The University of Cincinnati Bearcats men's basketball team is 7-0. A quick glance at the ’Cats next two games (Utah Valley on Dec. 11 and Georgia Southern on Dec. 14, both home games) reveals that a 9-0 start is highly likely before heading into their first real road tests: Dec. 18 at Oklahoma and Dec. 21 at Miami (OH), both of which are currently struggling with 3-5 records.
Throw in a game Dec. 23 at home against St. Francis (PA), which right now is 2-6, and it looks like the ’Cats could open the year with a 12-0 record and no doubt a spot in the Top 25.—-
But how good is this team, Mick Cronin's fifth as head coach? It's hard to tell. The combination of weak competition (Danny Cross and four other Colerain scrubs could probably beat Savannah St.) and the fact that only three of the first dozen will be true road games leaves much doubt as to UC's viability going into the always-rugged Big East portion of the schedule. (Big East teams make up five of the top nine and eight of the top 25 in the current AP poll.) Making matters tougher on the evaluation front is that very few of UC's games have been on TV. (I've only seen one game, which did little to bolster my confidence.)
Besides holding opponents to a 36 percent field-goal percentage (again, look at the competition), it's not like UC's been very impressive on paper so far. Despite playing the fifth-most minutes on the team, redshirt freshman guard Sean Kilpatrick, who's been a nice surprise, is averaging more points per game (11.7) than three-year starter Yancy Gates (10.6), a perpetual disappointment who's supposedly more aggressive this year.
If the recent past is any indication, keep your expectations in check. In 2009, UC opened 10-3 before finishing 19-16, 7-11 in the Big East. In 2008, they started 10-2 before finishing 18-14, 8-10 in conference play. Both years they just missed getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which is the first step in what many hope is an eventual return to the team's Bob Huggins-era success (which is a pipe dream for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that Huggins coached in the far less competitive Conference USA, but that's a blog post for another day).
It comes down to this for the third year in a row: Can UC go 9-9 in Big East conference play, which would seem enough to yield that elusive NCAA bid? I'll give you my opinion after the Miami game.