The best program you don't hear about, Cincinnati has to make noise in March
What is it about this top-20 program that prevents it from getting more attention?
There are 11 schools that have made the NCAA Tournament at least 20 times in the past 25 years.
Can you name them?
Yep, obviously the usual suspects -- Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA -- are on the list. Those are all blue bloods. (Indiana, the sixth traditional blue blood, is not, falling just one Dance ticket shy.) But OK, that's five out of the 11. Who else are you thinking should be in this group? Yes, Louisville's part of the club, and you can't think March without thinking Tom Izzo, so you're right, Michigan State's there as well.
Just four left. So think. What other programs have been consistently good over the past two and a half decades? Ah! Texas made the tournament practically every season under Rick Barnes' long tenure, and Wisconsin's a top-four team in the Big Ten every damn year. Both are correct answers. Any other modern power you're forgetting about? Certainly is. Remember: Arizona's been a top-10 program since the mid-1990s. The Wildcats have played in 23 of the past 25 NCAA Tournaments.
That's 10 of the 11.
And I'm thinking if you hadn't seen this article, if I spotted you those first 10 programs and gave you 15 guesses to pick the 11th, you wouldn't have guessed Cincinnati. But it's true. Cincy has punched a ticket 20 times since 1992, and it's going to be 21 for the past 26 come March, because the 20-2, 14th-ranked Bearcats are a top-25 team yet again. You'd be hard-pressed to give me five coaches more underappreciated than Mick Cronin, who's now in his 11th season with the Bearcats.
Cincinnati came back from a double-digit second-half deficit at Tulsa on Wednesday night. The Bearcats are one of a few remaining teams who've yet to lose a league game. Cronin's quietly succeeding yet again. For the second time in four seasons, Cincinnati's won 20 of its first 22 games. The Bearcats' 13-game winning streak is among the longest in the sport. There were some who believed Cronin wouldn't make it four years at UC, after he took the job following his Murray State stint.
Yet this year's Cincinnati team should wind up as the best group Cronin's ever coached, and that should be proven a little over a month from now with the school's highest NCAA Tournament bid since he arrived.
Here's my thought: Why isn't Cincinnati considered a top-20 program on a national level? Seems pretty definitive to me that the Bearcats have been established, both historically and in the modern era, to be just that. But you probably don't think of Cincy that way, just like a lot of other people don't, but you're wrong.
You think Cincinnati, maybe you think "tough" or maybe you think "Bob Huggins coached there and I think he got fired" or maybe you think "Oscar Robertson and Kenyon Martin played there, but I can't name anyone else."
Truth is, Cincinnati is one of just 15 programs with multiple national college basketball championships. Cincinnati ranks top 20 in all-time NCAA Tournament bids, with 30 (Kentucky's 55 is tops). The school has 1,737 wins to its name -- No. 17 on the all-time rankings. You combine those achievements with being on the short list of NCAA Tournament regulars since the early 1990s, and that's an open-and-shut case for the program's noble standing in college hoops. I don't think there's a debate, yet how could we even debate it if it's hardly acknowledged to begin with?
To get an appreciation of how hard it is to make the NCAA Tournament, consider this: Cincinnati has gone to the Big Dance six (soon to be seven) years in a row. Only five of the other 350 other Division I teams (Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Wisconsin) own longer streaks. Michigan State (13-9) is in jeopardy of having its run end this season.
So why isn't Cincy considered a national power?
Lack of tournament success
Though the Bearcats get to the Dance, they usually don't make much noise once the party starts. In tracking the past 25 years of Cincy's NCAA Tournament appearances, 1992 sticks out for good reason. That was the last time UC made the Final Four. The program hasn't made an Elite Eight since 1996, and Sweet 16 showings have happened just twice in the previous 15 years. If you can't win big in March, your program will perpetually battle perception issues. The national appeal, currently, is greater for teams like Wichita State, Butler, Xavier, VCU and Gonzaga. And why? Most of those teams have made a Final Four, and all of them have gone to the Elite Eight within the past decade.
