May the Odds Be Ever in Mick Cronin’s (and the Bearcats’) Favor

Last Saturday, the University of Cincinnati basketball team won another home game in front of a sold out crowd. 12,256 patrons filed through the doors of Fifth Third Arena, took their seats, and watched the Bearcats defeat another conference opponent. After some late game heroics (and bad shot choices from the Southern Methodist University Mustangs), the final buzzer sounded and fans vacated the arena. Unfortunately for many of spectators (and frequently for me), the significance of yet another strong conference performance went unappreciated, or at least under appreciated.

Sure, SMU did not present as the greatest team arriving in Cincinnati that evening. But don’t short another win (now 19) assuming SMU didn’t have any talented players. They have guys that can score, and top 100 and 200 recruits like others in the AAC. Mick Cronin’s Bearcats, however, did what they‘ve grown accustomed to doing — they won the game down the stretch. Relying on defensive pressure and streaky scoring from role players, Cronin’s guys battled to another win.

Jaron Cumberland led all scorers with 24 points, and he added nine rebounds and five assists. In the post-game press conference, SMU Coach Tim Jankovich remarked he didn’t recall Cumberland being as good a player as he was Saturday. While I’m not certain what scouting report Jankovich read, Jaron has taken an elite leap forward this season. Against the Mustangs, he did what he’s done much of the season, he imposed his will on the opponent. Saturday was unique inasmuch as UC shot the ball with far better accuracy than is customary. Precision shooting less our forte, the Bearcats shot nearly 53% from the field and 47% from three.

This team has confounded me for much of the season. For me, it’s been difficult to fall in love with this squad like I have with teams past. UC graduated some guys who were gems on and off the court. Gary Clark competed like few who’ve ever worn the red and black, and he was an equally incredible person. He wasn’t just a good guy; he was one of the greatest human beings I’ve had the pleasure of covering in college athletics. It’s tough to outshine a player like Gary Clark, the functional equivalent of Mother Teresa in high tops chasing down blocks. Jacob Evans III and Kyle Washington were also tough losses, exciting players and lovely people to boot.

Yet this team now has me in its grip with its youth, wide-eyed hustle, and endearing unpredictability. What’s more, Mick Cronin has dazzled. Coach Cronin’s detractors have described him as a “high floor/low ceiling” coach. In other words, some have posited his teams will always be pretty good (because they defend, rebound, and hustle), but they can never be NCAA Tournament contenders (because they can’t light up the scoreboard). Admittedly, I have expressed similar sentiments myself.

But this year I have been made anew, repentant and washed clean of that belief, if you will. Sanctified!

This season is Cronin’s finest stalking the sidelines of Fifth Third Arena. Beyond Jaron, the scoring solutions are so unpredictable they give many heart palpitations, UC’s defensive metrics have slid, and here they sit at 19-3 with one of those losses coming the first game of the year. Nineteen and three. Even after losing three NBA-caliber players and his longtime assistant Larry Davis, Cronin continues to put players in a position to be successful and the team is succeeding. I’m now a Cronin-convert; I’m a believer.

Mick Cronin is not a “high floor/low ceiling” coach. He is a “really high floor/who knows how high the ceiling” coach. Hear me out…

The biggest knock on Coach Cronin is his teams don’t go deep in the NCAA tournament. But Cronin’s teams do make the tournament every year (eight straight – 2011-2018) and are well-seeded enough to advance despite the AAC’s inherent weaknesses as a basketball conference of late. Essentially, it’s an odds play, and few families know as much about odds as Mick Cronin’s (his father Hep worked at River Downs and his brother Dan is a professional horse racing handicapper). How do you increase your odds of being successful in the NCAA Tournament? Simplistic to say, first you have to make it in the Tournament each season.

In other words, you cannot make a deep run if you’re minimally not in the Tournament regularly. Once you’re in, a number of breaks and circumstances have to conspire to help you avoid defeat. There’s a reason the phrase “survive and advance” is used to describe Tournament success. I’m not saying it’s a game of chance, but plenty of luck is involved. Can anyone say with a straight face the Final Four is consistently comprised of the best four teams in college basketball? Of course not! Just look at the Loyola Rambler’s success last season, South Carolina’s the year before, Wichita State’s in 2013, or VCU and Butler’s in 2010-11. In order to be fortunate, you have to at least be present.

Put another way, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. And this year’s Bearcats appear well on their way to having their ticket punched to a ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. There are only four other programs with longer streaks of consecutive Tournament appearances — Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Gonzaga.

So in this “rebuilding year,” the University of Cincinnati is now ranked 25th in the AP Poll and 23rd in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. Tonight they face Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers on the road. Tune in tonight (7 PM on ESPN2) and try to appreciate this team’s turnover of talent from last season, while also observing how few turnovers they commit. And tune in down the stretch heading into March and let’s just see if a few twists of fate don’t break UC’s way.

By Brian Fox