Mission: Defense

The UC Bearcats enter the NCAA Tournament focused on what they do best

Mar 19, 2014 at 10:38 am
click to enlarge Sean Kilpatrick at UC's Senior Night
Sean Kilpatrick at UC's Senior Night

Despite the impressive resuscitation job Mick Cronin has performed on the University of Cincinnati basketball program since he took over as head coach before the 2006-07 season, there have been times of disappointment — embarrassment, even — with Cronin in charge.

Most of that occurred at the front-end of his term, as he rebuilt a program that basically had been torched to the ground. And maybe because it took Cronin's program three years before it finished above .500 and another two years after that until it earned entry into the NCAA tournament, he's not as beloved by the Bearcats fan base as one might expect.

Yes, Cronin's teams are hardly ever the most offensively gifted around, and, yes, in many fans' eyes, Cronin will never be as popular as one of his mentors, Bob Huggins. But Cronin has turned his team from a Big East bottom feeder into what Huggins managed for all those seasons all those years ago: a bonafide national power.

The Bearcats — the No. 5 seed facing off against the 12th-seeded Harvard Crimson on Thursday at 2:10 p.m. in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Spokane, Wash. — proved as much this season by going 27-6 and by dominating the newly formed American Athletic Conference while sharing the league's regular-season title with Louisville. The Bearcats feature one of the best players in school history, Sean Kilpatrick, and the conference’s defensive player of the year, Justin Jackson.

This is a legitimately scary team to face, because even though the Bearcats, who this year accumulated the most wins for the program since the 2001-02 season, are only 5-4 in their last nine games, they rank No. 6 in the country in defense.

Oh, and they also have the trump card that has been a staple of the program since Cronin walked in as the head coach. In essence, it's the notion that most of the world overlooks UC. Nobody respects us, nobody picks us to win, nobody thinks we're all that good, etc, etc.

The feeling rings true this year as well. Immediately after the NCAA tournament selection committee revealed the matchup between the Bearcats and the Crimson, CBS Sports analysts Doug Gottlieb and Seth Davis picked Harvard to win.

Whether it's because one of the 5-12 games almost always provide an upset or two per tournament or because the national observers still believe UC is a touch overrated, those forecasts weren't lost on anybody from UC who spoke to local reporters about it a few minutes after the brackets were unveiled.

When asked about the predictions, Kilpatrick and Jackson basically shrugged off the notion that they should even care. "Everything I expected," Jackson said. "Underdogs." He was referring to the Bearcats as underdogs, not the 12th-seeded Crimson — who, according to betting lines, technically are the underdogs.

But that kind of inferiority complex only intensified Sunday when a 29-5 Louisville squad was surprisingly given a No. 4 seed and a solid SMU team was left out of the field entirely.

"I thought the American Athletic Conference as a whole, I think it'd be very obvious to say that it didn't get a lot of respect from top to bottom," Cronin said.

And as for the prognosticators who think Harvard will advance to the second round against the Michigan State-Delaware winner, Cronin had this to say: "The beauty about those guys picking is they don't go to Vegas and bet, or they'd all be broke. That stuff doesn't matter. We need to worry about what we need to do to beat Harvard."

That won't be a simple task.

Harvard went 26-4 and made the tournament for the third-straight season the Crimson. As a No. 14 seed last season, they knocked off third-seeded New Mexico in the first round — they won't catch the Bearcats by surprise. But Harvard also is good enough to win even if the Bearcats know the danger they'll face.

Five Harvard players, led by Wesley Saunders' 14 points per game, average double-digits, and as CBSSports.com writer Matt Norlander penned, the Crimson are "absolutely capable of winning a game or two. It's a veteran group that is basically incapable of being rattled. It will require the right matchup, but after last year's win against New Mexico, Harvard will surprise nobody. Not bracket pickers, not coaches, not anyone."

And not Mick Cronin.

But the Bearcats' counter to the Crimson offense is the same thing that led them for most of the season. Despite a preseason philosophy change by Cronin that focused on playing a faster pace that would increase the team's scoring output, UC's best attribute is still its defense.

"We have to be the best defensive team in the tournament," said Cronin, whose team will try advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1995-96 season. "You can't harbor any illusions at this time of year. You need to be great in a certain area to advance. We have to be smart enough to know what our formula for success is, and we have to be great at it. Good is not going to be good enough. Our defense is going to have to be dominant. When you're a top-five defensive team in the country, you're not going to all of a sudden advance by being a top-5 offensive team."

And, really, that's the answer to the inferiority complex anyway. A team's defensive effort normally will be overlooked for a flashy opponent's offense. Since Cronin took over, that defense is where the team has excelled. If the Bearcats therefore are overlooked, well, that's their lot in life. And until they can prove that defense really can win them a championship — or at least get them to a Final Four — analysts will continue to have the urge to pick a team like Harvard instead of a team like UC.