Cincinnati Can Make Serious Postseason Noise… If They QualifyPosted by EJacoby on February 10th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a correspondent and regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. He filed this report after Cincinnati’s win over St. John’s on Wednesday.
While it may not have even been the fourth or fifth biggest game across the country on Wednesday evening, Cincinnati taking on St. John’s in Madison Square Garden was a massive matchup for the road team. The Bearcats had lost three of four games, including two straight on the road, and needed this win away from home. That wasn’t a problem as Mick Cronin’s team shellacked the Red Storm for a 76-54 victory and made it look easy. Cincinnati played 12 players in the game, 11 of whom scored, and played incredibly crisp basketball on both ends of the floor. Three different guards scored in double figures alongside leading scorer Yancy Gates, and the team used a stifling 2-3 zone defense that caused problems all night for St. John’s. You would have never known that the Bearcats were a bubble team, a label that they look to shed in the coming weeks.
In the process of the 22-point victory, Cincinnati looked like a Top 25 team, one that could pose some serious matchup problems for opponents in the postseason. Gates scored 14 points with nine rebounds in just 21 minutes, going 6-8 from the field and playing strong interior defense in the zone. He was joined by starters Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright, and Dion Dixon in double figures, as the guards found easy baskets by way of strong possessions against the St. John’s zone. Wright, Dixon, and Gates are upperclassmen who have been through the fire for this team and it shows. Kilpatrick is the sophomore but just happens to one of the more talented scorers in the Big East (15.4 PPG). A deep bench joins these leaders to combine for a great formula of talent, experience, and depth – and it was all on display on Wednesday.
The question isn’t so much about whether this team has enough talent or toughness to win games, but it’s whether or not they’re going to have a strong enough resume to qualify for the NCAA Tournament with a solid seed, or even qualify at all. Cincinnati sports a 17-7, 7-4 Big East record that looks good on the surface, but has plenty of holes. Depending on how you define the term, the Bearcats have either two or three truly “bad losses.” They dropped an early home game to Presbyterian and a more recent home contest to St. John’s, both of which are teams under .500 on the season. Those are some bad, bad losses. But they also dropped a home game in November to Marshall, a talented team but one that’s lost six of their last seven games and has much work to do to get back into at-large consideration. In addition, Cincinnati dropped a game to Rutgers in the RAC, which is a tough place to play but still qualifies as an L against a 100+ RPI team.
In all, the Bearcats have lost four games to teams that aren’t even sniffing the NCAA Tournament. Compare that to their wins, which consist of road W’s at Connecticut, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and St. John’s, as well as notable victories over Notre Dame and Oklahoma. That’s a total of one victory against a Big Dance lock (Georgetown), while both Notre Dame and UConn should be in but are no guarantees at this point. Don’t forget that they also got destroyed by 23 points at Xavier in early December that ended in the unforgettable brawl, leaving multiple players suspended. It all adds up to some awful computer numbers – #96 in the RPI and the 139th-ranked strength of schedule. More wins are needed to get this team in the NCAA Tournament.
A positive about this team remains that they pass every eye test. Cincinnati goes four deep with quality guards when you add in JaQuon Parker (8.7 points, 4.3 rebounds) to the aforementioned trio. Justin Jackson has now accepted a sixth man role after starting for much of the season, and the sophomore forward makes important contributions across the board with averages of 5.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game. Ken Pom’s ratings have the Bearcats ranked #41 in the country, a much stronger number than fellow bubble teams Pittsburgh, Dayton, Northwestern, and Washington, all of which are ranked 60 or worse. These pace-adjusted efficiency ratings certainly match with the strong on-court product that Cincinnati often provides. It’s only a question of whether they can improve their raw resume to the point that has the Tournament committee convinced their early-season bad losses were an aberration.
The good news is that the Bearcats have a pretty manageable schedule down the stretch that includes four of seven games at home, with road games at South Florida, Villanova, and Marquette. Based on how they played on Wednesday night, the team should have a very good chance to win at least five of their last seven games. They may need to do just that to get an invitation to the Big Dance. If they qualify for the postseason prize, then we are looking at a serious sleeper team as a potential double-digit seed.