This season was without a doubt a success. 27 wins, the first conference title in a decade and Sean Kilpatrick will be the Bearcats first consensus All American since Steve Logan. All three outcomes are surprises to all but the true believers, a group I don't count myself a member of since I am not a true believer of anything.
Flashing back to October my expectations of this season were modest. Having to replace Cashmere Wright and Jaquon Parker was going to be a challenge sure. But I still expected the Bearcats to go dancing, but not to advance past the first weekend. Thats what happened in the end.
In between the pre season and this post season retrospective the Bearcats played out of their mind for six weeks was one of the hottest teams in the country en route to a 15 game winning streak. That streak was an amazing thing to be a part of. It made me fall in love with college basketball again for the first time in years. But it raised expectations for this team to an unsustainable level. Some talked openly of a final four and a national championship. Like everyone I engaged in the hype, but in our heart of hearts I think we all knew that was a bridge too far for this team.
So now we are at the point where Mick Cronin is once again under fire. Where a subset of Bearcat fans want his head on a spike because he managed to make a team with precisely one offensive weapon, no shooting and no size to speak of to the most wins since 2001-02. That is a fireable offense to some, and I don't understand that in the least.
What seems clear in retrospect is that the win streak inflated expectations for a team that was obviously flawed, and was flawed from the very start of the season. Do we credit Cronin for squeezing 27 wins and a conference title out of such a one dimensional team. Conversely do we blame him for not making the flaws disappear over the course of the season? I obviously lean towards the former, and find the latter to be wholly unrealistic.
The opposing argument to that is simple. Mick Cronin recruits the players, so the roster of limited offensive weapons he has had to work with for the last two years is entirely his fault. There is some truth to that, but recruiting isn't done in a vacuum. There is context to consider.
Mick was tasked with making a program that basically skipped recruiting during Bob Huggin's last year, and Andy Kennedy's only year competitive in the best conference in the country. It was apparent from the start that Mick wasn't going to be able to win battles for the most polished and skilled kids against Big East schools. Without those kinds of players the Bearcats best chance to compete was to make every game a rock fight. So he found guys like Rashad Bishop, Cheikh Mbodj and Steve Toyloy who are really good with boulders, not as good with a basketball in their hands. He relied on a handful of skilled offensive players to carry the load. Like all strategies there were strengths and limitations to that approach, and the limitations have been particularly visible and painful the last two years.
The Bearcats offense has been a consistent sore point throughout the Mick Cronin era. It would not have been wholly inappropriate to cue up Yakety Sax for the inevitable 6 minute scoring drought that has been a feature of the Bearcats teams for the last two seasons. Both of those teams suffered from the same problem, they were painfully easy to defend. Last year teams packed the paint and let UC bomb away from three knowing the percentages were in their favor. This year multiple teams broke out that CYO staple, the Box and One to deal with Sean Kilpatrick and the Bearcats had no answer. It's been a problem, one that Mick has addressed as much with his recruiting as his words. The simple fact is that he is getting better offensive players into the program every year.
In the last two recruiting classes Mick has done a much better job of finding competent offensive players. Troy Caupain was the best (you could argue only) point guard on the team this year. Kevin Johnson found a groove a rotation spot late in the year and should be a weapon next year. Deshaun Morman is the most athletic guard the Bearcats have had since Dion Dixon graduated. Jermaine Lawrence had a rough go of it this year but has a ton of talent and skill, if questionable shot selection. Gary Clark is a tremendous scorer as a power forward. Mick and Co are still actively pursuing scoring options for this spring signing period of the coming class.
In light of yesterdays loss it is not fun, or cathartic to talk about next year or the year after that. The "failure" was yesterday, the blood for failing should be spilt today. The argument against Cronin comes down to expectations. The only way that he can be judged to have failed this season is if the rightful expectations for this team, this year, were for them to win the entire thing. If that viewpoint was held by anyone I would like to meet them, if only to ask for a dime of whatever it is they happen to be smoking.
This post should not be taken as a proclamation of the greatness of Mick Cronin. I don't believe that he is in the same category as Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Coach K, Billy Donnovan or Bill Self or any of the other coaches in the sport that are acknowledged as great, not at this point. Mick is not a leading light in his profession, and there is nothing wrong with that. Mick is simply a very good young(ish) coach who took over a program in its death throes and built it back up to the point where some people can say that a season with 27 wins and conference championship is a failure.
I stand with Mick Cronin because I believe that he has earned the right to try to be great. He started from the proverbial bottom and has made the Bearcats a regular top 25 team, with four NCAA tournaments on the trot and a conference title fresh on his C.V.. In 8 years he has completely reversed the trajectory of the program and has it pointing resolutely upwards once again. Mick had earned the right, and more importantly the time, to work to get this program to the proverbial next level, so let him work.