Normally, after the University of Cincinnati men's basketball game, Bearcat Insider dubs the standout UC performer(s) the BCI Player of the Game. Whether they stuffed the scoring column, dominated the glass, led the team in assists, or served as an emotional leader for the ‘Cats over the course, or even a crucial portion of the game, at least one Bearcat hoopster stood out in each game the team had played this season. Someone seemed to play well even in a losing effort! However, in Wednesday night's effort against Villanova in Philadelphia, the first-ever meeting between the two schools in the City of Brotherly Love, this rendition of Bearcat basketball set a new season low, as BCI found no one deserving of the award.
With the defeat, UC reasserts its last place position in the Big East standings. Cincinnati, whose record drops to 10-15 (1-10 Big East) after starting the 2006-07 campaign 8-2, must find a way to make up two and a half games to tie in terms of wins and losses to crawl out of the conference basement. Making matters worse for UC is the fact that the two teams leading them in the standings each hold the season tiebreaker with wins of the ‘Cats (Rutgers (2) and USF). The Bearcats have five games remaining this season.
The 64-48 dominating effort displayed by Villanova was undoubtedly one of the most lopsided defeats Cincinnati has endured this year. While other teams may have physically controlled the action more persuasively, most notably Ohio State (72-50) and Memphis (88-55), the match-up with the Big East foe was the most demoralizing effort by far. The Wildcats, who improve to 18-7 on the year, including a 6-5 mark in Big East play, utilized a combination of tenacious defense and sloppy Cincinnati ball handling to induce a sizeable first-half run that simply took both the ball and the opportunity for victory out of UC's hands. The Wildcats, who currently reside a half-game ahead of Notre Dame for the eight spot in a tightly contested Big East race, helped to induce 16 Cincinnati turnovers on the game (12.3 TOs season). Eight of the turnovers, including six in the first half, came from the ‘Cats presumed top ball handlers and floor generals, Jamual Warren (5 total, 3 first half) and Deonta Vaughn (3 total, 2 first half).
The lowly UC effort started off slowly, which is a description that grants too much credit to the brand of play the Mick Cronin-led cronies displayed on the hardwood in The Pavilion. While their play during the opening minutes of the contest brought about a sense of optimism to the few dedicated ‘Cat fans who were solidly behind them against Villanova, the Bearcats over the next dozen minutes of play left their faithful followers to see their hopes after a victory dashed. After UC jumped out to an early 6-3 lead against the Wildcats with 17:09 to play in the opening period, ‘Nova responded with a 22-0 run over a span of just more than eleven minutes of action. Though the Bearcats would fight the other ‘Cats evenly for the duration of the opening stanza, 12-11, the damage had been done to both Cincinnati's momentum and their hopes of putting an end to their historic losing streak, which now stands at seven games. (UC remains winless in true road games this season (0-6) and fall to 1-9 outside the Queen City (beat Temple in Atlantic City).
Though they trailed by 17 points (34-17) after the first 20 minutes of action, Cincinnati would battle the Wildcats point-for-point during the second period of play. In fact, largely due to the play of their reserves who spelled the team's seemingly effort-barren starting corp, the Bearcats would take the scoring advantage of ‘Nova for the half, 31-30. However, the offensive debacle that transgressed for UC during the middle portion of the first half doomed any hope of a come-from-behind effort for the ‘Cats. As has been the case all season long, extended stints of sluggish play, particularly regarding the team's shot selection and ball control for periods at a time, greatly diminished the ‘Cats odds at victory. Not only did the Bearcats' turnover total (12; 3 assists) outmatch that of their rebounding total (11; 2 offensive), it nearly equaled that of both their field-goal attempts (15) and point output (17) during the period. In actuality, if Villanova had failed muster a possession outside those earned via Cincinnati turnovers, the Wildcats would have equaled UC's total offensive production for the period, as they parlayed 12 turnovers into 17 points.
