The conference is the Big East, but might as well change it's name to "The Beast" (plus, you'd have to like the marketing opportunities associated with that). For the most recent week, the Big East has six schools that are ranked, with two others receiving votes. Three of those teams are Top 10 (Villanova, Syracuse and West Virginia). The next three are top 20 (Georgetown, Connecticut, Pittsburgh) with Notre Dame and Marquette also receiving votes.
The fact the UC Bearcats were ranked at one point puts them in pretty good company and the fact is, there's some pretty competitive teams that aren't ranked. UC has beaten Connecticut and Wisconsin who are ranked and Vanderbilt (who was ranked at the time). Factor in the non-call in Hawaii against Yancy Gates vs. Gonzaga and that could be four ranked teams that lost to the Bearcats.
Elsewhere, you have Notre Dame with 14 wins, Louisville has 12 (and had #4 Villanova on the ropes at Freedom Hall) Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette and South Florida are all in double digits in wins. Rutgers has nine victories and the only team that's under .500 is DePaul which just fired their coach, Jerry Wainwright.
The message here: every game is an all-out war. Just as you hear other conferences argue in football about their "teams in the middle", the "also-rans" in the Big East aren't teams that you should overlook.
"You're going to have close games," said Coach Mick Cronin. "There's going to be a lot of close games, it's not going to change. The teams in this league are too competitive, even the team's that aren't the so-called, best teams are extremely competitive."
Case in point, after UC knocked off UConn at Fifth Third Arena, their following road game at Rutgers was anything but a cakewalk. Then, after a near miss at home against Pitt, there was a game that got away back in New Jersey against Seton Hall.
There simply are no breaks. Following Seton Hall with St. John's on the road barely gives you a breather.
"We're talking about St. John's, put them in the Atlantic-10 and tell me what their record would be," questioned Cronin. "They beat Siena--they were ranked Top 20 in the preseason--at a neutral site. They beat Temple, who many people say is the best team in the Atlantic 10. They won on the road at Rhode Island. They lose at Duke by seven. It's not like they're not a capable team. The problem is we all play in the Big East."
No one likes excuses and everyone likes results, but you have to admit there are no pushover certain wins in this league. Heck, the worst team this season was the team that bounced the Bearcats out of the Big East tournament last year (DePaul).
"When you play Big East basketball, there's so many good players in our league," said Cronin. "Even the teams that aren't the best teams have good players. They may not have as many as the top four or five, but they do have good players, they're going to play well in stretches. The key is weathering the storm and staying focused and playing through it, which has been an issue for us at times."
That issue comes with youth. Like it or not, it's a team with two seniors, Deonta Vaughn and Steve Toyloy. While the underclassmen are immensely talented, they're not battle-tested which is a must to succeed in the Big East. Sure, Rashad Bishop, Darnell Wilks and Larry Davis are juniors that should know better. But, a good many of your "go to" guys are sophomores (Dixon and Gates) and freshman (Stephenson, Wright, and Parker). Sean Kilpatrick's being redshirted, so he's having to learn from afar.
"Problem with us is,'Oh no, we're down five', welcome to the Big East!" explained Cronin.
"Southern Miss and Tulane, with all due respect, that's not who we play. We play teams--you look at St. John's--Temple's going to win the Atlantic 10 probably--that won't be a real popular statement. Siena's going to win the MAAC, they (St. John's) beat'em both on a neutral floor. Where are they picked in our league? 12Th, 13th, something like that? They're 0-3, welcome to Big East basketball!"
While you may occasionally disagree with Mick Cronin on X's and O's on the floor, you can't say that he doesn't speak his mind. Truth be told, UC would be far more competitive in the old Conference USA, but that's old news now.
We all certainly want wins now, but the ultimate goal is to win them in March where this team has faltered the last two years. Out of 16 teams, there's only two that are unblemished in the Big East as I write this (Villanova and Pitt). Both of those schools survived near misses on the road.
The odds of "running the table" in this league are about as likely as me being granted eligibility to join the team and compete with Alex Eppensteiner or Eddie Tyree to be UC's latest "Human Victory Cigar". It's not happening. (Plus, I'd disobey Mick at the end by not holding the ball and throwing a shot up to take advantage of the "PT"!)
The key to winning the Big East is not losing sight of the "big picture".
" We need to understand the grind and how to grind, for lack of a better term," said Cronin.
"You've got to grind through this league, it's not going to be pretty. You've got to buckle your chinstrap and grind. You've got to understand that other teams at times are going to play well in the game. We've got to make sure that we win in the end. If we can eliminate runs, we'll be fine."
This is for those of you (and trust me, I've done the same) that want to throw your arms up in frustration after a disappointing loss. The season never comes down to one game until it's the last game. At last check, as long as you're still in the hunt, the last game is at least two months away. I've seen maturity in the young players in the last two months and it goes to reason that more would take place in the next two.