The Cincinnati Bearcats are 25-4, 14-2 and have now won 11 out of the last 12. They sit tied for first place with Houston with just one more games in between what is sure to be a hell of a regular season finish at the Shoemaker Center. Before the Bearcats final regular season showdown with Memphis the Houston Cougars hosted ESPN College Gameday and the UCF Knights and lets just say Knight fell in Houston.
The concern with this version of the basketball Bearcats isn’t their record. On all accounts they’ve overachieved from what was expected of them this year, rightfully or not. This is still true.
I get sports fans in Cincinnati are jaded. The failure of any team, colligate or professional to bring home a title in the past 30 years seems long overdue. So I see two different ways to see this year’s Bearcats basketball team. You either see a team that can close out tight games or you see a team that fails to put lesser teams away early.
At first I was in the first camp. Tight games build teams for a run in March and builds toughness, character, and winners. The Bearcats have been in their fair share of nail biters this season. Starting with an early struggle against the visiting Milwaukee team where the Bearcats eventually pulled out a 74-63 win that many thought was too close for comfort that early in the season. Fast forward to Vegas where the Bearcats pulled out a 65-61 win despite Jarron Cumberland scoring a mere 3 points.
Move into conference play where after the Bearcats beat the brakes off of Tulane they let ECU hang around way too long on the road and got beat by a lowly AAC foe 73-71.
The Bearcats followed up that game by going to the wire in Tulsa and needed an OT to go on a win 70-65.
Not wanting our blood pressure to reach safe levels the Bearcats came home and played another OT game, this time with UConn. They won that one 74-72.
The Bearcats went over to the city of Brotherly Love and served up a Philly special pulling out a super tough 72-68 win.
Of the past 7 games the Bearcats have only won in double digits once, against Wichita St when Cumberland put up 27 points at home. You have a close road loss in Houston in that same span as well as 5 point win at Memphis, a 5 point win against UCF, and now as of today a 4 point win in Hartford, CT. A game that needed late game heroics from the two senior point guards Justin Jenifer, and Cane Broome. Now add in a 3 point win over SMU in Dallas. A game that saw Cumberland again, pedestrian putting up double digits this time, 12, but about 7 points under his average on the year.
For his third game in a row Cumberland was MIA. Which you could argue is a reason why the Bearcats have struggled to put away these teams. But it’s not the only reason. In those games mentioned Cumberland is averaging 18.2 points a game. That’s pretty good by most standards.
Cumberland made up for his three game absence by going off for 26 against Memphis on Saturday night. It looked like another off night for JC with him only posting 5 points at the half. Out of halftime though he came out looking for blood. He finished strong and carried the team down the stretch. With less than a minute remaining though the Tigers cut the 10 point lead down to 2.
As JC started to torch Memphis it was time for the Tigers to turn back into the Tigers that I love beating. A team that wants to kick, talk shit to win a game, not actually play basketball better.
The Freshman Logan Johnson sealed the win with, what else? A defensive steal with 4 seconds left to ensure the Tigers couldn’t throw up a shot at the buzzer.
What does all of this mean? Even though it’s now March, it’s still too early to tell for me. It’s awesome the Bearcats have a legit shot at winning 30 games again this season and are pretty much a lock for a 9th straight NCAA tournament but we need a run in that thing. Will these close games full of adversity push this Bearcats team over the tournament hump and propel them to a Sweet 16 birth? Maybe you’re a jaded Cincy sports fan and see these close wins as a red flag and yet another early exit from the tournament. At this point in time I honestly don’t know what we’ll happen but I know it will be epic.