The Cincinnati Bearcats will head to Pittsburgh on Saturday knowing that they are just a few wins away from an NCAA Tournament berth. It seems simple enough, but after starting conference play with three losses including a debilitating blowout loss at the hands of the Marquette Golden Eagles, very few people imagined they would find themselves in this situation.
In fact, there may have only been about 15 people who actually believed the Bearcats could be in their present situation. Luckily, those 15 people happened to be the players themselves and their coaches.
"We knew if we kept playing hard and buying into what coach was telling us we could be a good team because we had a lot of great talent coming in," said sophomore guard Alvin Mitchell.
He continued, "I don't think anyone thought we would be where we ago at this time a year ago and we control our own destiny," said Mitchell. "It all depends on whether or not we pick up some key wins as to whether or not we make the tournament."
Junior guard Deonta Vaughn, who came to Cincinnati during the beginning of a rebuilding effort, said he put faith in Cronin to turn the program around, and knew it would only be a matter of time before the results began to show. He did say, however, that there is something different about this year's team,
"Last year some of us didn't listen a lot, but this year everyone wants to take in what coach has to say and we have been taking in the scouting reports and doing what he wants us to do," said Vaughn. "It's helping us win right now, and everyone is buying into it and we play hard every day in practice and compete against each other."
Things are going well for the Bearcats now, but not too long ago all hope seemed lost. But Coach Cronin says despite starting the conference season with three losses, he never lost faith in his team.
"Even when things weren't going our way we knew we just needed to keep practicing and improving," said Cronin. "Teams weren't going to continue to make every shot against us like the first three teams did in Big East play. We have grown in a lot of areas, but these guys have tried all along. There have been no major changes other than the fact that we have matured as a team."
Deonta Vaughn echoed Cronin's thoughts saying, "We knew we could play against of a lot of these teams, we just didn't know when we would all become one and buy into what the coach has been telling us and just play out hearts out. The last six or seven games we've been doing that and if we lose one we bounce right back. We just play our hearts out every time we get on the floor."
Cronin continued on regarding the Bearcats' success, saying that while their turnaround is definitely something special, the conference they have done it in makes it that much sweeter.
"When you have teams like Georgetown and Notre Dame, teams that were ranked in the top five in the nation at one point, sitting at 11th and 12th in your league it should show you how deep our league is," said Cronin. "People like to say that Georgetown wasn't a quality win, but the reason Georgetown is struggling is because we beat them twice. Give them two wins in those games and they would be in the top 25 and in the NCAA Tournament."
Cronin also spoke to the maturity his team has shown in the way they handle success, saying the way they played against St. Johns shows they have the ability to continue to play hard despite the praise they have received.
"My biggest concern by far has been handling success and accepting praise instead of deflecting praise," said Cronin. "We answered that question with the way we came out ready to play against St. Johns. Our mantra is be ready on game night because if you don't bring energy to the floor each night in this conference you will lose no matter who you play."
When the Bearcats travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers in front of the raucous "Pittsburgh Zoo," they will need to play with even more intensity than they have over the past few weeks if they hope to emerge with a giant upset.
"It's going to be tough," said Cronin. "The fact that our big guys have not gone against Dejuan Blair and Sam Young and the intensity they bring is a major concern of mine. But it's a great opportunity for us to go in and try to hold the floor for forty minutes. We have played well on the road, but we need to make sure we play well for the entire 40 minutes. It's going to be a great challenge for us and we are going to do our best to make sure we are ready."
Freshman power forward Yancy Gates says he will be ready. He specifically mentioned his excitement regarding the opportunity to go up against one of the best big men in the Big East.
"I always look forward to go against guys like Blair," said Gates. "I have watched a lot of film on him. He is the best rebounder in the Big East so he is just a strong, physical player."
It will be no easy task, but if the Bearcats can come away from Pittsburgh with a win, they will have all but cemented their place amongst the NCAA's elite 64 teams. Earning their spot in the tournament, Vaughn says, is something they hope to accomplish as a send off to two of their teammates.
"We have two seniors on the team who we really want to give a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament," said Vaughn. "We have Branden Miller who has actually given us a lot of quality minutes this year, and Mike Williams, who we don't know if he is coming back or not yet. So we just want to send them out knowing that they helped rebuild this program."