It’s time to start talking about Cincinnati. The Bearcats have flown under the radar long enough, especially after they went into Louisville and emerged with a 69-66 win over the Cardinals despite blowing a 17-point lead in the second half.
Forget that the Cardinals have a deceptive 17-4 record and a good, not great, NCAA Tournament resume. This is about the Bearcats, a team that is now 20-2 overall and 9-0 in American Athletic Conference play and emerging as the clear team to beat there. The only losses were at New Mexico and against Xavier at a neutral site. Likely few, if any, picked the Bearcats over the likes of Louisville, Connecticut or Memphis before the season.
How good is this team right now? How much should we talk about them? Besides the record, the Bearcats entered this week with an RPI in the top 15. The win against Louisville, coming on the road, is sure to get people talking more, but this team had already done a good deal.
“That’s for other people to determine,” said head coach Mick Cronin when asked about his team’s standing. “We don’t care what other people think about us. The biggest thing I teach in my program: we don’t let other people define us.”
The Bearcats had to survive a furious rally by the Cardinals on Thursday night, as they led 42-25 at one point in the second half before finding themselves on the wrong end of a 64-61 count when Russ Smith made a three-pointer with just over five minutes left. Sean Kilpatrick led an 8-2 run to close the game and get them the win.
Cronin said that the main thing he did was make sure seniors Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and defensive key Justin Jackson were all in the game when it mattered most.
“They are the reason we have won 13 in a row,” said Cronin. “That’s why we won tonight. We win with tremendous leadership and team play. And those guys got some talent.”
The win over Louisville highlights, among other things, how this team has managed with a question at the point guard spot to start the year. They were high on freshman Troy Caupain, but also cautiously optimistic because he is still a freshman and point guards often have uneven adjustments to the college game at first. The holdover was junior Ge’Lawn Guyn, who had an undistinguished first two seasons in college. Guyn has started all 22 games, but Caupain has played more minutes and has better numbers. They’ve also asked Kilpatrick to help with handling the ball.
Last week, Cronin took to Twitter after the Wooden Award midseason list was unveiled and didn’t include Kilpatrick, calling it “very irresponsible by those involved.” All the senior guard has done is lead them in scoring in all but one conference game, including 29 at Temple on Sunday and 28 on Thursday night. He’s the leader of this team and has done much more than just score, though he does lead the conference in that category. While his play the last two games is surely not motivated solely, if at all, by the snub, it does reinforce Cronin’s point that he belongs on that list and in the discussion for AAC Player of the Year. For that matter, Cronin should be in the Coach of the Year discussion not only there, but nationally.
Cincinnati may not go undefeated in AAC play, but they don’t have to. They are very much in the driver’s seat, however, as they are two games up on both Louisville and Memphis and have knocked off both on the road. They still have to go to SMU and Connecticut and have tough tests at home, but having that cushion is big.
The Bearcats are ranked and near the top ten, so it’s not as if no one knew about them before Thursday night. It’s also true that they have been flying under the radar. They don’t have big names or future lottery picks, but they have good college players who are tough and win, something Cronin talked about after Thursday night’s win. With what they have done to this point, it’s time for more people to know about this team.