Propelling his Orangemen one game closer to an eventual automatic bid to NCAA Tournament and Big East championship after knocking down an improbable one-handed 21-foot leaner as time expired Wednesday afternoon, the overachieving sharpshooter from Scranton, PA downed the Bearcats and most likely their season. A seemingly insignificant game at the time (at least from the Bearcats' perspective) seems to have determined the direction their postseason trek would follow: a path to a dead end into the NIT.
Cincinnati (19-12) finished 8-8 in their inaugural Big East season, which was good enough for a eighth place finish in what most around the country consider the most dominant top-to-bottom conference in college basketball. However, for some reason, it was not good enough for those members of the 2006 NCAA Tournament selection committee. With most prognosticators predicting somewhere between seven to nine teams from the conference to participate in the Big Dance, Cincinnati was considered a virtual lock to dance coming into the Big East Tournament. While many doubted this prognosis at junctures throughout the season, a key win over West Virginia (#6) and narrow defeats to both Villanova (#1) and everybody's miracle Syracuse (#5) late in the season and a 32 RPI ranking going into postseason play had most fitting the ‘Cats for dancing shoes.
While the Bearcats did lose three of their final four games to close out the season, each of those three losses came to NCAA qualifiers, including a Seton Hall (#7) team that was expected to lose out to Cincinnati due in large part to their struggles against big team opposition (a combined 95-point deficit to Duke and UConn) and their struggles as of late.
The lack of an at-large bid for Cincinnati is further convoluted by the Bearcats overwhelming strength of schedule. Playing 15 games against 13 tournament goers, the Bearcats proved themselves Tournament ready by taking on potential NCAA caliber teams all season long – in and out of conference play. While UC did finish with a less than stellar 5-8 record against NCAA teams, their willingness to play tough competition is not something that can be overlooked – especially out of conference, as UC defeated Murray State and LSU and had Memphis on the ropes for most of the game despite a depleted lineup.
Many will ask how an objective panel of educated selectors could possibly come to the conclusion that UC was not one of the 34 most deserving, most talented teams in the country not to have earned automatic bids with this seemingly compelling evidence in front of them. To that inquiry I will respond to the fact that one of those words used to describe the electorate ill fits their description – and it is not educated (though, at times I wonder). Despite the claims of objectivity during the selecting, it must be noted that the selection committee for the 2006 NCAA Tournament was heavily comprised of officials from schools that generally earn the label of low- to mid-major. When you add their personal subjectivity to the fact that Cinderella sells, it makes sense that teams such as Air Force (who was on everybody's draft board) and four teams from the Missouri Valley Conference were giving preference over teams such as the Bearcats.
Some will have questions about the heavy dose of RPI in the selection committee may have impacted the selection of those Mid-Majors that took UC's place in the field of 65 make little sense as UC had a relatively high RPI in the mid-to-low 30's to conclude the season (Missouri State, a rare MVC snub, finished with the lowest RPI not to make the field in history (19)).
While many fans, experts and media personalities, such as CBS' Seth Davis and Clark Kellogg to name a few, were surprised by the seemingly blatantly horrid omission of the Bearcats, upon deeper review it makes some sense as to why there will be a noticeable absence of red and black from the Tournament for the first time in 15 years (1991). Playing devil's advocate for the selection committee for a brief second, the collection of basketball know-it-alls and collegiate bigwigs end with eight teams selected from the Big East this season – a new record high. While the era of the 16-team power conference is something new to college basketball, the idea of nine or more selections is a daunting number, as it would seem that mediocrity among the elites would be more highly coveted then was dominance in a smaller conference.
