Blame the schedule, blame the conference, blame the coaches, blame whomever but heading into Sunday’s matchup against No. 11 Wichita State there wasn’t much on Cincinnati’s resume to back up its No. 10 ranking.
Sure, there was plenty of potential up and down a roster that looks as much like a Final Four contender as anyone else this year, but advanced metrics aside you’d be hard pressed to back it up.
Not anymore. Not with a 62-61 victory over the Shockers at Koch Arena that clinched an AAC title for the Bearcats. It’s a statement game for a team that was virtually down to it’s last chance at collecting a brand-name win.
Despite a 27-4 record, Cincinnati previously fell in matchups against No. 21 Xavier, No. 5 Florida, No. 19 Wichita State, and most concerning, a loss to unranked Houston on the road. That can’t happen when your ranked 67th in strength of schedule (95th in KenPom’s adjusted SOS).
Walking into an always-intimidating Koch Arena to take on a veteran Shockers team in a de facto conference title game and notching with a hard fought victory, however, takes away any worries about the Bearcats’ resume.
In fact, it makes lobbying for one of the top lines in the tournament rather easy. Mick Cronin’s team ran roughshod through the AAC, boasts one of the best defenses in college basketball (No. 2 overall according to KenPom) and looks demonstrably more aggressive than it did back when it struggled against the likes of Temple and UCF.
That was all on display Sunday as four starters reached double-digit scoring, led by junior Jacob Evans (19 points, seven rebounds). And it was only fitting that Cincinnati was forced to win it’s league on defense with WSU holding the final possession.
Twice the Shockers had the game in their hands. Twice they failed to create a decent scoring chance with Landry Shamet getting blocked before Conner Frankamp tried to go one-on-one to create a three-pointer for the win.
Then obviously the Shockers didn't want Frankamp trying to create off the dribble off the out of bounds play. Shamet wasn't available, he got a little panicky and threw up a quick shot over two defenders. Not ideal.
— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) March 4, 2018
Instead the game ended with Darral Willis Jr. holding the ball under the rim, blocked on all sides by Bearcats as he failed to find a spot to get the ball over the defense. The entire building went silent as time expired and Cincinnati ran back towards its bench to celebrate.
It took until the last game of the regular season, but the Bearcats have provided more than enough evidence that they’re primed for a deep run in March. What the NCAA selection committee will do with it is an entirely different question.
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