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After recovering from rough start, Cincinnati not afraid to dream big

by | CBSSports.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When practice ended last week, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin gathered his players and told them to look to the heavens. Or at least up to the rafters inside the Bearcats' arena.

Hanging high above were Cincinnati's national championship banners from 1961 and 1962.

"He said, 'We're not getting on the bus to come back with nothing less than a national championship,' " Cincinnati guard Cashmere Wright said.

So far, so good. Two wins and four to go for the sixth-seeded Bearcats after a 62-56 upset of No. 3 seed and ACC tournament champion Florida State on Sunday.

"That's a moment that will stand out forever," Cincinnati guard JaQuon Parker said. "It was just so big. He just said look at the top. We want one of those big banners again. As soon as he said that, everyone got hyped. Everyone's like, that's true. We're going to try to get one."

Cincinnati senior forward Yancy Gates said not many people outside the players, coaches and their relatives gave the Bearcats a chance to reach the Sweet 16. But that's exactly what they did, pulling away from the favored Seminoles in the final two minutes.

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The Bearcats proved to be tougher and more resilient. That certainly wasn't the case earlier this season when the Bearcats lost to teams like Presbyterian College. Then there was the brawl against crosstown rival Xavier.

"Well, we were just soft [earlier in the year]," Cronin said. "We lost five seniors and our intangibles all left our locker room with last year's senior class. Great defensive players; guys that had learned how to win over a period of time. We're really, really hungry to win. That team [from last year], those guys had never been to an NCAA tournament. They were willing to do whatever it took to get there and they gave us tremendous toughness.

"We had to take some losses and get embarrassed and have our season be really put on the brink of extinction. I give all the credit to our players."

Cronin also deserves a great deal of credit.

Since coming to Cincinnati from Murray State, the Bearcats have been the nation's only team to increase their overall win total in each of his first five seasons: 11 in 2006-07, 13 in 2007-08, 18 in 2008-09, 19 in 2009-10 and 26 last year. This year's team is 26-10, including 11-3 in its past 14.

"People are starting to give him credit now, getting us to back-to-back NCAA tournaments," Wright said. "People start realizing you're a real good coach, and he is. He pushes his players as much as he can. He doesn't expect nothing less than your best effort. You can't give 90 percent of your effort, you have to give 100, 110 percent. That's all he's going to accept.

"As a person, he's calm and down to earth. But he's a pedal-to-the-medal type coach."

That pedal likely will get mashed this week in preparation for the biggest Cincinnati basketball game in, oh, 50 years.

"Yeah, we know who we got next," Gates said.

Next up is Ohio State.

"Another game in the tournament," Gates said. "We came in the tournament to win. Now we'll get prepared for Ohio State. They're Big Ten, we're Big East."

The Bearcats will meet the Buckeyes in the East Regional semifinal on Thursday night in Boston.

The Buckeyes have refused to play Cincinnati since what seems like forever. They last met in 2006 in the John Wooden Classic. Before that, you have to go back another 44 years for their previous meeting. It just happened to be for the 1962 national title. They also met for the 1961 national title. Cincinnati won both games -- and national championships.

Cronin downplayed the significance of playing Ohio State. The Bearcats and Buckeyes are among four schools from the state of Ohio, along with Xavier and Ohio, in the Sweet 16. It's the first time four schools from the same state are in the Sweet 16.

"I have great respect for their program," Cronin said. "Other than that, they're the next team we play. You know, these guys have a goal. We have a goal and we get in the tournament to win it.

"I want my guys thinking that way, because I believe in them. It's important that they know that believe we're capable of winning the whole tournament. We're capable of winning any game we play."

And that's exactly what brought Wright to Cincinnati.

"When I signed here, that's what I told Coach Cronin," Wright said. "I just want to win, win as much as possible. I want a national championship."

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