Senior Day is always special. Fans get invested in the success of players that have represented their school sometimes for as long as 5 years. There is simply a different feel when you enter the arena on senior day. On Saturday, Bearcat fans were treated to a fantastic farewell to six seniors who have given much to the University of Cincinnati basketball program. The Bearcats capped off a 5-1 finish by absolutely blasting a very good Georgetown team.
This was the best senior night I have attended since Steve Logan went coast to coast to tie Memphis and then clinch a conference title in OT in 2002. This was the most electric the Shoe has felt since that day. Fans were loud, they were on their feet and they were invested. It took time to get there. It took having a team that has played incredible basketball down the stretch and had one hell of a season, but it is hard not to feel the program is well on its way back after a day like Saturday.
The game itself was a fabulous display of everything that has made this Bearcat team so good down the stretch. This Bearcat team can beat anyone in the country when they get top flight play from Wright and Gates. When they have won that has almost universally been the case. Wright played another very solid game at point guard. The Bearcats looked crisp in their offense getting very good looks throughout the night and getting stuff going towards the basket. I felt that early in conference play the Bearcats settled to often for shots that other teams wanted them to take. They launched quick semi-contested 3 pointers and did not get anything going towards the basket. They simply did not make defenses work.
Credit Cronin and the coaching staff, because this began to change drastically starting with the Pittsburgh game. From that point on I really feel this team's offensive discipline has gone up considerably. I know the Bearcats lost at Pitt and I know it was not exactly close most the game, but I remember watching the game and being very pleased with the way the Bearcats were working the ball and making an effort to score going towards the basket. Since that day it seems they are getting better and better in their execution. They do not settle for quick semi-contested jumpers. They work the ball and get the defense moving. This has led to better looks, it has led to opportunities for offensive rebounds and it has often lead to fouls on the other team.
To me the other major factor in this run of exceptional play has been the absolute force Yancy Gates has become, particularly on the defensive end. Gates absolutely changes the game inside and he has done it largely without fouling. He alters shot after shot and often comes up with very big, timely blocks. He has owned every big man he has been asked to guard in this great stretch run. On offense he has been solid. He has given UC an inside scoring threat, he has worked hard on the offensive glass to get put backs and to me even more to his credit he seems to always make the right decision when it comes to passing out of the low post. Gates gets doubled team often, but he has a feel for when to get rid of the ball and find the open man. This ability to throw it down low and either score or draw defenders and pass out has opened the offense up even more. I have been thrilled watching Gates' play down the stretch.
With Wright and Gates playing so well and giving the Bearcats the dominant players they need at two key positions the biggest strength the Bearcats possess has really been allowed to shine...their depth. What makes UC so difficult to play is they can play multiple styles and can come after you with so many different players. During this run there have been games where Thomas hardly plays at all and games where Thomas has been absolutely essential. We have seen moments of greatness from Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick. Because they go so deep we get to see the Bearcats really extend the pressure on teams. One of my favorite things to watch is Wilks at the front of the press. It almost seems like he is freelancing at times just waiting for the perfect time to run over and give the double team. We have seen the Bearcats throw in some zone and seen them in their in your face man to man. We have seen them play big against Marquette or go smaller in the first Georgetown game. At this point in the year the Bearcat roster is so versatile and their ability to sub in and out allows them to play incredibly hard at all times and just wear people down. That has been an absolutely huge advantage.
In this sense the Bearcats could be a perfect team for Big East tournament play. They have the horses to really get after it and make teams work. Wednesday night whether it is Villanova or South Florida the Bearcats I strongly believe UC's depth could really wear them down particularly because they'll be playing for a second consecutive night. Villanova worried me a bit only because they have the type of in your face ball pressure that at times has given Wright problems and the Bearcats need Wright to play well to be at their best. That said I think the Bearcats are one of the teams that could go to NYC and win the Big East tournament. Hell, if they win a couple of games in NYC their seed line will really begin to move.
My firm belief is that the Bearcats are going to be a 6 seed at worst in the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats have a set of wins that puts them more in line with the 1,2, and 3 seeds than most of the 6 or 7 seeds. Also, 7 losses is not many especially when you consider that all of them are losses to top 35 RPI teams. The Bearcats are going to be penalized for their non-conference SOS and that is the only reason we are not talking about them as a 4 or 5 seed right now, BUT a couple more wins over these NCAA tournament teams and now the numbers will start to get gaudy. If the Bearcats can get two wins in the conference tournament I firmly believe they will be a 3 or a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. At that point they would have 7 RPI top 50 wins (6 would be top 25) and then a road win at NCAA bubble Marquette. You are not going to find 5 teams in the country that can say that. If the Bearcats make the finals I am willing to bet they'd be a 3 seed and if they could somehow win the entire thing in New York I do not think a 2 seed is out of the question. If the Bearcats make the finals of the Big East tournament there is a good chance they'd finish the year with more top 25 RPI wins than any team in the country. That combined with only 7 (or 8 if they lost in finals) losses would be incredibly hard for the committee to ignore.
So that is part of the fun we can have this week. I think they have earned a 6 seed or better already...the or better part is looking very exciting, because I think 2 seed is still in play (would take an obviously incredible run). I'll go over this in more detail later this week as I do my annual ranking of the tournament bubble and start putting out some bracket projections. Until then... Go Bearcats!