We have reached the time of year where it is time to talk NCAA tournament hopes. The Bearcats have put themselves in position to earn an NCAA bid. To do this they must take care of business down the stretch. A 2-2 finish would look awfully good for Cincinnati, especially in a Big East conference that has been particularly good this year compared to the rest of college basketball. I am not as confident that 1-3 will get it done, because of the committee's history of penalizing teams that have poor non-conference strength of schedules. Lets start off by looking at what UC has going for them..
3-6 vs. RPI top 25
Zero losses to anyone outside of RPI top 25
3-0 vs. RPI 50-100
Dominating home win over a Xavier team that is likely to get a good NCAA seed.
Road win over a St Johns team that looks better by the day
Home win over what will be a highly seeded Louisville team.
Looking at that resume Cincinnati has shown that 1. They can beat NCAA tournament caliber teams (very good tournament teams at that) and 2. They can take care of business in games they should win. 3. At 5-4 their road/neutral record is at the very least solid
Here is what will weigh on the Bearcats:
9 of their wins are against teams 214 and below in the RPI.
Non-conference SOS in the near 300
That non-conference SOS has been an anchor all season long. With a 1-3 finish I firmly believe it will take two Big East tournament wins to feel safe (I say two because the first game will be a game that losing would look very bad and the second would be one where the Bearcats could actually get a valuable win over a really good team). The shame of the whole thing is had UC scheduled more ambitiously there is a good chance they would be playing for a chance at a very good seed right now. Many bring up financial issues which is fair enough, but I think there is a cost/benefit thought process that does not get addressed. Had UC played mediocre teams instead of dreadfully bad teams they'd likely have about the same record, but would be well higher in the RPI. Is saving the expense on the front end (IE scheduling cheaper teams) worth the benefits you lose on the back end (better tournament position whether its from off the bubble to in or getting a better seed... the results of both are increased interest and exposure for the team that leads to more revenue). My own opinion is it is short sighted to make your schedule based on front end costs without factoring in the back end benefits.
In all honestly I think UC is one of the best 35 teams in the country. I think they are likely one of the best 25 teams in the country. I think their resume is undervalued nationally because of the number of dreadful teams they played to the point that the Bearcats do not get enough credit for the way they dominated Xavier, their big win at St Johns or taking care of Louisville at home. They do not get enough credit for not losing to any team outside of the RPI top 25. That said the Bearcats like every other team in the country know how the system works. They know what the committee values and they know that building up wins on the backs of bad teams is something that in the long run could be detrimental. If the Bearcats miss the tournament at this point it will be no ones fault but their own.
Many fans look at Xavier and wonder how anyone could put them ahead of Cincinnati. I myself believe that Cincinnati is a better team than Xavier and I think the evidence that is out their suggests it as well. The fact is though that Xavier has a better NCAA tournament resume when you look at the way the committee has traditionally evaluated tournament teams. Xavier has only played 4 games against teams seeded under 200 in the RPI while UC played 9. That factor alone is where the major difference in their resumes comes from. Both teams have the same record. Both have the same number of top 50 RPI wins. They even have about the same number of RPI top 100 wins (Xavier has 7, Cincinnati has 6). Now the Bearcats have beaten better teams (3 RPI top 25 vs. 0) and their losses came against better teams (All six to RPI top 25), and ultimately the difference between playing bad teams and really bad teams maybe should not matter as much as it does, but that is a reality that has always been known when the committee looks at NCAA candidates. It is up to the university to schedule accordingly and give themselves a chance to get the best possible evaluation from the committee. Xavier did a great job of that, Cincinnati did not.
In the end it might not matter that much. As it stands UC has some work to do, but they are coming off a week in which they played some of their best basketball of the season. Throwing out the eight minute stretch to end regulation against Providence the Bearcats looked like a really good basketball team. Offensively they worked the ball better than I have seen them most of the season and did not settle for the same forced threes they have when the offense has struggled (though Thomas still decided he needed to take his one three per game). They got contributions from guys across the board from Gates, to Kilpatrick, to Wright, and to Dixon. Their defense has been a great strength all year, but against Louisville it was absolutely suffocating. It was quite honestly one of the best defensive performances by any team this year. If the Bearcats continue this level of play I am confident they'll get at least 2 more wins and could conceivably make a run in the conference tournament. They could still not only make the tournament but end up with a decent seed.
It will always bug me that UC did not give themselves the opportunity to really put together the best possible body of work, because I definitely think this team is worthy of more than being the bubble team where people keep harping on their pathetic non-conference schedule. I think their non-conference scheduling is likely to cost UC two seed lines come selection Sunday. That hurts, it irks me, but the positive news is they still have every chance to play themselves into the tournament and I think it very likely that they will.
In my opinion last week was the Bearcats' best and most significant week of the year. It was definitely the most optimistic I have been after watching them. If they build on that and finish the way they are capable of we will all be watching meaningful basketball in March for the first time in the years. Now that is something all Bearcat fans can get behind.