The Cincinnati Bearcats will be making their seventh-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament on Friday when they face off with the Kansas State Wildcats. Although that is still half the total of the Bob Huggins era, it is still quite an accomplishment. The Bearcats are tied with VCU and North Carolina for the sixth-longest active streak of appearances, behind such heavyweights as Kansas (28 straight), Duke (22), Michigan State (20), Wisconsin (19) and Gonzaga (19).
However, during these last seven years, UC has generally failed to make much noise in the Big Dance. In fact, things have often gone awry in the very worst of ways. Just last year the Bearcats lost in the first round to St. Joseph’s when Octavius Ellis’ last-second dunk was ruled to have gone through the hoop too late. They may have made it past the first round the year before that, but in 2014, the No. 5 seed Bearcats were upended by No. 12 seed Harvard. In all, the Bearcats have made it past the first weekend just once in Mick Cronin’s first 10 years and in year No. 11, they’d like to add to that total. Here’s how things could shake out.
Best Case Scenario
Now that we’ve figured out who UC will be playing, following Kansas State’s win over Wake Forest in the First Four Tuesday night, we can better grasp what UC will have to do in order to win game one. As pointed out earlier this week, KSU plays a very similar style to UC, preferring a balanced approach with slow and steady offensive tempo and a tightening on defense. Both teams are in the same ballpark analytically speaking, with KSU ranked 28th by KenPom and UC at No. 22. However, as the No. 6 seed, the Bearcats will be favored in this game and they should be. This is a game they are built to win, especially considering the week of rest and preparation that the team has on its side.
Although it won’t be easy, once UC takes KSU out, it will have to contend with No. 3 seed UCLA, barring an upset from No. 14 Kent State. But wait. This is a fictional scenario in which everything will break right for the Bearcats. It is highly unlikely that the Golden Flashes will be able to keep up with Lonzo Ball and the offensively boisterous Bruins, but what if they did? There have been 21 total 14 over 3 seed upsets in the tournament’s history, including at least one in each of the last four years. According to FiveThirtyEight, Kent State has the lowest chance of knocking off its No. 3 seed than any No. 14 seed, but there’s still a chance. (Six percent if you were wondering). Well, if that lottery ticket pays off, UC would then face an emotionally and physically drained Kent State team on Sunday. A tired team is not one that wants to play against the aggressive and physical Bearcats. Such a scenario would spell victory for the red and black.
In the Sweet 16, as cool as it would be to have UC face off with neighbor Northern Kentucky, a No. 15 seed is not making it to the Sweet 16. The Norse just aren’t Florida Gulf Coast. That means it will be either Kentucky, Dayton or Wichita State. Dayton is the least likely to make it, and even in a best case situation, I can’t imagine the Flyers beating the Shockers and the Wildcats, two teams in KenPom’s top 10. Pardon me for doubting the Missouri Valley Conference, but WSU probably presents itself as a bit of an easier test, what with its lack of Malik Monk. The Shockers are not as good as UC defensively, at least according to KenPom, so if they somehow upset the Wildcats, UC could slow the game down and grind out a win.
It’s here where the train probably stops even in the best of circumstances. North Carolina is a giant at the No. 1 seed and with Butler — a team that already beat the Bearcats — the No. 4 seed in the region, its likely whoever comes out of the top of half of the bracket will keep rolling past the Elite Eight. Still, there is a scenario in which things break right for UC and it dances deep into the tournament.
Worst Case Scenario
Then there’s the worst case. KSU is all too similar to the Bearcats and, forged by the mighty competition of the Big 12, Wesley Iwundu and company get out to an early lead and trap UC in a fit of shooting woes. Gary Clark doesn’t step up like he needs to, disappearing once again in the tournament, and the Bearcats fall in a 60-something to 50-something final decision.
Most Likely Scenario
FiveThiryEight gives the Bearcats a 61 percent chance to win in the first round. That is more than fair. UC is the better team when compared to KSU and has even beaten some competition from the Big 12 already this season. With five days off between games and a starting five that really has it all, the Bearcats should be able to win a game that will be played at a pace they are comfortable with.
That brings us to the second round, where UCLA is the likely opposition. The Bruins are a very good team, which tied a program record with 28 regular season wins under fourth-year head coach Steve Alford. They feature the stylings of likely lottery pick Ball and are one of the best offensive teams in the country, ranking third in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. However, UC ranks 9th in adjusted defense and Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson and Jacob Evans are excellent defenders in the backcourt who could give Ball problems. After all, he did commit 2.5 turnovers per game and is still just a freshman, albeit a very, very good one. Then there’s the fact that despite being a No. 3 seed to UC’s No. 6, the Bruins are only ranked No. 18 by KenPom, putting them right in UC’s neighborhood. If the Bearcats force the Bruins into a trudging rock fight, then a Sweet 16 appearance would be within reach.
From there, I think there are too many what ifs to seriously consider UC moving any further, as its struggles with SMU have shown it has problems against top flight competition. However, the Sweet 16 is not outside the realm of possibility, even if I’m too frightened to outright pick it. For now, I’ll say getting past the first round is the most realistic expectation, but remaining hopeful in the second isn’t a bad move either.