Cincinnati’s 72-51 defeat at the hands of an upstart SMU team on Saturday revealed the flaws of this season’s Bearcats, but also captured the struggles of a program perpetually flirting with both greatness and mediocrity.
Cincinnati was the first program to make three straight national title games and five consecutive Final Fours way back in 1963, but UC's trip to the Final Four in 1992 is the school's only appearance since. Following their historic run, Cincinnati’s program leveled out during the '70s before falling out of the national scene in the '80s.
Then Bob Huggins happened. The current West Virginia coach brought a fiery and brash attitude to a program in desperate need of resuscitation. While he may not have graduated many players, he did win a lot of games. He took Cincy back to the Final Four by his third year, and the school quickly emerged as a constant presence in the top 25.
The Huggy Bear era was marked by a slew of All-Americans, from Nick Van Exel to Danny Fortson and Kenyon Martin. But for all of the All-Americans and NBA products that came out of Cincinnati, Huggins’ teams only got past the Sweet 16 three more times during his tenure at the school. Still, the program became a power.
But while Cincy had found national prominence, there were indications the program had gone as high as it could go. For as much as Cincy won, they continued to rely on JuCo transfers and "trouble" kids. It presented an uncomfortable truth: for all the wins Huggins put on Cincy’s resume, he couldn’t make it a destination program. They weren’t a school that could recruit with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and UCLA. UC remained largely a small pond fish feasting on the weakness of Conference USA.
But then came the move to the Big East, which brought an opportunity to entrench themselves as a major program. But Huggins got a DUI. Ultimately, the program’s model led to its downfall when Huggins’ brush with the law allowed the school’s president the opportunity to make his graduation rate an issue.
After Huggins was forced out, the program was exceptionally vulnerable. It was a program whose resurgence had been built around a single figure; a larger-than-life coaching personality. Just as Cincinnati finally had an opportunity to cement itself as a top tier program, it lost its engine.
After a season with interim coach Andy Kennedy, Cincinnati turned to 35-year-old Murray State head coach Mick Cronin. A coach known for his recruiting acumen and Huggins-esque sideline fire, he inherited a broken program and set out to restore it in true Cincinnati style – with defense and high-effort basketball.
After four painful years, Cronin got UC back to the tournament, and they haven’t missed it since. In 2011-12, the Bearcats made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001. And entering Saturday night’s game against SMU, the Bearcats have reeled off 15 straight wins and climbed to No. 7 in the polls.
But how much higher can Cincinnatti go? Even this year’s Bearcats squad hints at the challenges the program will face. They’re a team reliant on all-out effort and a rugged style of basketball.
In the absence of any dynamic playmakers on offense, Cincinnati depends on a volume shooter who, while skilled, isn’t the explosive athlete that can carry a team to a title. The question is is whether their recent success will provide the momentum necessary to move the program forward.
Further clouding their quest is the emergence of SMU. In a strong mid-major conference already home to traditional powers UConn and Louisville, the scramble for talent is now a 4 team race, and the allure of Larry Brown could likely push SMU ahead of the men in black.
To be clear, a UC program led by Cronin will always scrap and fight its way to relevance, but they’re an effort-dependent outfit in a world where talent is king. And you have to wonder whether they always will be.