What a weekend to be a Cincinnati Bearcats fan, am I right?
Cincinnati won its first conference tournament in 14 years, beating Memphis, SMU and a very good Houston team in the process. The Bearcats have now won 30 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history. Plus, Gary Clark showed national television audiences that he is indeed a legitimate problem.
I was lucky enough to not only be in Orlando to watch the games, but to get a press pass, sit courtside and watch the entire event unfold.
Here are some final takeaways from someone with a fresh perspective on conference tournaments:
1. Huge props to the American Athletic Conference staff. You can’t imagine how big and complex of an event this is to stage, the kind of hours it takes to make things appear like they’re running right, and how many legitimately good, talented people you need to pull it all off. The AAC staff was always friendly and helpful, even after pulling what appeared to be 15-18 hour days on Thursday and Friday. It’s easy to imagine a group of tired, bitter people that just wanted the days to end, but they never showed it.
2. Orlando is a sneaky great city. I had no idea! My wife and I stayed at an AirBnB in Baldwin Park and were totally blown away by how nice it was. We found delicious breakfast spots, easily accessible running trails, clean city streets and friendly people everywhere we went.
3. Everyone, and I mean everyone, reveres Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery. I was fortunate enough to sit almost directly behind them on Saturday and Sunday, and you could see a look of awe on the players’ faces when they saw them. Several came over and said hello, with one (Jackson Bart) accidentally interrupting him while he was trying to record a voice-over. Also, Jim Nantz is like, super tall.
4. Postgame press conferences are absolutely brutal for losing teams. They start about 10-15 minutes after the final buzzer, and the team and coach have no interest in being there. It was especially brutal for UConn and Memphis when Kevin Ollie and Tubby Smith were asked whether or not they thought they’d be back next year. Ollie responded with a simple “yes”, and everyone waited awkwardly for him to continue and he just never did. Smith said “I have no clue” or something to that effect, and again, awkwardness ensued.
5. Cincinnati and Wichita State fans travel really well, and their respective fans don’t seem to like each other. The tournament was held in Central Florida’s hometown and I don’t remember seeing a single UCF fan. There were a handful of Memphis and UConn fans, but really it was yellow and black or red and black all weekend.
6. Kyle Washington is the undisputed vocal and emotional leader of this team. His intensity is off the charts. He’s obviously embraced the fact that these are his last collegiate games, and refuses to go away quietly.
7. I don’t know what to think about next year’s team. The guard play should be phenomenal, but Nysier Brooks, Tre Scott and Eliel Nsoseme aren’t ready to contribute at anywhere near the level of Clark and Washington. Every time one of them touches the ball it feels like it’s about to be stripped, and they miss far too many shots near the rim. I could seriously envision Mick running out Jenifer, Broome, Evans Cumberland, and then rotating one of the big men strictly for defense and rebounding. Playing two of them at the same time will be a problem.
8. Free throw shooting will be this team’s downfall. I love their seeding and the way the region stacks up for them, but their run is going to end on a night when they face a hot shooter, and they don’t hit their free throws. If it happens against Trevon Blueitt and the Musketeers I may throw my laptop through my television. Evans hit just two of six free throw attempts against Houston, and Clark missed a crucial free throw late that could’ve given the Cougars a chance to win the game with just a two-pointer instead of a three.
9. Postgame interviews after championship games are very unfair to the player that has to give the interview. Washington missed out on much of the celebration and the team photos because he had to do back-to-back interviews with radio guys. Even the fans behind me were yelling at the hosts to let him go so he could celebrate. Let’s all just agree to wait 20 minutes before robbing these kids of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
10. Conference tournaments are especially fun when the team you root for wins the championship. Watching Clark and Washington cut down those nets was a special moment that I won’t forget.