KOCH: West Coast Becoming A Second Home For Bearcats In NCAA Play
March 13, 2017

By Bill Koch
GoBearcats.com 

HARTFORD – Most teams respond with jubilation when they’re picked to play in the NCAA Tournament. Some dance on for the TV camera, others simply cheer and applaud their good fortune.

The University of Cincinnati Bearcats might have done some of that, too, Sunday when they were alone together watching the tournament draw on television. But UC coach Mick Cronin certainly appeared subdued when he talked to reporters after learning that UC would play in its seventh-straight NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps that’s understandable considering that the Bearcats learned their NCAA fate shortly after absorbing a 71-56 loss to SMU in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game. But the fact that they’ll be shipped to the West Coast for the third time in the last four years could have had something to do with it too.

The Bearcats, who were seeded sixth in the South Region, will take a 29-5 record into the tournament and will play the winner of the Dayton play-in game between No. 11 seeds Kansas State and Wake Forest on Friday in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, which is located 2,299.4 miles from Cincinnati. 

The team watched its name come up in its XL Center locker room, after which Cronin and junior forward Gary Clark walked over to the interview room to answer questions from a smattering of reporters about the game and their draw. When they were finished, they quietly boarded a bus for the airport and the return flight to Cincinnati.

It was a rather bizarre scene when compared with some past years when the atmosphere was far more festive and with a lot more local media representatives on hand to record the moment.

Cronin chose not to discuss the possible reasons behind the Bearcats’ seeding or the decision by the selection committee to send them so far away from home again.


 

 

“I’m just gonna focus on basketball,” he said. “We’ve had a great year and I’m gonna focus on coaching my team, try to go out there and win two games in our third trip to the West Coast in the last four years in the NCAA Tournament.” 

Not only were the Bearcats assigned to a less than ideal location from a geographical standpoint, they received a challenging draw. Both Kansas State and Wake Forest enter the tournament with pedestrian records, but they play in two of the most competitive conferences in the country. Kansas State (20-13) has been battle-tested in the Big 12, Wake Forest (19-13) in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

If UC wins its first-round game, it will probably have to face No. 3 seed UCLA, a team with a potent offense and one of the most talented players in the country in Lonzo Ball. The Bruins open against No. 14 seed Kent State of the Mid-American Conference. Should the Bearcats survive the second round, they might have to face No. 2 seed Kentucky, which opens its tournament by taking on No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky.

Cronin commiserated with the parents of his players who will have to travel a long distance to see their sons play.

“Here’s the downside,” he said. “And this is not just for us. Troy Caupain, three of four years, he and Kevin Johnson and Zack Tobler go the NCAA Tournament. They’re in Spokane twice and Sacramento once. It’s really not easy for their families. Other than that, and that’s a big thing, we don’t believe in excuses. That won’t be talked about at all on our end.”

The Bearcats have been looking forward to the NCAA Tournament for weeks. But instead of starting off on a high note, they’ll first have to shake off the effects of their loss to SMU. That shouldn’t be a huge problem, though, for a team that still believes it has what it takes to make a deep run, even if the road ahead appears littered with obstacles.

“There’s no room for error,” Clark said. 

This will be the 31st NCAA Tournament for the Bearcats. They’ve won two national championships, with six Final Fours, eight Elite Eights and 10 Sweet Sixteens. Last year, they lost by two points to St. Joseph’s in the first round when Octavius Ellis’ follow shot that would have tied the game was ruled to have been released a split second after time had expired. The year before, they knocked off Purdue in the first round before losing to Kentucky.

UC has played in 21 of the last 26 NCAA Tournaments and has an overall record of 44-29. Its last appearance in the Sweet 16 was in 2012 when it beat Texas and Florida State in Nashville before losing to Ohio State in Boston.

Whatever happens this time, the Bearcats will remain among impressive company as one of eight teams to have played in the last seven NCAA tournaments. The other seven are Duke, Kansas, Gonzaga, Michigan State, North Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth and Wisconsin.

“People in our business know how hard it is,” Cronin said. “It’s a team effort in what we do. We take a lot of pride in it. It’s not easy and it’s not easy to do it the way we do it. Winning is one thing. Winning and graduating everybody and trying to have really good kids that represent our university, we’ve worked really hard to get that into a positive light.”

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January 2015.