Before the Bearcats team bus headed to Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, head coach Mick Cronin had something that he wanted his players to stop and look at.
"I huddled the guys on the court at the end of practice and made them look up at the banners on the wall because I don't think they've ever paid attention to that stuff," Mick told me. "We're in that gym every day, but nobody ever really looks up. They said, 'Man, there are a lot of banners,' and I laughed and said, 'I'm talking about the two big ones that say National Championship.'"
As a 6th-seed, Cincinnati is obviously a long shot (75-1 in Vegas) to bring home NCAA Championship banner number three, but two higher seeds -- #8 Butler and #11 VCU -- made it to the Final Four last year and Coach Cronin wants his players to realize that winning six straight games is possible.
"If you turn on ESPN, you'll see a bunch of guys that will tell you that the favorites are going to win and that you have no chance, but you can't let people define who you are or what you're capable of," said Cronin. "The team that stays focused right now, and plays team basketball, and is accountable to each other, and refuses to give in even though the sun is out and spring time is coming, those are the teams that are going to advance. It's not going to be easy."
The road to the Final Four in New Orleans begins on Friday afternoon in Nashville against the 20-13 Texas Longhorns. It's the 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Longhorns, but the first time during the streak that Texas has been a double-digit seed.
"My biggest concern is our opening round game against Texas because they are an 11-seed, and they haven't gotten a lot of publicity this year," said Cronin. "They're a very talented, well-coached team, so that's my biggest concern. I think if we get to Sunday and play Florida State, the guys already know how good Florida State is."
For the second straight year, the Bearcats enter the tournament on a roll. Last year, the 'Cats won six of their last eight before a 15-point win over Missouri in UC's NCAA Tournament opener. This year, Cincinnati has won seven of its last nine, including victories over #17 Louisville, #13 Georgetown, #8 Marquette, and #2 Syracuse.
"You have to get your team ready but keep 'em fresh," said Cronin. "It's a fine line that you have to walk with that. This week, our hardest practice was Wednesday. On Thursday, it will be game prep and fine-tuning in order to be ready to play on Friday. You can't have long, grueling practices at this time of the year - guys just don't have enough left in the tank."
As the players looked up at the championship banners on Wednesday, they were reminded that they will have to "empty the tank" in every remaining game in order to advance.
"I wrapped it up by saying that we can win a championship, but there's a price tag that goes with it," Mick told me. "There's a price tag on everything when you go to the store and we want the most expensive thing in the store. But I want my guys to know that in my belief, if we lose it's our own fault. If we bring toughness, togetherness, and do a better job of executing on offense, we can beat anybody - and we will beat anybody."
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