On Saturday, the Bearcats didn't just
earn sole possession of second place in the Big East, they proved they
can handle the best punch of one of the conference's most talented teams and not blink.
CINCINNATI -- Some nights, teams run into a buzzsaw. The inherent nature of the Big East guarantees it.
That's how great squads lose in the 18-game gauntlet of the Big East. It's why the mere discussion of a team surviving conference play undefeated meets a dismissive head shake and crazy scowl.
The league contains too much talent, players and coaches alike.
When a team that entered the game 15th in the conference from behind the 3-point line buries 11 of their first 17, the signs start to appear. When their best scorer goes off for a career-high 39 points, 13 rebounds and six assists like Maalik Wayns did, it would be easy to throw up the hands and concede.
These days happen.
Only, a funny thing happened on the way to one of those days. The Bearcats won anyway.
A team with four McDonald's All-Americans showed up in Fifth Third Arena and threw their best punch, one that would make Floyd Mayweather quiver. Yet, Cincinnati remained standing, victorious.
"That says a lot, really," Yancy Gates said. "It actually says how good we are."
How good are they? The answer to that question came into clearer focus on Saturday.
The pressing Wildcats defense typically terrorizes guards. Only four teams this season managed single-digit turnovers against them this year and none with less than seven.
Yet, UC only gave the ball away three times. Three. The tally tied a school record. Possibly even more remarkable, the Bearcats relinquished one turnover after halftime of a game that didn't see either team lead by more than five points for the final 18 minutes.
To win in February and March, to survive the intense atmospheres and must-win urgency, teams need great guard play. Saturday's effort will win nearly every time.
"Their guards were outstanding; they really were," Villanova coach Jay Wright said, admitting he's never seen a team only commit three turnovers against him. "And the balance of their guards, they spread it out and it keeps them fresh. They isolate different guys. They share the ball with each other. They are very impressive."
Even when missing shots, the impact resonated. Cashmere Wright's 2 of 14 effort continued an ugly spell of shooting. Yet, his six steals, five assists and five free throws altered the complexion of the game. Sean Kilpatrick, battling through a leg injury that slowed him the majority of the day, still managed a quiet 14 points. Dion Dixon, who entered the game making 8 of his last 44 3-pointers, buried his first four of the game on his way to his second-consecutive 22-point effort.
Still, when Villanova pressed the guards, the ball slipped inside to Yancy Gates left without help on the post.
Wright called Gates the perfect complement. With each passing game, Gates finds more comfort in the four-guard attack. With 16 points, nine boards and three assists on Saturday, he showed the inside effectiveness he can provide.
"Oh yeah, especially from early in the season where every time I touched it there was somebody digging," Gates said. "Now I sit back and play my position, they are so worried about the guards driving and the 3s, once I do touch it, it's one on one."
Suddenly, with multiple facets clicking, an offense containing as much flow as a blood clot in November, pumps life into this team's postseason expectations Saturday.
For Cronin, that's the lesson learned from the 82-78 victory.
"It speaks to our ability to score the ball," he said. "This is the kind of game you weren't going to win if you couldn't score. When another team has got people putting the ball in the basket the way they were you have to be talented enough to answer them. We don't have those eight-minute scoring droughts that we were famous for. That's the difference."
Postseason aspirations are built on games like Saturday. The combination of talent, effort and execution raise the ceiling. Saying you want to win means little, being able to do so when Wayns drops 39 points means more.
Cronin wouldn't go so far as to call it his team's best of the season. Stopping No. 11 Georgetown on the road wipes away that contention.
"My business, your best win is your last win," he said. "So, best win of the year, I'll give it to you."
In actuality, the shot at best win of the year sits on the doorstep of the next three weeks. The defending national champions, Huggins' Mountaineers and the No. 1 team in the country await.
Sitting all alone in second place in the conference, the Bearcats will receive their best shot. Following Saturday, they enter with confidence they can take it and win.
"It's fun," Cronin said. "I think we are capable of playing well. I think we are evolving."