Conversation with Mick Cronin, Part I

| No TrackBacks
Friday morning, I was able to sit down for a long conversation with UC hoops coach Mick Cronin. You may have heard of him. He's coming off his signature season running the program where the team went 26-9, 11-7, made the NCAA tournament and lost in the second round to eventual national champ UConn. The rebuilding portion of his massive project appears to be on the downward side of the mountain as he enters Year Six. The new job of holding a sustainable winning model began Thursday with the team's first practice.

Before starting that, however, we touched on anything and everything UC basketball. We discussed the always galvanizing topic of the non-conference schedule, the games he tried to get and the games he thinks are close. Also, he estimated how much closer he is sitting to the cool kids table in recruiting. From there topics ranged from season ticket prices to the importance of his new contract to why Doug Gottlieb has no idea what he's talking about. And, of course, we discussed the important pieces of this year's team and what could curtail them from meeting lofty expectations.

A breakdown of these topics will come in three parts over the next few days. Today we'll focus on Cronin's view of the non-conference schedule and a number of other popular topics coming out of last season. Part II will delve into Cronin's forthright talk about his new contract and what it means in the big picture of UC basketball. Part III will focus on the 2010-11 Bearcats and the outlook toward a return to the NCAA tournament. Without further delay, here you go:

--- Few topics rile up the fan base quite like the non-conference schedule talk. The 2011-12 version looks pretty similar to the 2010-11 edition. In particular, the non-conference home slate lacks the star power many fans would hope see at Fifth Third.

Here's the slate, with their KenPom rankings in parenthesis. FWIW, there are 345 teams in college basketball:

Alabama State (295), Jacksonville State (279), Presbyterian (263), Northwestern State (258), Marshall (86), Miami (189), Radford (331), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (339) and Chicago State (344).

There is also a game against Oklahoma (137) at US Bank Arena.

The lack of a power team at home doesn't come for lack of effort, though.

"I really tried as hard as I could to get a bigtime game on ESPN or CBS," Cronin said. "I was trying to get a name team in a primetime game. Which, fortunately for us, there was a time when maybe you were forced to play Xavier, when they were in the MCC -- fortunately for both of us, we have a built in game against a ranked team. So, you got one. I think Oklahoma is going to surprise people. Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches in basketball. They only lost one player off that team and signed a bunch of guys. They are going to be more formidable than people think - and so will Marshall."

Cronin's biggest target for the non-conference big fish was in the Big East/SEC Challenge, where the Bearcats drew a trip to play Georgia. Other options would have been Kentucky and Alabama, both ranked in the Top 25.

That being said, I lobbied the Big East to match us with Kentucky in the Big East/SEC shootout," Cronin said. "I lobbied hard for it."

UK will host St. John's and Alabama will host Georgetown.

Cronin also worked closely with ESPN chasing after another Big 12 opponent in Texas A&M, who was a 7 seed in last year's NCAA tournament. He said the game was close to happening.

"Then they had a coaching change and that kind of fell through," Cronin said.

Hope is certainly not lost that UC won't be landing a few bigger non-conference games in the future. While playing too many can be detrimental to the season-long health of the team, he would like to make a bigger splash outside of the Big East.

"We would like to start playing Kentucky, Ohio State and Indiana," Cronin said. "In defense of some of those schools, Kentucky for one, they have a lot of rivalry games they have to play. They play North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville every year. How many of those do you really want to play? We all know the deal with Ohio State. I think it would be a great game for both teams, but it is what it is."

If you want to know what "it is," you can read this. (Hint: OSU isn't interested)

Cronin continued along the regional rivalry train of thought, though.

My a two-year deal, home-and-home," he said. "I have a good relationship with the coaching staff at Indiana and they have been busy rebuilding their program. They are close. That's a game we have talked about a little bit. That's the thing people have to realize. The other side has got to think it's good for them, too. What happens with those types of games, the (opposing) coaching staff has got to feel like if you lose to them it doesn't hurt you because it is a quality game."

The great news for UC and the fans being, they're close.

