We take a break from the all football, all the time blog standard to interject a little basketball checkup. With this being the final bye week of the season and 10 consecutive weeks of opponent analysis and unearthing of unnecessary, obscure statistics ahead, figured I might take this brief reprieve to take the temperature of UC basketball one month before practice opens.
Plus, sitting down in the offseason with Mick Cronin might be one of the great pasttimes of covering UC athletics. He'll always allow something interesting and give an unfiltered perspective of what's happening around him. And right now -- there's plenty.
Notre Dame defection, release of a brutal schedule, arrival of 7-footers and, of course, learning to live life after sinking a hole-in-one at a prestigious Louisville golf club with a Bearcats logo ball.
For Part I, we'll focus on scheduling, which has become more like choreographing an intricate ballet than lining up basketball games these days. Neutral-site TV extravaganzas, aircraft carriers, disappearance of home-and-home and national bias leave UC in a unique position balancing non-conference with one final year of the current Big East setup.
For those unfamiliar with the schedule, here is the link.
The highlights are a Las Vegas Tournament around Thanksgiving featuring UNLV, Oregon and Iowa State, home game against Alabama in the Big East/SEC Challenge, sneaky difficult trip to play Marshall in Charleston, WV, the media spotlight of the Crosstown Classic and a visit from preseason Top 25 New Mexico.
Oh yeah, then the Big East run with arguably the toughest four double-up opponents in the league.
You'd have a difficult time finding opposition to this being the most difficult schedule in Cincinnati basketball history. After two years of coming under fire for schedule strength, Cronin will sit on the opposite end of the spectrum this year.
One of the biggest gets in the process was locking in a home-and-home with New Mexico, expected to be around the Top 25 in most polls. UC will return the favor to The Pit -- one of the toughest places in the country to play -- next year.
Finding the match didn't come easy.
"A team like New Mexico is hard because there's so many teams that think they're too good to play you. You gotta kinda find another Top 25 team -- which we both are -- that doesn't get enough respect from some teams that maybe get overrated and think they're too good to play you. So right now, UNLV is another one but we could end up playing them. That's kinda how our tournament came together. You know, Iowa State was really good last year, UNLV and Oregon so, you gotta kinda find teams. Because people say 'Why don't you play Kansas home and home?', well because they don't wanna play us home and home."
Cronin weighed other options, but a piece of the puzzle wouldn't fit. It's remarkable how few like teams exist in the vast structure of college hoops. Everyone believes they are better than they actually are and feel unwilling to prove their worth -- at least not without ESPN stepping in.
"Gonzaga's a (similar) team like that but it's a long travel. Do you really wanna fight that travel? There's other teams that will call us, then it's too late. Yeah, it would've been great but our schedule's done. Somebody calls that we like and it would be a great game maybe but you're already playing Alabama that day in the Big East/SEC Challenge so we can't do it. So there's not a lot of teams out there in the same boat as you talking about finding good, quality non-league games -- people that are willing to play home and home. Very few, it's hard. You just gotta keep digging and you cant be afraid. I mean, nobody wants to go to New Mexico because they sell out The Pit and it's a huge home-court advantage and nobody wants to go so you gotta be willing to do that."
In Mick's eyes, the most underrated game of all those on the schedule this year will be Marshall. UC fans should be familiar with how this can turn out after the Herd beat the Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena last year. Dennis Tinnon, who averaged a double-double last year for Marshall was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA -- he finished with 14 points and 15 boards against UC last year.
It's one of those games nobody will properly appreciate the win and many will hold a loss against UC.
"People don't realize how tough of a game Marshall at Marshall is going to be. People have no idea. They should. And the fact that their best player got granted a sixth-year of eligibility, that's gonna be a brutal game. We need to try to travel fans to Marshall as much as we can. That's not an easy game."
The other anticipated premier game on the slate is the Big East/SEC Challenge. UC will host Alabama, who should be lingering around the Top 25, if not in it by Dec. 1.
Cronin made no secret of his desire to be matched up with Kentucky in the event, providing national and regional flair. It never happened. Instead, UK ended up playing at Notre Dame.
The coach is happy with Alabama, but knows what the UK game would have meant to his team and the fan base.
"Oh I tried as hard as I could," Cronin said.
What's their conference's reasoning behind not wanting to do it?
"They don't give you reasons," he said.
This year still sets up to be the perfect storm with all but WVU back in basketball and the increased difficulty of the non-league schedule. Cronin made a point in recent years that his team benefited physically, mentally and emotionally from an easier run through the non-conference. Their play down the stretch the past two years validated the argument.
Time will tell if it's too much.
"You look at Rutgers got everybody back and they're gonna have a great year. Then our other double-ups are Pitt, Notre Dame and UConn. So if Rutgers has the year I think they're gonna have, I think our double-ups will all be against teams in the top eight or nine of the league. So, arguably, this could be the toughest schedule top to bottom, aside from a few bye games, that's ever been played here in a regular season in the history of Cincinnati basketball. If all four double-ups end up against teams that all end up in the top 10 of the Big East, that alone is enough."
Is there a way to fix the schedule imbalance, double-up issues?
"It's the way it's gonna be in every league. There's too many teams. You got leagues set up for two divisions in football where they can play seven games and there's eight teams in their division. Everything's set up for football so you're thinking along the lines of what would be best for basketball, but that's not how conferences are formed."
The double-ups are supposed to contain two top-tier teams and two bottom-tier teams. Cronin has a tough time deciphering where his bottom-tier teams are coming from.
"I look at our double-ups and think, did somebody not know that Rutgers started three freshmen guards all year last year and sat out a McDonalds All-American transfer? Did somebody not know that? Because I'm looking for who is our bottom tier team? It can't be them."
Pittsburgh finished last year in the bottom tier. So, I suppose UConn could be there next season with all the turmoil surrounding their program, but...
"Wow, they got pretty good players on their team. I don't know, you just, you never know because you don't know who's gonna be better. Two years ago we were picked 12th and it took everything I could not to laugh at the Big East media day and get up and walk out and say this a joke. When we finished 5th and could've easily finished 3rd, you know, if we could make free-throws. So that's why you just don't know. Like I'm saying, I think Rutgers will be really good and I think they won't be picked high but they're a top eight team. But I could be wrong, it could be somebody else I just think the teams with good solid returning players are gonna win."
Cronin went on to point out the chance the conference moves to a 20-team schedule with six double-ups when the turnover begins next season. With TV dictating many of those matchups, he envisions even more imbalance with the better programs drawing the short straw.
"As long as you're a better team, its gonna make it harder. They do double-ups because that's how TV wants double-ups."
I was curious about one final scheduling question in the midst of the changes in the conference, how open will Cronin be to scheduling Pitt, WVU, Syracuse or Notre Dame once they are gone from the Big East? Is there a thought from the conference to exclude them?
"When it comes to scheduling, I have the same answer for everyone - I'm always gonna do what's in the best interest of Cincinnati -- the University of Cincinnati men's basketball program. If we think it benefits us and our program, we'll do it. That's our business. We're trying to promote it, we're trying to grow it, we're trying to develop it, we're trying to do what's in the best interest of our business. So you know, we don't do things for other people. If it's not good for us and our best interest and it helps us, then -- you wouldn't do it for your company. This is just how we operate. So you know, we're not gonna do it for fun. What would make it in our best intersect? National television, you know, great exposure game like New Mexico."