The college basketball season has officially ended for everyone. It's a disappointing time for yours truly because college basketball is far and away my favorite sport. The teams I've been rooting for my entire life, the teams that I've cared about the most, the teams that have meant the most to me have been college basketball teams. There is something about college hoops that separates it from the the other sports. One part is that it's a 30 game season played over 5 months. At Cincinnati, we've been able to watch these 18 and 19 year old freshmen come in and develop for 4 years. The player who showed up in November is not the player who left in March. At least, that's the plan anyway. We've seen Kenyon Martin, Steve Logan, Lenny Stokes, Danny Fortson, Cashmere Wright, Bobby Brannen and many others develop into Bearcats we will remember for ages. Steve Logan turned from kind of rolly polly freshman into a player of the year gunner who outscored a team. Kenyon Martin went from a guy who blocked shots into winning every award possible and was the first pick in the NBA draft. They started off as role players, then turned into leaders for Cincinnati. They became a part of our lives for 4 years.
This doesn't happen to this extent in other sports. College football is only 12 games. We are able to see the maturation of players not just from game to game, but of season to season. The past few years have been special when you take a step back. 5 years ago, the Bearcats were 18-14. They played a DePaul team in the Big East tournament that went through the conference slate without a win. That DePaul team was the worst team in Big East history. That DePaul team beat Cincinnati by 10.
4 years ago Lance Stephenson came to Cincinnati. Expectations were high that UC would be able to make the tournament. After an up and down year, Cincinnati had a 3 game run in the Big East tournament that saw them play so hard and with so much heart. They lost on a buzzer beater to West Virginia to end the miracle run. Cincinnati played an NIT game that allowed Deonta Vaughn to become the all time leader in assists at Cincinnati. Vaughn was forced to carry a horrible team through 4 years of rebuilding. He wanted to do it. He was able to get Cincinnati to a better place by the time he left. Deonta Vaughn was the best player on bad teams, but he did so much for this program. I hope people remember him later.
3 years ago our dreams started coming true. On the backs of guys like Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon and Rashad Bishop, guys who had grown and matured over the previous few seasons of losing, Cincinnati made the NCAA tournament. Cincinnati basketball was back. The Bearcats beat Missouri before falling to eventual national champion Connecticut.
Last year, the Bearcats took the next step. With Gates and Dixon as seniors and Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker starting as juniors, Cincinnati broke through to the Sweet 16. Cincinnati hadn't been to the Sweet 16 in over a decade. Even with the great teams Bob Huggins had, Cincinnati had only reached the Sweet 16 twice since 1996. Mick Cronin kicked down the door in 2012. A one year tournament run was one thing. Back to back NCAA tournaments culminating in a Sweet 16 appearance was another. Cincinnati made the finals of the Big East tournament. They hadn't made the finals of a conference tournament since Tony Bobbitt was a Bearcat. It had been a dark time for the program. 2012 was the light.
This season was a step back from that. Cincinnati had surpassed their season win total every year Cronin was the coach until this year. The only way they could have surpassed the win total from last year was by playing in the national title game last night. In a year where Cincinnati was expected to contend for a Big East title, the Bearcats finished 10th in the standings. Cincinnati was bounced in the second round of the Big East tournament. Cincinnati was a 10 seed for the NCAA tournament. They were bounced in the first round of that.
Things ended with some disappointment, but there are a lot of positive things to point at. Cincinnati won 20 games for the 3rd straight season. They made the NCAA tournament for the 3rd year in a row. Cashmere Wright cemented his place in Cincinnati history by playing the most games out of anyone to wear a Bearcat uniform. He had the most steals in Cincinnati history. Wright started at point guard for 3 years. In each of those 3 years, Cincinnati went to the NCAA tournament.
Having a season full of unmet expectations is also a positive in a way. It takes a lot to start to expect to win. As a fan base, we've reached the point where we know Cincinnati can win, can make the tournament and can win tournament games. Before 2011, those expectations were not there. Mick Cronin has built a good thing. He's built something that can work and that can be successful. You aren't going to have chances to win every year. The window is very small. When you have players that you believe can win and do special things, losing in the first round hurts and is a disappointment. Just making the tournament isn't going to satisfy the fanbase like the first two years of it did. Now that Mick has built a winner, we want to see them win.
Everyone wants to win and win right away. As fans, it's easy to look down the road at a program like Louisville. They are winning the national title. They won the Sugar Bowl. They are a comparable program to Cincinnati. If you grew up in the 90s, Louisville was a sagging program in basketball. Denny Crum's era ended with a whimper. Cincinnati was making the tournament every year. Louisville cycled back towards the top of college basketball like all good programs do. Cincinnati had a cycle the other way. The good news is that Cincinnati is cycling back towards the top. UC doesn't have the fancy, NBA style arena. They don't have the Hall of Fame coach. But we know Cincinnati basketball is special. We know that Cincinnati basketball can hang banners. We know Cincinnati can be #1.
I don't think it's unrealistic to think that those things can happen again. A season like 2012-13 might be evidence to the contrary to opposing minds. Sometimes you have to have the bubble of expectations popped. It can be a necessary step in moving forward. It's impossible to improve your win total every season as a coach. It's very hard to win in the NCAA tournament. It was very hard to win in the Big East. Mick Cronin said that he never had a team that worried as much as this team. While that bothers some people who hear that, I think it's not unreasonable to say that this won't be a problem for another Mick Cronin team. I hope to hell that he knows how to handle it now. Expectations can be hard for the players. They read the same things we read. They read the things we write on twitter. This club was not good at channeling their energy towards winning. That's something for Mick Cronin to work on in the future.
The 2013-14 Bearcats are not going to a favorite to win their league. Not with Louisville and Memphis and Connecticut. I don't mind though. Cronin has gotten the most out of the teams that people didn't believe in. He's made them buy in. I think next year's team will compete. It's not unreasonable at all to start expecting Cincinnati to contend for league titles every year. Not with our league being a normal league instead of a monster league. Last season was a misstep. The good news for the program is that our misstep season resulted in 22 wins and an NCAA tournament berth. This next season is a bit of a rebuilding effort, but the future is bright, my friends. The future is bright.