NEW YORK — Here's Mick Cronin taking interview after interview following his team's 71-68 semifinal Big East tournament win over 31-2 Syracuse Friday night in the Big East semifinals. His dress shirt is still tucked in and his jacket hasn't come off as reporters come and go for 30 minutes. He doesn't sweat. One hand stays in his pocket while another waves casually as he explains just how it came to be, how Cincinnati played itself to a 23-9 record, into the Big East title game for the first time in program history and assuredly will wear home white in its first NCAA tournament game next week.
|Cincinnati will play for its first Big East title Saturday night in its seventh season in the league.(AP)|
The Orange has two scratches on their schedule following the Bearcats' assault in which Cronin's team scored 1.41 points per possession — an incredibly efficient and rare rate for a team. (Cincinnati averages just under 1.1 PPP on the season.)
“It's nice to be Syracuse, but they don't hang out rings for that,” Cronin said.
Right about now, Cronin is looking very different from the coach a lot of people thought was too overmatched for this job as early as five months ago and as far away as the first day he started, March 24, 2006. His team will play for the Big East championship — Cincinnati has never won a Big East championship and hasn't taken home a conference championship since 2004, its penultimate year in Conference USA — and with that accomplishment, we've got another reason to see why Cronin's done as good of a coaching job this year as almost anyone. He didn't win Coach of the Year in the league (South Florida's Stan Heath did), so if Cincinnati wins the Big East tournament shortly before midnight on Saturday, how silly is that going to look?
Cincinnati isn't a program all the way back to what it was in its best days, but it's a hell of a lot better off right now with Cronin than what he started with. It took the Bearcats longer than any C-USA import to win a Big East tournament game. It lost in its opening-round game three years in a row. Since then: 5-2 with a really good chance at raising that winning percentage to .750, since the Bearcats will be treated with the Knicks' locker room Saturday night (the highest-seeded team of the day/session gets the NBA digs).
Cronin said he "built the program from scratch,” and added that getting his players to believe they could win the Big East championship has been just as big a challenge as developing and improving the players' skill level. Collective confidence doesn't come — it can't — until this time of the year, he said.
It's clear and undeniable now that Cronin was the perfect coach to get this team through a season that could have so easily careened off the road, tumbled through the shrubbery, slammed into a rock, barrel-rolled 15 teams — then fallen off a cliff.
“The beauty of college basketball: teams develop,” Cronin said. “You have time to develop over four months, and it's the greatest challenge in coaching. If you've got good kids and you've got talent, you can block out distractions.”
Cronin developed as a coach, too. There is a professional stability and a persistent message that you can see him carry in his terse jaw. You will not break me.
“You can't let other people define who you are,” he said.
But he can change. The fight with Xavier has become an event that stuck more to the Musketeers than the Bearcats, but it changed the way Cronin behaved just as much as his team.
“He became more of a father figure to us,” Bearcats guard Cashmere Wright said. “He became more hands-on in our life, more so than just basketball. Because you never know what's happening in people's lives that make them act the way they do. He came out and had one-on-ones with everybody.”
At the start of the season, Cincinnati was a time that had five seniors gone. It didn't have toughness. Cronin was more aggressive in his approach — and that approach eventually backfired, even if it wasn't intentional. Doesn't mean that he's still not a ball of fire on the sidelines and in practice, but his players said their coach has become more personable in the past couple of months. They're tough because he can be softer.
“You just know he's going to be real with you,” Wright said. “He's going to tell you exactly how he feels, what's on his mind. Either you can respect it, or you're not going to be on the team. But you know he cares for you.”
Cronin is a coach who always rattles of movie quotes to his players — Wright thinks Cronin only watches “mafia, tough guy” movies — and can capture his team's attention not only with his quirky movie dialect knowledge, but his never-ending passion. He's got quirks. And because of that he's able to capture his players' attention.
You could tell Cronin had waited so long for this. Winning the Big East title against an inferior team to Syracuse will mean more but it might not be as hard. Getting over the hump "in a road game" against the Orange in Madison Square Garden is the latest thing that defines his team, his coaching job — and gets the group further and further away from the press conference that prevented everything from changing, while changing everything right then and there in the locker room beforehand and at the podium immediately after.
“You've got to win on the biggest stage,” Cronin said. “Yancy Gates, he's earning money here. His draft status in the past two days is through the roof. This is when people pay attention. You've got to win games like this if you want to be a real team. You want to sit here and cry — no — you've got to win games like this. You've gotta make the semifinals, you've gotta be the so-called ‘big name' teams or you're never going to become one of them.”
Cincinnati basketball is as close as it's ever been to that prestige under Cronin.