Most readers of this write-up will surely ask themselves how BCI could possibly believe that this effort against the Wildcats was the most under-whelming effort the ‘Cats have displayed this year. Simply regard the team's track record this season will cause some to believe this claim is unwarranted. They will likely state that Villanova is a quality team and that the Bearcats only lost by 16 points, which is a relatively meager total given some of the scoring deficits the team has faced this season. If you combine this with the fact that there was really nothing on line for the Bearcats, given their record and the likelihood that Cincinnati's tumultuous season will merciful end five games from now without a bid into the postseason for the first time in 17 years. However, upon deeper reflection, it may be the meeting with this less-than-super ‘Nova squad that marks the exact point where many of the UC faithful will note the ultimate implosion of the 2006-07 season.
Casual observers to Cincinnati Bearcat basketball will see that nine of the 16 losses this season nine have been by double-digits, including four games that either matched or surpassed the point differential between Cincinnati and victory against the Wildcats. However, .deeper review of this statistics shows that the Bearcats' three of their worst defeats of the season came at the hands of Top-10 teams. Ohio State (#2), Memphis (#8), and Pittsburgh (#7; 67-51), to whom UC lost by a combined 71 points, are three of the top squads in the nation and were playing that way at the time of their head-to-head showdown with Cincinnati. Each program is loaded with young talent, size, and/or veteran leadership, all of which is currently missing from the Cincinnati. Any prognosticator predicting an upset of those squads would have been looking for the unemployment line the next week. A loss to UC would have been highly unlikely, especially given the youth of the predicted 13th place finisher the Big East was believed to have the services of big men Abdul Herrera, Adam Hrycaniuk and Hernol Hall at their disposal. The Bearcats also had quality bad losses to the likes of Georgetown (#14), the preseason 2nd place finisher in the Big East and a Sweet 16 participant last season, and Louisville (18-8, 8-4 Big East). Given the quality of opponent and the nature of the schedule when they were played, given that they were all have early- or mid-season placement in the schedule, none of these blowout defeats had the impact of Wednesday night's contest.
Cincinnati does have three loses by considerable margins of victory to programs that are far from NCAA Tournament-worthy, including Ohio University (79-66 in Cleveland), Rutgers (54-42) and USF (74-59). While they were all surprising and greatly affected the morale of the program and its fans, none of these loses affected the Bearcats with such devastating magnitude and the loss suffered at the hands of Villanova. For instance, the other three loses occurred while the Bearcats were playing undeniably their worst stretch of basketball of the season. This period spanned a four-game span (Dec. 30 - Jan. 14) of double-digit defeats that also included the team's lose to Memphis. UC began the season enjoying a great deal of success in non-conference play. However, after the reality check the talented freshmen of the Buckeyes forced them to endure, the ‘Cats were never able to recover. While wins were still hard, actually impossible to come by, the Bearcats began to play better, losing three games late in the contest.
Having suffered a series of narrow defeats during the recent portion of conference play, including their past two contests against Providence, a one-point loss, and Rutgers, a game that saw UC lead late in the affair, the Bearcats needed a victory (or at least a solid performance) to validate their successes on the court. Talking to the team, seeing how the desire for that single elusive victory was worn on their sleeve before, during and after practice and watching the heartbreak on (some) of their faces after defeats, it was clear that this game was UC's opportunity to put some positive back into this season.. The Bearcats weren't only playing for a victory and a chance to remain in the Big East Tournament picture, they were playing for the respect of both their fans and those of college basketball in general. More importantly, they were playing for themselves. This ragtag collection of makeshift Bearcats was playing to prove they deserved to privilege to wear the jerseys once donned by hoop legends Oscar Robertson, Jack Twyman and the whole host of great Cincinnati ballers they saw growing up.
After hearing Coach Cronin and Vaughn, a freshman not used to losing, preach how this team has not quit on the season all week, I am now beginning to question.
While the 2006-07 season is still has five scheduled dates on the calendar, it appears that at this point it may be safe to officially say this season is over.