There’s something special about this Cincinnati Bearcats team. The Bearcats just won their eighth straight game and before that escaped a 66-64 slugfest against SMU, the second best team in the conference. KenPom has the Bearcats favored to win every game the rest of the season except their rematch on the road against SMU on Feb. 12. It’s not just that they are favored, it’s that they’re easily favored. The Bearcats have a better than 68 percent chance of winning 14 of the remaining 15 games on their schedule.
Part of that has to do with how weak the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference has turned out to be this year. Teams like Tulane, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulsa present very little challenge, and the implosions of UConn and Temple have helped pave a relatively easy path to the conference title.
The other part of it is that this Bearcats team is just really good.
The greater Cincinnati area has been spoiled when it comes to college basketball success over the past 20 years. Cincinnati, Xavier and Kentucky have all become national basketball powerhouses, and the three teams have combined for 49 trips to the NCAA tournament in that span. (Don’t forget that Louisville has done its fair share as well) It’s safe to say we know what good college basketball looks like. That’s why its become increasingly difficult to ignore how successful this Bearcats team has been this year.
Cincinnati fans have become accustomed to watching highly skilled defensive players, capable of slashing to the basket and scoring around the rim, but incapable of hitting jump shots. The addition of Kyle Washington and development of Jacob Evans as real offensive threats along with the slow, but steady ascendance of Jarron Cumberland and Justin Jenifer have given the Bearcats an offensive dimension they haven’t had since the Final Four team of 1991-92. Add in the defensive brilliance of Kevin Johnson, Gary Clark, Tre Scott and Troy Caupain and it’s obvious that this team can go very far in the NCAA tournament.
But, how far?
The most recent bracketology from Joe Lunardi has the Bearcats as a five seed, but if they actually do win 14 of their next 15,and the AAC conference tournament they’ll obviously move up several slots. That’s obviously a ridiculous assumption and many things can happen, but let’s just start there. If that were to happen the Bearcats would enter the tournament with a 32-3 record. At 32-3 with wins against Xavier, Iowa State, SMU, Houston, UConn and Temple I think they’d very likely end up a Top 10 team and a two or three seed.
The number three seed in the West Region plays their games in Indianapolis, so that seems like a natural slot for the Bearcats. Let’s take a look at Lunardi’s bracket and see what a hypothetical road to the Elite Eight might look like from that region.
If you swap Cincinnati for Virginia, the other teams in that bracket are:
- Saint Mary’s
- Virginia Tech
- Illinois/Middle Tennessee
- Boise State
- New Mexico State
- Texas Southern
- Weber State
The Bearcats are fully capable of beating every single one of those teams, even if they did fall to Butler (on the road) already this year. Now, obviously, some of these teams won’t be in the tournament at the end of the year and others will, but the point of the exercise is simply to show that the Bearcats are so talented that they can match up with an entire section of the bracket and come out on top. That’s not something that could be said since those early 2000’s teams.
The team obviously has their flaws Free throw shooting is going to doom them against Xavier or SMU or perhaps a randomly competitive game against Connecticut, Tulsa or Temple. Prior to the three games before East Carolina they struggled to shoot well from behind the three point line. Their bench can disappear offensively for entire games like they did against Butler and Iowa State. But, this team is undeniably very talented, and if they can avoid costly injuries and continue the development Tre Scott, Cumberland and Jenifer, this might be their most successful season in 25 years.