Cincinnati hasn't been this good since Bob Huggins; big NCAA Tournament run likely

Download the CBS Sports App today and get instant tournament news and alerts, plus play Brackets!

If you’re one of those surveyors who prides yourself on winning big in NCAA Tournament pools by finding the true Elite Eight and Final Four sleepers, you’re going to want to give Cincinnati a really long look. 

The Bearcats (27-4) are still underrated. Why? Some reasons are obvious. The Bearcats don’t get stars like they used to, and their style of play isn’t razzle-dazzle. Plus, the program hasn’t made a deep tournament run in the past decade, so there’s a decreased expectation level nationally. But still, the amount of pub this group hasn’t received (and fellow AAC intimidator SMU, also 27-4, can claim the same) is a bit alarming. The Bearcats are legit, my people. 

Yet the only national headline this team has garnered this year — other than when I wrote about why Cincinnati is an undeniable top-20 program, now and historically — came last week, when coach Mick Cronin spoke his mind regarding bracket seeding and how tickets and money rule the day. Cronin’s off-base there, but people did take time to discuss his team’s record and seed forecast. 

The Bearcats project as the strongest No. 4 seed. If they hold that line, Cincinnati will earn its highest NCAA seed in 13 years. You know who was coaching Cincy 13 years ago? Of course. Bob Huggins. And this Bearcats team is the best one since. This group is capable of going to a Final Four, something the program’s not done in 25 years.

If you’re looking for the evidence, Cronin has this team looking better on offense than any other troop he’s coached at Cincinnati. Against a respectable schedule, this team is scoring 113.3 points per 100 possessions, far and away the best under Cronin. In fact, it’s the most efficient scoring Cincinnati squad since 2002, when Huggins coached the program to a No. 1 seed. On that Cincinnati team: Steve Logan, Leonard Stokes and Jason Maxiell. 

cincinnatincaatournament.jpg
The Bearcats always get it done on D, but this year’s offense can push them deep into the bracket. USATSI

The closest team Cronin’s ever coached to this one, in terms of potential, was the 2013-14 crew that entered the NCAAs 27-6 and got knocked off in the first round by Harvard. 

“This team is way more balanced offensively,” Cronin said. “We got a lot of ways we win on the offensive end, and we’re a bigger team, size-wise, and we have more depth. That team could not have done any better than they did. [Sean] Kilpatrick couldn’t have played any better, [Justin] Jackson couldn’t have played any better, [Titus] Rubles couldn’t have played any harder. Those guys didn’t have the firepower, the depth, the help. That team, I was extremely proud of what they accomplished.”

Cronin said, truthfully, that club was worn down. Kilpatrick could do only so much. And he’s seeing a few teams like that this season.

“Like, I watch certain teams, if they’re riding one guy to win games, he’s going to wear down,” Cronin said. 

It wasn’t only the media who overlooked the Bearcats. Cincinnati went 16-2 in the American, will be in the NCAA tourney for the seventh year in a row, yet not one player on the team was voted to the AAC First Team by league coaches.

Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are averaging double digits, and then there’s Troy Caupain, who was anticipated on being the team’s best player. Caupain (9.8 ppg) is the only Bearcats with at least 4.5 assists and rebounds per game. The team has managed dynamic balance with an ability to get second chances on the boards. Plus, teams steal the ball against Cincinnati on only 5.1 percent of possessions. That’s the nation’s lowest rate. The Bearcats don’t beat themselves. 

And have you seen their freshman, Jarron Cumberland? Unafraid and efficient. Will grow into a star. Could be the big-shot guy in the Dance -- if Gary Clark doesn’t beat him to the role. 

“This is now five on five, truly,” Cronin said. “We have more guys who can score, and college basketball, it’s a defensive game and a coach’s game. Because it’s not the pros, 82 games. It becomes a coach’s game in the playoffs, but during the regular season they don’t switch, they don’t change defense, so it’s so misleading. Where every game is the playoffs in college basketball because you’re all fighting to get into the tournament. Because we don’t have defensive rules, meaning the defensive 3 seconds and you can double-team guys who don’t have the ball. If you have non-shooters or non-scorers com January, everybody knows it, and they are not going to guard them.”

Cronin recruited Washington out of high school, but he couldn’t get him. He wanted to play in the ACC. So he did, but transferred after two years at NC State. Now he changes so much for Cincinnati because he’s a big with natural scoring instincts. That’s something Cincinnati hasn’t had in most years, other than when Cincy went to the Sweet 16 in 2012 with four guards and Yancy Gates. 

“If you have five scoring options — most college teams don’t have that,” Cronin said. “If you look around college basketball, so many teams are playing small to get another scorer on the floor. As coaches, we’re just not going to guard the guy, and with the 30-second clock, you’ve got a find a good shot faster.” 

Cincinnati has a top-seven defense as well, allowing just 90.7 points per 100 possessions. This is always going to be a defense-first program, but the scale is tipping. So long as Cincinnati dodges foul trouble and works the defensive boards, it can fight with just about any team.

“We believe in no layups, no free throws,” Cronin said. “Do our best to guard your 3-point shooters. I learned this in the Big East, when you saw me trying to dig out from under the rubble. You just can’t win games, and if you start off from scratch and say, ‘How are are we going to win games?’ and we don’t just have great talent. Well we better not give up layup and free throws, because a well-coached team you play on the road isn’t going to give you those.”

All of this has been a culmination, an action point years in the making. Sometimes you get a little lucky in recruiting, but Cronin’s also tried to maintain as much consistency as possible. Cincinnati does not have a fifth-year transfer. He’s fervently loyal to the players he recruits. His staff hasn’t changed much since he arrived; the same assistants are on the bench now that were there seven years ago. 

And now this is the season Cincinnati has been building to for years. The Bearcats used to be one of the most polarizing and interesting programs in college basketball. Now they’re more than a bad dream on defense. It’s been a generation since Cincy was this good, but in order to convince everyone of that, the Bearcats are going to have to crack the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If they play in March they way they did from November through February, that will happen. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories