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With Huggins far behind, Cronin builds Bearcats for long term

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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WASHINGTON -- You first have to remember where the Cincinnati basketball program was before you can appreciate it now.

Think compost. On the bottom of the ocean. Harpooned by the NCAA, fractured and scarlet-lettered, with former coach Bob Huggins as the doomed commandant, who made Bruce Pearl look like the Bishop of Canterbury, by recruiting a legion of one-and-doners who didn't give a damn.

Cincinnati was Scofflaw U. It was.

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Huggins was gone and Mick Cronin took the big chair. Years later, after rebuilding with patience, and recruiting his players, and having all but one of them graduate, Cronin is meeting with the media after his first NCAA tournament win and Cincinnati's first since 2005. The Bearcats beat Missouri on Thursday night with a display of smarts, athleticism and persistence. They play Connecticut on Saturday night.

Thus, it's official. Huggins is gone and Cronin is here.

"I'll be real frank with you. I'm never going to beat Bob Huggins," said Cronin. "He had a great run. The reason Cincinnati is in the Big East is because of what he accomplished as the coach at Cincinnati. I'm real comfortable with being Mick Cronin. I knew what I was getting into when I took the job. Not only the rebuilding process, but also following the winningest coach ever at Cincinnati and everything that was going to entail.

"My game plan is to win games, graduate players, enjoy my job, enjoy doing it, and try to get my team better every year. ... For me it's gratifying, but more so probably for our players. They've been through a lot with the whole process. They hear about that stuff all the time, and to be honest, they don't know anything about it. They're really young. You forget how young these kids are. Six years ago some of our guys were in junior high."

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin leads his team to its first NCAA tournament win since 2005. (Getty Images)  
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin leads his team to its first NCAA tournament win since 2005. (Getty Images)  
No, Cronin isn't Huggins. He's better. Not a better coach. He may never approach the skill Huggins possesses as a builder and winner, but Cronin is already constructing his program in a more sensible, long-term way. (At least by all appearances, he is.)

This Cincinnati team is dangerous. The Bearcats possess some of the great athletes that Huggins recruited, but the team has digested Cronin's message of teamwork and stability. One of those players was Yancy Gates, benched by Cronin earlier this season. He had 18 points and 11 rebounds against Missouri.

"I think what Mick has done is a great job of going and getting players. ...," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "Maybe more on the lines of some of our young players, that people aren't McDonald's All Americans, that aren't the big name, but he gets really good, good players. They can match talent-wise with anybody in our league. And he builds his system and builds his program ..."

The problem for Cincinnati is that Connecticut is a more athletic and better-coached version of the Bearcats. Yet if Cincinnati can get by the Huskies, the Bearcats would become one of the more dangerous teams left in the tournament.

Cronin remembers the leaner years when he was rebuilding Cincinnati after Huggins and how opposing teams predicted the Bearcats would never recover and how Cronin was a dead coach walking.

"Well, let's just say that in college basketball, it's very competitive," Cronin explained. "And there's those that are at the top. They don't really throw the rope down to you to help you climb up there. There's only so many people up there. And when you're trying to rebuild a program, there's a lot of people that are quick to point out that you're struggling, that you're probably going to struggle, you maybe had a losing season. A lot of people are quick to predict who's going to get fired in this business. At times there's some questionable things said by some people, and you gotta fight through that."

Cronin has done plenty of fighting and now the Bearcats are enjoying the results minus the Huggins headaches. Not a bad job by Cronin. Not bad at all.

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