The older one gets, the more college sports make the head shake. It’s not the money or the corruption. It’s not the academic compromises involved in putting on athletic shows. All of that’s been around forever, and it’s part of the guilty pleasure involved with following college sports.
But the kids. You just don’t know what you’re going to get from the kids, because they don’t know what they’re up against. By the time they’ve figured it out, they’re off to life and a new bunch of kids comes through only to make the same errors their predecessors might have outgrown.
The University of Cincinnati basketball team brought all this to mind over the past week, when it lost three games it needed and should have won. The Bearcats needed to win at South Florida and then win at home against Seton Hall on Senior Day in order to clinch a winning record in the Big East, a 20-win season and, at the very least, serious credibility for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Most fans were fairly the confident the Bearcats could knock out those two wins. South Florida had fallen 12 games out of the Big East lead and hit the dreaded 20-loss mark for the season. Seton Hall had lost two straight and five of its last six, including a loss to St. John’s, which went on to end the regular season with a losing record.
Frankly, it’s the fan’s job to be confident that UC would win those games. A team that couldn’t be expected to win them with the NCAA Tournament on the line shouldn’t expect a lot of fans. If attendance figures are a guide, the Bearcats don’t.
It’s a team’s job to be confident, too, but in a much more engaged style. The team’s job is to seize the moment, take those games and earn those fruits. But the Bearcats couldn’t close the deal in any of the three games.
At South Florida, they frittered away a 31-24 lead early in the second half with their disappearing defense that allowed 46 points in the last 19 minutes on the way to a 70-59 loss. Then they closed out the regular season at Fifth Third Arena on March 7, building a 24-10 lead against Seton Hall with six minutes left in the first half only to lose in overtime.
Love what UC head coach Mick Cronin said to the morning paper after Seton Hall: “We’ve struggled with significance.”
The Bearcats went to the Big East Tournament having earned a first-round meeting against DePaul, which finished its Big East schedule 0-18. A win or two would have given UC 20 wins but not an NCAA berth. A win against the conference’s giants might have put UC back into the conversation. And, of course, a later win in the league championship would have secured an automatic NCAA bid.
None of that happened. Instead, UC lost to DePaul — a team that hadn’t won a game anywhere since late December — in the Big East Tournament’s first round March 10. The Bearcats shot 36 percent from the field and once again gave up a second half lead. Ouch.
Not to join the chorus against Cronin, but his teams are making a habit of poor finishes. Last year, the Bearcats lost their last five regular season games in the Big East. This year, with a much better team, they lost their final four, including three against lower-sector opponents with an NCAA bid on the line.
One assumes, perhaps wrongly, that UC is better than South Florida, Seton Hall and DePaul. Not only did the Bearcats finish better than those three within and outside the Big East, but the Bearcats hadn’t lost a game they should’ve won.
That was, indeed, one of the more encouraging aspects of their season. The Bearcats were beating teams they were supposed to beat … until they really needed to beat them.
Which makes this finish pretty hard to understand. But it’s mostly hard to understand because we old-timers knew the Bearcats should be on their guard, regardless of our own confidence. They were, after all, playing for an NCAA bid. How could they let games against bad teams get away from them with so much on the line?
And we wonder, we veteran sports fans, how it happens, time after time and year after year, that the better teams with more at stake aren’t ready to take what’s theirs. How can they not understand by now that no game is a gimme, especially when they need it most?
And it always comes back to the fact that they’re kids, especially this very young UC team from which not very much had been expected until lately. Heck, we didn’t expect much from them lately — we just wanted them to beat bad teams.
Maybe we have a right to expect that a talented group of freshmen and sophomores with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line should handle a 20-loss opponent. But maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when it doesn’t happen, either.
They just don’t know the ropes. They’re kids who haven’t lived much history or studied it very well. As the results proved, they weren’t ready for the NCAA Tournament.
We’ve also learned, though, that any outcome short of an NCAA bid next year could be trouble for Cronin, who must figure out how to make his teams tougher down the stretch.
The college basketball season is designed to reward teams that are ready to play in March. For all the progress Cronin has made, we’re still waiting on March — and no one is in the mood to wait until March 2011.
CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]