"Hangover from the Bob Huggins era, that people predicted the demise of the program, so maybe they don't want to admit that they were wrong," Cronin said, when offering one reason why Cincy doesn't receive more inclusion as a top 20-level program.
It's all about the NBA Draft
"But in all fairness to the media, so much of college basketball is postseason success, and two things about the media and college basketball: they love recruiting, and my criticism is there's way too much talk about the one-year, one-and-done player, and all the hype surrounding him," Cronin added. "So what happens is, the Cincinnatis of the world -- and there's a lot of us; Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler, Xavier -- there's so much hype around 'Who's going to be a pro?' that if you're not a part of that, you get left out. So LSU gets talked about more than Cincinnati because they had Ben Simmons. And I'm not complaining. That's just the way it is. They've earned it. To the victor go the spoils."
If you want to point to Cincinnati's recruiting, that's a valid critique. Without five-star players, you're fighting uphill at the start of every preseason and regular season for story lines and attention. The Bearcats have landed one McDonald's All-American in 20 years (Lance Stephenson). The program has had really good players in the past 15 years but no true national stars since Kenyon Martin was killing it. Steve Logan, in 2002, was the last time UC had a consensus First Team All-America selection.
Style of play
Under Cronin, the Bearcats have been defense-first, defense-second, and then, if all goes well, offense-third. Grinder-mindset execution doesn't make for an aesthetically alluring watch. The Bearcats regularly finish near the bottom of college hoops in possessions per game, and in recent seasons they've had trouble averaging 65 points. Tell it to the win column, though. In a matter of days, Cronin will have won at least 22 games seven years straight. Best of all, this year's team is the best one, by far, he's ever had on offense. Things are looking up.
No conference to call home
No top-20 program has shifted through more leagues than the Bearcats. They went from the MAC, to being an independent, to joining the Missouri Valley, to going back to being an independent. That was just 1946-1975. Then came the Metro Conference years, followed by the Great Midwest Conference, and of course the jagged Conference USA epoch. But we're not done. Cincinnati's breakup with Huggins coincided with a leap to the Big East. Unfortunately Cincinnati bought bad beachfront property.
Just as Cronin got the Bearcats to compete near the top of that esteemed league, which was the best conference in college basketball, the powerhouse hoops union splintered due to football, sending UC to the American Athletic Conference.
"We got to the top of the Big East, played for the Big East title," Cronin said. "That hurt recruiting, that's just a fact. It hurt our identity, it hurt the brand."
Though the landscape of college sports changes with conference alignments relatively frequently, when you step back and look at Cincinnati's living situation over the past 70 years, the program hasn't ever been able to settle. The team's moved 10 times. This has undeniably affected perception. Unlike Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, UConn, Arizona, UCLA, Indiana, Michigan State, Kansas and others, Cincinnati had no league-by-marriage.
My twist: The fact UC's been this good is a testament to the program and its coaches. Most other schools that hopped from conference to conference so frequently wouldn't have nearly the success. Yet Cincinnati's been one of the few constants in college basketball over the years. It merely hasn't been in an appealing style or with marquee players.
The solution is simple, yet hard.
"It's on us," Cronin said. "We have to get the job done in March."
This could be the March that Bearcats fans have been waiting so long for. For the first time in Cronin's tenure, he can put five players on the floor with a natural ability to score. Cincinnati's averaging 78 points per game -- and they're still top-10 defensively in both points allowed per game and points per possession. This team has a mix of young stars (Jarron Cumberland) and veteran studs (Troy Caupain).
This should be the season Cincy's reputation gets an upgrade. It starts with winning the American. Then getting a good seed, like a No. 2 or No. 3, is next. From there, an easier path to the second weekend. The final factor is a deep tournament run. If the Bearcats can link all these achievements together this season, the program will inevitably get the widespread respect it deserves.
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