March 3, 2009
(11:10 a.m.): The exhilarating win vs. West Virginia followed abruptly by the dastardly defeat at Syracuse sums up this point perfectly: the Bearcats are an improved team, no doubt about it, but they're not very close to where they need - and want - to be.
They've moved from playing as one of the worst teams in the Big East to the center of the dial. Not too bad, not too great. But a whole lot better than terrible.
There's honor in that. Remember, when coach Mick Cronin arrived at UC in 2006, he found a bare cupboard (how quickly we forget Cedric McGowan and Ron Allen), a bunch of picked-over junior college players and a fiery freshman in Deonta Vaughn. Two seasons later, that first undermanned team (that did well to win just two Big East games) is a distant memory.
Not that we've forgotten about the wretchedness of watching that squad slog its way through the season. But with the way Cronin and Vaughn and a host of underclassmen have lifted the program to the middle of the conference, it makes one think about how quickly this problem could have been lost.
South Florida was bad two seasons ago. The Bulls are still bad.
Rutgers was bad two seasons ago. The Scarlet Knights are still bad.
DePaul was bad two seasons ago. The Blue Demons are even worse today.
UC was bad two seasons ago. The Bearcats are better now.
That's progress, that's putting the program in a better position in which you found it. But still, it's not good enough for Cronin and his Bearcats. They're mediocre in this conference, light years better than they were in 2006-07, but still, they want more.
"We've made tremendous strides in building our program from nothing," Cronin said. "Zero personnel. It's a lot easier to go from last to sixth than it is from sixth to first. The hardest part of building our program is still ahead of us. The (top teams) are a lot harder to jump over there than others, because they're totally committed to what they do and they give unbelievable effort at all times. That's what we face. That's the hardest part of the climb we still aspire to make. We have to finish it off, but we're going to have to get a lot tougher to do it."
Cronin illustrates that point to his team on the whiteboard. That's where he'll draw a pyramid. Most of the teams reside at the bottom and at the middle, he explains to his team. It's comfortable and roomy down there with plenty of space for everybody. The apex, though, is where life gets crowded, where you have to fight for your area, where you have to want to stay so very badly.
Right now, the Bearcats are stuck in the middle of that pyramid. They want to reach the top. It probably won't happen this year; it's probably too soon. But Cronin wants UC to get a feeling for what climbing to and staying at the top will require.
"You definitely have to learn that," sophomore guard Alvin Mitchell said. "It's not always about talent. There are some things you have to adjust to. There are certain things you have to do right on the court every night to win, because you're not always going to make shots."
Vaughn, though, must play a big part in getting his team to understand.
"We've made a long climb," Cronin said. "Deonta has been a part of the whole thing, but the message to our leadership - him being the main guy - is that it's going to take even more effort than we've given. As hard as he's played, as much as he's giving to get to where we are right now - and much of it is because of what he's done in the last three years, how hard it's been on him - he can't rest or we're not going to continue to climb."
The problem is that even Vaughn can't be sure how hard the team will have to work in order to break into the top floor of that pyramid of winning. He has no prior example from which he can learn. That, Cronin said, is the challenge of starting a program from scratch.
Clearly, UC, which followed the emotional win against West Virginia with one of its worst performances of the Cronin era against Syracuse, still has far to go. But the Bearcats have risen out of the cellar and into the middle of the conference. For right now, that's not a terrible place to be.