The conceivably meaningful portion of the college basketball season is about three weeks old, telling us little except what we wanted to hear. The news is pretty good — not that it means anything.
We wanted to know that the University of Cincinnati basketball team is climbing back to a level of esteem. Now we know.
The Bearcats aren’t all the way back, but they won three of their last four in the Big East through last week, rising to match last year’s win total of 13. They’ll almost certainly add up their first winning record in three years, and an NCAA Tournament bid is attainable without miracles.
We wanted to know that Xavier can make reasonably easy work of the Atlantic-10. The Musketeers don’t have to win every game in the league, but they’d won all five they played through last weekend. On Jan. 24, they went to Louisiana State and dumped an 80-70 loss on a good Southeastern Conference team that hadn’t lost at home all year.
The Muskies ended last week ranked No. 13, apparently recovered from an unfortunate December stretch with consecutive losses to Duke and Butler. They haven’t lost any other games, and if they lose another one before the NCAA Tournament it’s at least a mild surprise.
The days of Cincinnati placing two teams in the NCAA Tournament might not be far off. Maybe as soon as March.
Xavier can all but make its plans now. The more challenging scenario is playing in Clifton, where the Bearcats are a middle class team in a deep and powerful league.
The Bearcats are a handsome puppy dog of a basketball team, which means they’re promising but not especially surefooted at the moment. The Bearcats are shy about shooting and not very good at it, but they’re certainly good enough overall to become a lot better.
A team in their position is in ways more engaging than a championship contender because their championship consists in coming up from the bottom to become a contender. To date, the Bearcats haven’t really beaten anyone, but neither have they tripped over a bad loss. For a team built on two juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen, that’s not bad.
By most guesses, the Big East will put nine teams in the NCAA tournament, with a strong possibility that the number will grow to 10 and an outside chance at 11. In essence, UC is the 11th best team in the Big East right now, sitting in a three-way tie for ninth place with Georgetown and Notre Dame. All were 3-4 in the league.
The Bearcats have done what they’re supposed to do, beating the teams that aren’t as good as them. All three of their league wins have come against the league weaklings: Rutgers, DePaul and St. John’s. If nothing else, UC doesn’t belong in the basement.
But can the Bearcats reach up for those two or three wins that would turn them back into the program the Big East thought it was inviting four years ago, before all that Bob Huggins and Andy Kennedy drama? Can they, indeed, be better than the Big East in the next six weeks?
It’s reasonable to assume that any team finishing .500 in a league as good as the Big East ought to be worth an NCAA bid and that anything less would stand as a very heavy argument in opposition. So the task for UC is to at least hit nine wins in the league. That means the Bearcats need six wins in their last 11 league games.
If this year is going to be the year, then the next two weeks is when it’s going to happen. In the next two weeks, the Bearcats play three games combined against Georgetown and Notre Dame, the teams with whom they’re tied. UC really needs to win two of those.
Georgetown comes to Fifth Third Arena Wednesday night on a three-game losing streak, most recently falling to Seton Hall. Notre Dame, which visits UC on Feb. 4, came through this past weekend on a three-game losing streak, and the Irish lost early this month at St. John’s.
Along with the Georgetown and Notre Dame games, the Bearcats also play Villanova and St. John’s in the next two weeks. Should the Bearcats win two of the three against Georgetown and Notre Dame, adding a win a second win against St. John’s, they’re halfway to the six wins they need.
For their final two conference games, UC plays in the lower quadrant against South Florida and Seton Hall. Assuming they win both, they still must dig up one more league win to break even and draw a nod from the NCAA selection committee.
So it comes to a stretch from Feb. 14 through March 1, when UC plays Pittsburgh, Louisville, West Virginia and Syracuse. Pitt is ranked No. 4, Syracuse No. 8 and Louisville No. 12, while West Virginia is Huggins’ return to Clifton with his alma mater on Feb. 26.
Obviously, the Bearcats are working on a thin edge with an outrageously young team in America’s deepest conference. Some fans seem dissatisfied. But three years into a complete overhaul, UC is contending for an NCAA Tournament bid in a league where every 10-day stretch is a three-game losing streak waiting to happen.
The Bearcats aren’t back, but they’re on the way back and, at minimum, we can expect that basketball will be fun again at UC next year. But next year might not have anything on the next six weeks, if this puppy grows a little bigger and stronger.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]