Early hype feels different this time

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The Bearcats once again enjoy early success, but the ability of this year's group to understand they haven't arrived could be more positive than any 34-point victory.


CINCINNATI -- The headline sounds eerily familiar. University of Cincinnati, a forgotten entity on the national basketball stage, makes waves with early surge.


Last year at this time the fan base was buzzing in the aftermath of a Maui arrival with wins against Vanderbilt and Maryland. A return trip to the Top 25 for the first time since 2004 followed.


Deonta Vaughn sat at the UC podium along with other UC players and talked about the journey back to the prestigious poll.


"Some of the other players don't know what it feels like to have that weight off your shoulders saying that Cincinnati's not going to be good," he said at the time to the Cincinnati Enquirer.


At that time, there were no guarantees they would be good, though.  


A year later, UC again made its statement. This one came on a dreary night in Cincinnati rather than off the Maui beaches, but was similar all the same. The Bearcats 34-point route of Dayton turned heads across college hoops. Maybe this UC team that lost its two leading scorers has something to it?


The feeling around Fifth Third Arena is UC does have something to it. But the Bearcats feel that way not because what people are saying is true, rather, because they don't believe a lick of it.


"Our guys this year are well aware that what we are doing is get ready to play Big East games and face Big East teams and that is where your fate is decided in our conference," Mick Cronin said. "I don't know if they really knew that last year. I think we were falsely overconfident in the locker room -- too much so.


"I don't have to preach that. Guys understand, you can probably tell when you interview them."

Without doubt. UD won the NIT last year, ended the Bearcats season and returned the majority of its playmakers. To slap a 34-point win on them should have players pumping their chests out a little further. It should have confidence at an all-time high inside the building.


Upon further inspection on Tuesday, nothing changed. Not the attitude, not the perspective, not the confidence. The same methods being preached prior to the win were being pounded after. All this could be talk, but the words and corresponding focus undeniably provide a different soundtrack.


Last year at this time, the Bearcats had made it. They returned to where they felt they belonged. They hoped to keep climbing.


On Tuesday, this team accomplished little more than win another game and take another step toward Dec. 29 against DePaul.


"(The attitude) is still the same because we are working toward Big East play," Darnell Wilks said. "We have to come out whether it is Dayton, Wright State, we have to come out and play hard on defense."


It's a defense which now leads the country in points allowed per game. More importantly, from the stat nerds perspective, the Bearcats are ranked third in the country in points per possession defense at 0.75.


What does that mean?

Last year, No. 1 seeds Duke, Kansas and Kentucky were all in the top 20 in the category; as was national runner-up Butler. The fourth top seed, Syracuse, led the Big East.


"We are older right now and we are playing smarter," Cronin said. "They just have a better understanding. Older guys, maturity --  just like how they know the Big East is going to be tough and they have to continue improve, they decide whether you win or lose." 


Take a look around. UC's not alone in winning. Despite the predicted rise of the Big Ten and down year for the Big East, the conference appears stronger than ever. Seven teams are undefeated. Eleven have only one loss. They are the No. 1 conference by the RPI. 


The Big East now has four of the top 12 teams in the country and six in the Top 25.


St. John's won the Great Alaska Shootout, Connecticut won the Maui Invitational, Syracuse won the Legend's Classic in Atlantic City and Notre Dame won the Old Spice Classic.


"It's not a surprise to (the players)," Cronin said. "They knew it was going to happen. It happens every year. Every year there is somebody that tries to say there's a better conference than the Big East. Every year the Big East has the best conference."


More than last year, this team has an understanding of that.


For now, they're winning. It's happened before. The fact that this team doesn't care they're winning may be the real reason to be optimistic about avoiding last year's 7-11 Big East shortfall.


Whether it leads to more victories is yet to be seen, but knowing they haven't accomplished anything yet is half the battle.


"We are just focused on us," Dion Dixon said. "We have been confident all year, we are going to keep working. Hopefully when the Big East comes around we are going to be ready for that."

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