Teams such as South Florida, Cincinnati, and UConn, teams at the bottom, middle, and top of the Big East, all have similar recruiting budgets, facilities, recruiting perks and storied traditions (for the most part). Teams such as Southern Illinois and Air Force cannot spend the same dollars as the "big time" schools – why they are mid-majors – so the tournament committee decided to give them a shot (in addition to the fact that seeing Cinderella succeed is compelling television). Trips to the Tournament for teams like Northern Iowa will be used as a recruiting tool and help to level the gap that booster dollars and "Nike money" have helped create. While it is hard to see how this form of athletic affirmative action is fair, which it is not, it is the way the Selection Committee has operated in recent years.
So with that being said, it might not be the inclusion of the mid-majors that hurt the Bearcats most of all. UC fans, players, and coaches alike may have to look a little closer to find the true reason as to why they will be playing in the NIT (not the Not Invited Tournament, by the way) this March for the first time since that 18-12 mark in 1991. By looking within the conference standing, you will see that UC was in actuality competing with the two other "bubble teams" (Seton Hall and Syracuse) for the eighth and maybe ninth spot. Despite an unbelievably surge in the middle portion of the season, and some epic battles during the later half, it was the struggles the Bearcats and successes of the Orangemen and Pirates in the later portion of the season that saw UC left out come Selection Sunday.
Coming into the conference tournament it was the Jim Boeheim's Syracuse squad that was most likely the team that would be "left out" today if it were not McNamara's heroics this past week. However, Syracuse, unlike Cincinnati, managed to take their postseason destiny into their own hands, winning four close games in an equal number of days to win a spot in the postseason. The Bearcats early exit from the conference tournament left their fate in the hands of a mid-major favoring selection committee.
Even though UC could not have earned a position over the Orange, the manner by which the Bearcats played the 2006 Big East champions should have been taken into account. While Cincinnati did lose twice to Syracuse this season, a team that was ninth is Big East play, UC did manage to knock off the Orange in the Carrier Dome in commanding fashion late in the season. While Seton Hall defeated the Orange in their only meeting this season, 68-61, in Syracuse, if the committee were to examine the two losses closely they would not seem that bad. They would have seen that the first loss by the ‘Cats came early on in the season when the team was on the verge of entering an extended slump after the loss of several key members of their squad, and the second loss was suffered on a last-second heave on a neutral court to the eventual Big East Tournament champion.
What you are left with is an examination of Seton Hall in comparison with UC to see who deserved the final Big East spot. The Pirates, who struggled during the Big East Tournament, bowing out early after losing by 13 to Rutgers on day one of competition (as did UC), endured a damaging three-game conference losing streak against average Big East squads such as Notre Dame (at home), St. John's (road) and DePaul (road) near the end of the season. However, to their credit, Seton Hall knocked off UC by 10 points, and then defeated conference tournament finalist and NCAA birth-receiving Pitt to close out the regular season. These quality wins, mixed with the 9-7 record in conference by Seton Hall gave them a seventh place finish in the Big East (one win and position better than UC) the edge come tourney time.
While it is disappointing that a "no show" on Selection Sunday will put an early under-whelming close to a UC season that seemed to transcend the entire negative that followed the Bearcats all season long, it is hard to call this season a failure. At first look UC's trip to the NIT (which, in a cruel bit of irony, will culminate in the place that basically cost UC a bid to the Tournament – Madison Square Garden) looks like a failure after an inability to recruit all season, the turmoil about the coaching situation, and the loss of several Bearcats to various situations. However, upon deeper review, the way in which the University, the fans and the city managed to rally around this ragtag group of "no names", role players, youngsters and footballers makes this season a success. No one in his or her right mind gave this Huggins-less Bearcat squad with a relative no-name at the helm much of a chance this season – especially after the loss of Armein Kirkland, DeAndre Coleman, Ryan Patzwald Erik Murray, Abdul Herrera (failed to qualify by NCAA standards), Chadd Moore (five games) and Keith LeGree (assistant coach). Even though Andy Kennedy's debut into college coaching will leave no banners to soar high above the floor at Fifth Third Arena, it is undeniable the mark that AK and his boys have made in our hearts.
Great work, Bearcats!