The first loss of the season for the eighth-ranked Bearcats comes with a lesson in offensive toughness in the eyes of Mick Cronin.
CINCINNATI -- The leaner, faster Bearcats molded their bodies to run track meets and wear opponents down with depth and waves on defense. Playing an uptempo style sounds infallible stumping on the sports stag and booster circuit.
Inside the bright lights of a national showdown pressure-cooker against New Mexico, those philosophical musings are worth the letterhead their printed on.
"Teams are going to scout, they are going to get back on defense," Cronin said. "That's why you got to be able to dance to every song they are playing at the dance."
An interesting analogy at the postgame podium following the Lobos 55-54 win handing UC its first loss of the season. In truth, the Bearcats spent too much time dancing while around the rim and not enough time finishing aggressively.
The imposing presence of 7-footer Alex Kirk bullied UC into a game of offensive execution and physicality they'd prove unable able to handle. Repeatedly, the Bearcats lined up point-blank shots and repeatedly their attempts to maneuver around desperate rim defense of the Lobos rolled away.
Truthfully, the Bearcats made every aspect of this game work for them. They hit 11 of 26 from 3-point range and did a relatively good job keeping New Mexico off the free throw line. They held the Lobos to 55 points where they came in averaging 71.5.
All that stood between UC and victory was about 10 feet of paint. Inside that range, they missed 21 shots. Twenty-one.
And lost by one point.
They missed 15 shots in the paint in the first half alone.
"Our finishing is beyond soft," Cronin said. "We play against each other every day. It's not like we are small. We've gotten soft, success has made us soft. We think things are going to be easy."
Beginning Thursday, any ease lives in a pile next to Mayan Armageddon and Steelers playoff hopes. UC played four of their first 12 games against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100. Starting against No. 39 New Mexico, they play all but one game against teams in his Top 100 (DePaul 111). That continues with a team he places in the top ten, Pittsburgh, on Tuesday.
Finding strength and finish around the rim cost the Bearcats a game Thursday. No other reason. They were good enough to beat a quality New Mexico team in every way shape and form except for maybe the most overlooked in all of college basketball - making layups.
Shooting 9 of 38 inside the 3-point line will leave them wondering what should have been.
"Last two games we've been in a drought when it came down to that," said Sean Kilpatrick, who scored 15 points on 5 of 22 shooting. "We'll get through it."
Cronin will lead them now with an illustration of how lacking toughness equates to the loss column. Singling out any one player wouldn't be fair on a night most everyone enjoyed an opportunity.
Knowing the game would have been any easy win if not for the struggles around the rim falls somewhere between solace and eternal frustration depending on how close your seat is to Cronin. On one hand, there's little reason to believe this team will continue to miss so many shots around the basket, on the other, to give a quality win away by what should be a simple task is Morton's on flesh.
The problem opens up a concern about UC's interior scoring. On this night, the four/five spot contributed eight points on 4 of 16 shooting. For the Bearcats to reach the elite level they aspire to, Cronin knows this team needs a hardened edge - not only in their defensive demeanor, by aggression in finish from the bigs.
This loss can serve as a wake-up call in that regard. At least this week in the practice gym buried underneath Lindner Center, that will be the hope.
Teams without an edge in Big East play endure dull seasons.
"Their physicality bothered us," Cronin said. "I give them a lot of credit for that. Things have been too easy for us. We were going to get taught a lesson sooner or later."
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