Hopefully we are at a point where we are viewed that way," he said. "Well, if we lose to them they are a tournament team it is not going to hurt."

Still, with three road games in December at Georgia, Xavier and Wright State
, there are challenges.

"It's not walk in the park," Cronin said.

The coach understands the frustration from fans, but he also walks a fine line between entertainment and developing a basketball team. Take a look around the Big East, very few teams play challenging non-conference schedules. In fact, pretty much none of them.

"I understand, you want entertainment, you want to go see a good game every game," he said. "But a fan understands it is a long year. Our schedule is brutal. Look at January. You have to develop a team so you can play well in January, February and make a run in March. That's what this is about. It's about developing your team into a winner, if it is about entertainment let's just go to four basketball conferences and let 64 teams beat each other up every year."
--- On the back end of the conversation about schedule and what it takes to land bigtime games, Cronin touched on a topic that came up occasionally last season, which was media disrespect.

While in most instances, that can be tossed away to mean very little, in the case of recruiting and building a marketable brand that CBS, ESPN and the like want to put into major matchups, that plays a major role. You can argue had there been a more positive spin earlier on what UC was accomplishing it might have made a difference come time to matchup the BE/SEC Challenge.

"I thought we were unfairly talked about last year and I thought it scared our fans a little bit," he said. "I just kept quiet about it because you have to focus on winning games, but it was ridiculous."

He went on to discuss the fact that Missouri, who was ranked all season, showed how they compared to the Bearcats in the NCAA tournament. Remember, UC didn't crack the Top 25 despite their success only briefly prior to playing Xavier then returned near the end of the season.

Then as tournament time came around, some pundits were still criticizing the Bearcats.

We were nowhere near the bubble last year, at any point, despite what Doug Gottlieb said," Cronin said. "I know Doug, despite what he goes on there and says, when you are a six seed you are nowhere near the bubble. Ever. Ever. Because everybody from seven to 12, 90 percent were at-large and some had play-in games. There are 20-25 teams you were ahead of. That means we were anywhere from 20-25 on the board. We were nowhere near the bubble."

--- In the end, the area it hurt the most was in recruiting. A favorite analogy of Cronin's is when he's recruiting the game is all about who is sitting at the cool kids table. Recruiting is a popularity contest.

Hence, why Cronin felt burnt with the lack of respect received, particularly in the polls.

"What hurt us last year was we had a great year, but I thought we were treated unfairly in the media," he said. "The voting in the Top 25 was a joke all year. Missouri was ranked all year and we were not. If anybody watched a game in the NCAA tournament, we were playing with two injured starters in a game we basically dominated. That tells you how ridiculous the rankings can be at times. It can become a popularity contest, but I think now we proved ourself."

They did. And make no mistake, this offseason, the Bearcats were as popular as they have been in six years. They are currently being selective in their recruiting because they have very few scholarships available.

"No doubt about it with younger kids," he said. "They know when you win. That's why this year is a big year for us. Sustained winning is important. How much fan support you have is important. Kids want to know are you playing to packed houses, are you playing on television? Which we are playing on television a whole lot more now. That is going to help us a lot. Our attendance at the end of the year last year was tremendous. Hopefully we can continue that."

-- Ah, yes, attendance. Another topic Cronin hears about all the time are the breakdowns of the season-ticket packages vs the three-game packs and deals of that sort.

Are the packages more affordable than season tickets? Yes. But more goes into it than that.

"When you buy a season ticket at University of Cincinnati for men's basketball, you are supporting women's basketball and every other sport we have. Your UCATS donation and price of that ticket, you can't equate it to the three-game package, the three-game package is going to be cheaper. Trust me in the economy I completely understand.

"Why I bring it up is, fans say the expense of a season ticket. I am telling the short answer, when you buy a season ticket to men's basketball there is a price built in supporting the rest of the sports here. WE have over 500 student athletes that need your support. That is just the fact. The hardcore facts. They are supporting them by buying season tickets to men's basketball. That is a trade off. In this economy, it is a tough reality when you are in a city with a lot of other entertainment options."

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: