Somewhere deep in the southeast between New Orleans and Atlanta earlier this week, Ron Hunter strolled into a Wendy’s with all the confidence in the world. Busing back to campus with the Georgia State basketball team right after Selection Sunday, the Panthers’ coach ordered them Baconators, crispy nuggets and Frostys. As they ate, he talked.
“Trust me, Cincinnati is not eating at Wendy’s,” he said he told his team. “They’re at Ruth’s Chris (Steakhouse). For you to eat at Ruth’s Chris, we’ve got to beat a team like that.”
All of a sudden, the Bearcats were being considered one of the big barons in college basketball.
Behind the second most efficient defense in the country, second seeded Bearcats entered the NCAA Tournament with the expectation to make a serious run for the first time in a while. Last season, a lineup of NBA caliber players from UCLA stood between them and the Sweet 16. Now, they’re the hurdle. So Mick Cronin said there’s nothing to celebrate after clearing the first team in their path with a 68-53 win over Georgia State.
“That might be the Tiger Woods in me. I don’t believe in Elite Eights and all that stuff. If we win three more in a row, I won’t be celebrating,” he said. “At the end of the year, that’s what banquets are for.”
In the first 20 minutes of Friday’s game, Georgia State guard D’Marcus Simonds scored 18 points and made the Bearcats nervous that the end of the season would be coming weeks earlier. The Panthers took a 9-1 lead early in the game, and Simonds had their first 16 points.
As Hunter continued to tell his players Cincinnati had it easier than them earlier this week, he continued to send the message that Georgia State had a toughness Cincinnati lacked.
“It’s a strategic way in which he did it, trying to send a message to Cincinnati and also trying to send a message to us,” said Georgia State forward Jordan Tyson, who went to Walnut Hills High School, just blocks from the UC campus. “The message he was trying to send was, no matter what level the team is that we are playing, no matter how much hype, no matter how glorified they might be, we are always going to come ready to play.”
That message travelled quickly around Cincinnati’s locker room. Earlier this week, a Cincinnati coach texted everyone video of an interview where Hunter told reporters the Panthers would be rooming at a Comfort Inn while their opponent stayed at the Hyatt. Gary Clark said Georgia State was under the wrong impression.
“I’ve never had Ruth’s Chris,” he said. “So I’m not sure where that came from. But, you know, we’re the Bearcats. All year, every year I’ve been here, we’ve always been the other end of that perception.”
“We have been underdogs since our team was younger,” Justin Jenifer said. “Getting this acknowledgement right now, we don’t pay attention to stuff that.”
Cronin said this identity started to take shape in the 1990s under Bob Huggins, and after falling off when Huggins left the program, it has rebuilt itself into a Final Four contender in the same mold as the teams of old.
And now, Cincinnati is right on the precipice of the first and second class NCAA teams. They’re a top 10 team without top 10 pedigree. It took years to finance their new arena, but they managed to bring in consistent performing recruiting classes anyway. They won’t be eating at Ruth’s Chris, but the team will have to find more than one restaurant for each NCAA Tournament location they go to. They expect they’ll be there for a couple days.
Cane Broome said the target on their backs has never been bigger, in part because their opponents think they eat as well as they play. Cinderella teams like Georgia State aren’t the only ones with a point to make.
“I wanted to be part of a school that had a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “We got a chip, too. Probably a bigger chip with the stigma of not [losing] first rounds. Trying to surpass that stigma of not losing in the postseason.”