The Cincinnati Bearcats (24-5 overall; 13-3 American) will play their last game at Fifth Third Arena for the season before the start of the American Athletic Conference tournament. Deadlocked with Louisville for first place in the conference, Cincinnati looks to vault ahead starting Thursday night and then going into Saturday's road game against Rutgers as well. But coming into Fifth Third will be the Memphis Tigers (22-7 overall; 11-5 American) who recently just came off of a home victory against Louisville.
But the last game Fifth Third Arena also means the conclusion of a collegiate career in front of the home crowd for the three Bearcat seniors: Titus Rubles, Justin Jackson, and Sean Kilpatrick. Between these three seniors, the Bearcats have recorded a 98-37 record over the past four years - the most successful four-year stretch in Mick Cronin's tenure. In their final year wearing Cincinnati on their chest, the Bearcats' 24-5 record and their 13-3 conference record is Cronin's best at Cincinnati much thanks to the three seniors.
When asked about the closing chapters of Rubles, Jackson and Kilpatrick's career, coach Cronin talked wanting to spend extended time with the seniors all the way to the national championship.
"When it comes to senior day, I don't really get nostalgic about it because the season isn't over yet," Cronin said.
"When I plan on walking out with them, I want to spend another month with these guys. It's not like I'll never see them again. Senior night isn't a funeral, it's a celebration. Senior night is for the players and a celebration of the players."
Cronin then talked about the impact each senior has had this year on the team.
"Titus has made as much of an impact as any two-year player that I have ever seen play here. He has given us heart and soul. Rubles' toughness is a reason that we're here at 24-5. To win wars, you need to have soldiers and Titus is a soldier.... Jackson has come such a long ways in four years, it's like he's had two different careers, his first three years here and this year. But his common denominator is that all he cares about is winning....The thing about SK is that he will probably go down as one of the six or seven best players to play basketball at UC. The great thing about SK is that through the four years he's been here, along with having a great individual career, he's made the players around him better. I lie awake in bed some nights and I weep wondering how do I replace these guys."
Coach Cronin went back to talking about the upcoming game and preached to his team about limiting the turnovers which have been fatal to the Bearcats in the past two games.
"The turnovers have been killing us in the past couple of games," Cronin said. "I will agree that turnovers are a reason of our three conference losses especially against SMU and UConn. But what I will disagree with is that the turnovers were a 'problem' in our three conference losses. That would be the biggest understatement in the history of Journalism."
Cronin also touched on the subject of attempting to keep Justin Jackson out of foul trouble.
"He's an aggressive player, and he always has been," Cronin said. "That's what I love about him. But he has to learn how to be a calming influence of the offensive side of the ball. He has a few bad habits. Opposing coaches plan to attack from the inside at Jackson and a lot of times he can't resist fouling...He's like my daughter with Orange Sherbet, she can't resist it."
Cronin was then asked about his image and the publicity of Cincinnati basketball after his heated argument with referee Ted Valentine at UConn.
"Whatever publicity we can get, we'll take it," Cronin said with a smile on his face. "I talked to Rick Pitino about his facial hair issue and he's getting publicity from that. So whatever I do to help put Cincinnati on ESPN's front page, it helps recruiting...I am joking a little bit but whatever can help us get publicity, so be it. Unlike Pitino, I look horrible when I don't shave."
When asking the three seniors about how it will feel when they walk onto the court and off the court for the very last time, Rubles, Jackson and Kilpatrick all gave similar answers.
"It still feels surreal to be honest, like this is it, this is my last game in front of these fans," Kilpatrick said. "I'm probably going to cry a little before and probably a little after. That's when it will probably sink in."
"It's almost like a dream because I still remember playing my first game here," Jackson said. "Now it feels like, this is the end of the line and I really don't want it to end."
"Time flew by so fast here," Rubles said. "I still feel like I just got here as a transfer and now I'm playing my last game at home in front of these fans, it's been an honor to play here."
Kilpatrick was finally asked of his five best moments since being at the University of Cincinnati, he finally came up with his order after switching a few around. 1. Beating No. 2 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden in the semis of the 2012 Big East Tournament. 2. Game-winning three-pointer at UConn in January of 2012. 3. Game-winning shot against Marquette in January of 2013. 4. Senior Night (For now he says). 5. Defeating Florida State in the 2012 NCAA Tournament to move to the Sweet 16.