Just The Beginning For The Bearcats

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Describe the perfect day?


"I wake up in a hotel in New York City and prepare to play in the Big East Tournament championship game.  Win the game and have dinner afterwards at some great restaurant in New York with friends and family.  That would be...that's going to be a great day."


--Mick Cronin in my first in-depth interview with him after becoming Cincinnati's head coach in 2006.


Senior Day represents an ending.  But this season, for the first time in years, it feels like the UC Bearcats are just getting started.


On Wednesday night they'll take the court at Madison Square Garden as a legitimate candidate to do some damage in the Big East Tournament.  Four days later, they'll watch the NCAA Selection Show knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that "Cincinnati" will be on the bracket.


"I thought we left a couple of wins on the table during the regular season, but the fortunate thing about college basketball vs. college football is that it really doesn't matter - it's all about March," head coach Mick Cronin told me after Sunday's 69-47 win over #17 Georgetown.  "I don't believe in just making the tournament - what's the point if you're not going to win games?  That doesn't make sense to me.  And having a team that hasn't been in it, I'm really trying to hammer that home with our guys so that when we're in the tournament, we're not just happy to be there."


After being picked to finish 12th in the Big East Preseason poll, UC wound up in a tie for 6th place with West Virginia.  That earned the Bearcats a first round bye in the Big East Tourney and Cincinnati will face the winner of Tuesday's Villanova/USF game on Wednesday at 7:00pm.  If the Bearcats win, they would face Notre Dame on Thursday night at 7:00pm.


After having the 31st-most votes in last week's AP Poll, there's a chance that Cincinnati will be a Top 25 team going into the post-season, but Coach Cronin says he likes things just the way they are.


"We prefer to stay unranked," Mick said.  "There are three teams that are ranked in the Top 25 (#16 UConn, #17 Georgetown, #19 Villanova) that we finished ahead of in the conference.  I can keep telling our team that the voters are disrespecting us.  We're going to go to New York and try to play for the championship and at the same time try to earn a higher seed for the NCAA Tournament.  That's been our goal all year.


"People say that 'Mick should shut-up' or 'Coach Cronin is whining.'    Well, we've been disrespected all year and it does matter.  It's kept us off ESPN and off the highlight shows and that stuff affects recruiting.  The reason why I comment on it is that it also affects my players.  These kids have hopes and dreams and they deserve to be talked about like the other Big East teams that are having good years.  And they deserve to be talked about as individuals when they have good games.  So I'm going to fight for my team and my players.  If people want to take shots at me, they can have at it.  The only opinion that I care about belongs to a little 4-year-old girl named Samantha Jean."


The Bearcats will enter the post-season as one of the hottest teams in the Big East, as they closed the regular season by winning six of their last eight, including four on the road.  When the 'Cats struggled down the stretch in recent seasons, Coach Cronin frequently cited their lack of Big East experience.  Appropriately, he attributes this year's strong regular season finish to the fact that he has veterans.


"You cannot understate the importance of having upperclassman that know how to practice, how to approach game preparation, and what it takes to win at this level," Coach Cronin said.  "That is by far the hardest thing I've had to deal with in the rebuilding process - getting guys to adhere to a standard of excellence.  And get it to a point where it can be continued by the groups behind them.  This year it's been different.  What we went through last year really helped us this year.  Our guys knew that we lost a lot of close games or we could have been in the NCAA Tournament last year.  I didn't have to give the same speeches and beat my head against the wall nearly as much.  Hopefully, going forward we won't have to deal with that anymore because the winning ways are established and that way we operate on a daily basis is established." 


As the 7th seed, the Bearcats are obviously still a long-shot to win the Big East Tournament.  But Coach Cronin sounds confident that his team is going to play well in New York. 


"I know we sold our tickets out and have a lot of fans coming and we're going to do our best to keep you spending your money in the Big Apple," Mick told me.  "We know it's not cheap there, but hopefully you saved and we'll keep you around up there."


Who knows?  Perhaps it will end with the perfect day.


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