellis ultimately being dismissed from the program, and Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodji serving lengthy suspensions. The whole situation was very embarrassing to both teams and because of the incident, the game has been played on neutral grounds the last two seasons.

It was largely expected that the fallout of this brawl would result in Cincy trending downward the rest of the year. But seven straight wins later, Cincy was trending up, while Xavier endured a long losing streak. Many national analysts were in awe over the way Mick Cronin handled the situation, beginning with his post-game press conference and the way his team played in the aftermath. Cronin and his players' took full responsibility for their actions, unlike Xavier who simply shrugged and ignored the problems, implying it's part of the game.

Cincinnati upsets #2 Syracuse in Big East tournament semifinals
Despite the early loss to Presbyterian and the blow out to Xavier, Cincy would again win 26 games, finishing 26-11 and 12-6 in the Big East, good enough for fourth place. Fourth place is a big deal in the Big East because it gave the Bearcats a double bye in the conference tournament. In the Big East tournament, they would knock off Georgetown in double OT before upsetting the #2 team in the nation, Syracuse, in the semifinals. Cincy lost in the Big East championship to Louisville 50-44.

The Bearcats would be again be a 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, knocking off Texas in round one and Florida State in the second round. Many expected Florida State to possibly come out of this region to go to the Final Four. Cincinnati's wonderful season ended in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Ohio State. This also marked the end of Dion Dixon and Yancy Gates' time at Cincinnati.

Last season, Cincinnati made the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season, despite finishing ninth in the conference. They finished the season 22-12, 9-9 in the Big East, their final year in the Big East. Last season ended the remarkable career of Cashmere Wright, who overcame many knee injuries to continue to help lead the Bearcats. Cincy started the year with 12 straight wins, and were ranked as high as 9th,  before losing a home game to New Mexico. They would go on to lose two of their next three after that loss

The Bearcats' offense was wildly inconsistent all year, which led to the 9-9 conference record. They beat Providence in the Big East tourney and lost to Georgetown. For the first time in Mick Cronin's tenure, they did not win a game in the NCAA tournament, losing their first round game to Creighton.

The Big East split into basketball and football after the 2013 season and the basketball conference remained the Big East while the football schools were re-branded as the new American Athletic Conference and added some teams from Conference USA such as Memphis, SMU, Houston and Temple from the A-10.

This season, the Bearcats have gotten off to their best start in ten years. After consecutive losses to New Mexico and Xavier in early December, Cincinnati reeled off 15 straight wins, and were ranked as high as 7th, until losing to SMU last week. Cincinnati is currently 23-3, 12-1 in the AAC, alone in first place.

It seems like so long ago that the Bearcats were loaded with junior college transfers and winning just 13 games a year. But back than, the Bearcats played the same way they are now. The culture started to grow as soon as Mick Cronin took over. The Bearcats want to be known as a strong defensive team, that rebounds and forces turnovers. They play slow on offense, in an attempt to limit their opponents' possession, a strategy that has worked this year against fast paced offenses like Louisville, Memphis, Uconn. 

Cincinnati has something they haven't in past years - a closer. Dion Dixon was a good scorer. Deonta Vaughn had his moments. But Sean Kilpatrick is the best scorer Mick Cronin has ever had. And Kilpatrick has sometimes single handedly carried the Bearcats on offense.

The 2014-15 season looks promising after a strong recruiting class in 2013, that included NYC's #1 prospect Jermaine Lawrence and guard Troy Caupain. The 2014 class includes a trio of forwards who are similar to Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles and will be able to fill those voids.

Cronin will continue to run the same system and same style of play every year. He used to walk into press conferences with a list of excuses, one of which was he didn't have the right players for his system. But he needed players in the early years. The last few years, Cronin has clearly attracted players that fit his system very well, and players that want to buy into what he wants them to do. On paper, Cincinnati is probably not as talented as Louisville or Memphis in their conference, but yet, beat both teams on their home floors anyways.

Who knows how long Cincinnati will play in the new AAC. But the conference certainly suits them better. Part of the reason for Cincy's late season collapses over the years is the constant level of competition. It's hard sometimes for young, inexperienced teams to play 5-6 top 25 teams 2-3 times a week, every week. The American currently has 5 ranked teams (Cincy, Louisville, Memphis, Uconn, SMU). With Louisville leaving after this year, Cincinnati has a chance to be one of the faces of the conference; that kind of respect will help them potentially earn a tournament bid every year.

Not every recruit has panned out. Alvin Mitchell, Octavius Ellis, Kenny Belton, Kelvin Gaines, Jeremiah Davis are among some of the guys who never panned out. Cronin has recruited just one "one-and-done" player in Lance Stephenson. He seeks four-year guys with heart and toughness. Guys like Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon, Jaquon Parker. Guys that fit the culture Cronin has created at Cincy.

Fifth year senior guard Sean Kilpatrick is on his way to possibly being an All-American. Kilpatrick red-shirted in his first year because the Bearcats were over loaded on guards and Cronin wanted to spread out some players. Kilpatrick leads the AAC is scoring, averaging 20 points per game and also averaged 4.5 rebounds per game. Cincinnati having a player in conversation of one of the nation's best players is a long way from having former TE Connor Barwin (currently a Philadelphia Eagles LB) guarding 7 footers Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert.

While Kilpatrick has been dominant, it also must be said what a great job Justin Jackson has done in 2013-14. Jackson is a candidate for Most Improved Player nationally and the front runner for AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He had issues and was benched a few times last year. When he was a freshmen he was an incredibly raw talent offensively. Defensively, left a lot to be desired. But he showed potential on the defensive end and played with heart and hustle. His offensive game has developed significantly and is the Bearcats' number two option now. Jackson averages 11 points and 7 rebounds per game and 3 blocks.  

The Bearcats are well-respected nationally, as evidenced by their current #10 ranking. Fans appreciate the team Mick Cronin has built and the "experts" acknowledge what an amazing turnaround it has been for Cincinnati.

Most programs don't hit rock bottom like Cincinnati did. They lost out on a whole year of recruiting and had three head coaches in a nine-month span. That happened just a few years after leaving Conference USA for a major upgrade in the Big East. All these factors just make Cincinnati's current presence all the more impressive.

So while their current run to the top of the AAC looks impressive, it is even more impressive when you consider everything the school has been through. With a fourth straight tournament bid on it's way next month, it's time to really applaud the job Mick Cronin has done and for the school to reward him. He's not leaving. Ever. He graduated from UC, grew up in Cincinnati. Was an assistant coach under Bob Huggins. He has turned down offers from NC State, Illinois, Minnesota. He has publicly said several times that this is his dream job and he's never leaving. I tend to believe it. Unless the team bottoms out again, he's certainly not getting fired. The graduation rate is up significantly from Bob Huggins' teams and that is very important to the school.

Bob Huggins holds the Cincy record for wins at 399. Mick Cronin has 158 wins. Not crazy to think he can one day beat Huggins mark. 12 years of 20+ wins will get him there, and he will do it on his 400th win

Next time you hear words like "rock-bottom" or "rebuilding" in terms of college basketball, make sure you understand what those words mean. People close to the Cincinnati program fully understand and now fully appreciate where there program is. This is a team that started from the bottom, and now it's here.

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