Let’s Make Some Room Atop the American for CincinnatiPosted by Nate Kotisso on January 9th, 2014
It seemed like the AAC’s first season of existence would be a banner year with defending champion Louisville joining, a talented UConn team shut out of the tournament in 2012-13, and a Memphis club armed with one of the best backcourts in America. Yet most forgot about the arrival of Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren’t exactly a big name in college basketball (well, not anymore). Highly-touted freshmen? Not here. Legendary coach? With time maybe, but not now. A rabid fan base that travels to road games well? There weren’t any more than 30 fans sitting behind the Bearcats’ bench on Tuesday night in Houston.
Still, Mick Cronin has perhaps his best team since being named head coach in 2006. And the Bearcats played like it in the first half against the Houston Cougars. The active hands and moving feet of Cincinnati’s defense frustrated Houston, forcing nine turnovers, blocking seven shots and forcing the Cougars to shoot 8-of-24 from the field. Cincinnati took a 16-point lead into the locker room. But the Cougars went on a 23-10 run to start the second, capped by a three-pointer from Brandon Morris to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 50-47 with 9:56 to play. It was Morris’ fourth three of the half on his way to a career-high 17 points. The Bearcats stopped playing their hard-nosed defense, which prompted Cronin to call a 30 second timeout to regroup. And regroup they did.
The Bearcats’ defense, ranked fourth-best in adjusted efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, was kicked into high gear again, holding Houston scoreless for the next eight minutes and two seconds. That almost seems impossible to do in Division I but here was a team that found a way to win a 44-43 “thriller” against Pittsburgh in mid-December. On this night, Cincinnati made its free throws down the stretch and was able to do just enough to win 61-60 to remain undefeated in the American.
Tuesday wasn’t 40 minutes of Cincinnati’s best basketball of the season, but at 14-2 on the season, one could make an argument that they are the best team in the AAC. UConn has stumbled out of the gates in conference play and had it not been for Shabazz Napier’s second-chance buzzer-beater versus Florida, they’d be without a marquee win this year. Louisville played a relatively soft non-league schedule and has lost to the two best teams it has faced in UNC and Kentucky. A case could be made for Memphis as well, but these same Bearcats wiped the floor with the Tigers in Memphis last Saturday.
The Cincinnati Bearcats are trending upward. Consider this your official warning.