This University of Cincinnati basketball season began with more hype than any in Mick Cronin’s seven years running the program. Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance and returning three talented, experienced guards helped the ’Cats start the season ranked in the Top 25. Then the Bearcats went out to Las Vegas and beat a couple of solid teams — Iowa State and Oregon — in an early season tournament, eventually winning their first 12 games and entering the Top 10 for the first time under Cronin with a No. 8 ranking on Dec. 24.
Things didn’t quite go according to plan after that. The Bearcats’ pre-Big East offensive output, fueled largely by overwhelming smaller teams with defense, didn’t translate to conference play, and an injury to Cashmere Wright on Jan. 15 set the team back for weeks. The Bearcats still finished the season strong enough to feel secure on Selection Sunday, earning a 10-seed in the Midwest Region where they’ll play Creighton at 2:45 p.m. Friday. Only five other Big East teams have matched UC’s three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, proving how difficult it is to get through the Big East and into the tournament consistently.
Before UC’s streak began it had been six years since UC’s last trip to the real tournament, and it’s telling that even a disappointing year resulted in a tournament berth. Cronin’s team will look to partially retool next year with a talented recruiting class joining senior-to-be Sean Kilpatrick in a new conference that will be much less competitive, but also easier to win.
But before we set our sights on the future of the program — one that looks bright despite the uncertainty surrounded the university’s conference affiliation — we’ll look back at the top 10 moments of the ’Cats’ 2012-13 season. Despite the frustrating second half, there were many awesome dunks and cool things that happened.
10. Global Sports Invitational Championship
Things were all sunshine and puppies for UC back in November when the team sported a No. 24 ranking heading into the Global Sports Invitational tournament in Las Vegas. The Bearcats took care of business out West, winning four straight games, including the championship against an Oregon team that went on to finish second in the Pac-12. UC was hoping to test itself against UNLV, which was also ranked at the time, but Oregon beat the Rebels and then got dealt with.
9. Crosstown Shootout
This year’s Crosstown Showdown (or whatever) was annoyingly overdramatic and played at U.S. Bank Arena because of last season’s massive postgame fight between UC and Xavier players. The game went down without incident this year, mostly because UC was much better than X and easily won it 60-45. The annual contest is scheduled to be played at U.S. Bank Arena one more time next year, then the schools will decide whether or not to go back to alternating between campuses and letting the student sections yell at the other team as much as they like.
8. Titus Dunks
Bearcat fans saw a different version of Titus Rubles during the early season — the 6-foot-7 junior college transfer was far too athletic for out-of-conference teams to defend, and he threw down a one-handed put-back jam against Wright State that made him look like a legit Big East caliber player. Unfortunately, Rubles’ lack of offensive production was a major issue for the team as it struggled down the stretch. At least we know he has it in him somewhere.
7. Attendance Increases
There’s one thing universities can count on after firing a hugely successful coach and forcing the new guy to rebuild from scratch — fans aren’t going to watch the team lose. This year’s nonconference attendance was up over last season, then the team drew more than 10,000 to seven of its nine home conference games, including sellouts against Marquette, Pitt and Georgetown. Fans are again expecting Cincinnati basketball to be good every year.
6. Shaquille Thomas
Shaq Thomas was Cronin’s highest-profile recruit in 2011, coming out of a New Jersey prep school. The nephew of NBA player Tim Thomas, Shaq redshirted his freshman year but finally got to see some minutes this season. The lanky small forward has shown glimpses of potential to actually score the ball for a team that desperately needs someone other than Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Jaquon Parker to put the ball in the bucket. He also tried to jam home a one-handed follow-up against Providence and missed it, but it was worth trying.
5. Marquette Overtime Win
The Bearcats were 3-2 in Big East play heading into their Jan. 19 game against Marquette, still fighting to stay in the top 25 after losing a couple games earlier in the month. Marquette came to town undefeated in league play, but the Bearcats — even without Wright, who injured his ankle against DePaul four days earlier — took the Golden Eagles down in overtime. At the time, it looked like UC had proven itself as one of the teams to beat in the Big East, but it was Marquette that went on a run while UC slid down the conference standings during the next three weeks. Marquette tied for the Big East regular season title with a 14-4 conference record, while UC tied for ninth at 9-9.
It might be a good thing Jermaine Lawrence’s birthday wasn’t a couple weeks later, because after the highly touted high schooler’s decision to commit to UC on Feb. 3 the Bearcats lost six of their next eight games. Lawrence, who will attend UC in the fall, is one of the biggest reasons the Bearcats are expected to quickly rebuild after losing seniors Wright and Parker after this year. The 6-foot-10 forward is the 19th-ranked player in the 2013 class, Cronin’s best recruit since landing Lance Stephenson back in 2009.
3. Mick’s Falling-Down T
The Bearcats were never seriously at risk of being left out of the NCAA Tournament, but there were a couple times when a loss to a weaker team would have moved them pretty close to the bubble. One such game was against UConn on March 2, during which Cronin became so enraged by a missed call that he stormed to the end of the bench to yell at a referee, slipped and fell, stormed back to the front, then tore off his jacket and threw it, earning a technical foul that some believe helped fuel the ’Cats on a 16-4 run and end a three-game losing streak.
2. SK Goes for 36
Back in January, the ’Cats earned what ended up being their best win of the year. At the time they thought they were just handling business, defeating Marquette at home (see No. 6). It turns out they were beating one of the conference’s top three teams, and it was largely because of Sean Kilpatrick’s career day. With Wright sitting out with an injury, the junior shooting guard scored a career-high 36 points, making five 3-pointers and going 9-for-10 from the free throw line.
1. Cash’s Game-Winning Floater
Still undefeated against Alabama on Dec. 1, the Bearcats found themselves tied with the Crimson Tide down the stretch. Cashmere Wright brought the ball up with six seconds left, drove to the basket and sunk a floater over Alabama’s 7-foot center to win the game. The buzzer-beater was Wright’s first of his life and also the first time Cronin had seen his team walk off the court after a game-winning shot. The ’Cats improved to 7-0 with the win and the following week moved up to No. 11 in the country.