If Cincinnati can continue to perform the way the Bearcats did against Connecticut -- playing physical with the ability to hit open shots while maintaining their focus throughout the game -- they'll make good on some of the preseason predictions that placed them in the top quarter of the Big East.
But there's also the worry that Cincinnati will slip back into the mode in which the Bearcats found themselves on Dec. 16 when they were dominated 64-47 at UAB. Considering Cincinnati will travel to usual conference lightweight Rutgers on Jan. 2, that inconsistency might concern Bearcats coach Mick Cronin.
"The one danger in playing those preconference games -- when you play a UAB, who has a very good coach and who has veteran guys who don't lose at home -- your players don't have the same respect," Cronin said. "Our guys understand Rutgers. They saw Rutgers play North Carolina, and they saw it was close. They know Rutgers is in the Big East. The mature team that's able to hang in all year game to game to game is the team that's going to come out with the most wins."
For their part, the Bearcats are echoing Cronin's sentiments. After the debacle in Birmingham, they recovered for a 28-point win against Lipscomb and a 17-point victory vs. Winthrop. But the true test came Wednesday against No. 10 Connecticut, and UC passed with a 71-69 victory.
Now the trick is to take that enthusiasm into Rutgers, which cut a big Tar Heels lead to just four points in the second half before falling Dec. 28.
"We need to play every team like they're a top-25 team," senior guard Deonta Vaughn said. "We have to think every team is a top-10 team and play up to our level, because we're a top-25 team in our eyes."
The biggest worry for Cincinnati when it faces the Scarlet Knights is sophomore guard Mike Rosario, who has scored double-digit points in 38 of his 44 career games. Against the Bearcats last season, he managed only 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including 1 of 7 from the 3-point line.
CINCINNATI 71, UCONN 69:
Freshman guard Lance Stephenson hit the game-winning free throws with 0.7 seconds to play, finishing with 21 points, and the Bearcats knocked off the 10th-ranked Huskies for the first time in school history at Fifth Third Arena on Wednesday.
Senior guard Deonta Vaughn scored a season-high 17 points and moved into eighth place in Cincinnati scoring history, passing school legend Jack Twyman and finishing the night with 1,601 points. But, because he fouled out with 1:30 to play, he wasn't on the floor for the crazy ending.
After an Ibrahima Thomas jam gave the Bearcats (9-3, 1-0 Big East) a 69-66 lead with 17 seconds to play, Huskies sophomore guard Kemba Walker nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing to tie the game with nine seconds remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Stephenson dribbled around Huskies senior guard Jerome Dyson -- who led both squads with 24 points while pitching in five assists and seven rebounds -- and then ran into UConn senior forward Gavin Edwards.
A foul was called, and the officials huddled around a monitor to see how much time remained. They decided 0.7 seconds were left, and Stephenson hit his two foul shots -- despite Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin screaming at him to miss the second.
A last-second half-court heave by Dyson hit halfway up the backboard and fell to the floor, sending the Huskies (9-3, 0-1) to a conference-opening loss for the second straight season. Senior forward Stanley Robinson chipped in 22 points to go with seven rebounds.
UConn, the nation's leader in blocked shots with 10.1 per game, didn't have a single block.
--G Deonta Vaughn broke out of a shooting slump by hitting 3-of-3 from beyond the arc against Lipscomb, a good sign heading into Big East play.
--F Lancy Stephenson, the hot freshman, has not been intimidated as he moves into college play. He was leading the Bearcats in scoring with 12.5 points a game going into the Christmas break.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE:
Saturday in New Jersey. That's how it is going to be early in the Big East season for Cincinnati. The Bearcats play consecutive games in the Garden State on the first two Saturdays of the month, first traveling to Rutgers after the conference opener against Connecticut, then playing at Seton Hall. Considering the power there is in the Big East, it's not really a bad way to open the season, getting UConn at home and then sandwiching a home game against Pitt between Rutgers and Seton Hall.
QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I truly believe we can compete with anybody if we lock in and focus." -- Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It was a roller-coaster ride through the early days of the season for Cincinnati. The Bearcats had enough good moments to move into the Top 25 at one point and enough bad ones to slip back out. Coach Mick Cronin benched F Yancy Gates and PG Cashmere Wright at one point to get them to play harder. If there was one discovery made in the first part of the season it was that G Dion Dixon is perfect coming off the bench as a sixth man. "I think he can provide you with energy on both ends," Cronin said. "You look for a guy who can come in off the bench and can change the game. He can come in and give you offensive rebounding. He can give you scoring and he can also give you defensive energy. He's a guy who's had a great attitude this year. He brings a lot of life to our team."
Alabama Birmingham 64, Cincinnati 47
Cincinnati 80, Lipscomb 52
Cincinnati 74, Winthrop 57
Cincinnati 71, Connecticut 69
At Rutgers, Saturday, Jan. 2
Vs. Pittsburgh, Monday, Jan. 4
Vs. Cal State-Bakersfield, Wednesday, Jan. 6
At Seton Hall, Saturday, Jan. 9
--Junior forward Ibrahima Thomas, who wasn't eligible to play until mid-December, continues to find his footing on the floor. Although he was 1 for 7 from the field against Connecticut, he brought good energy to the team while securing a team-high nine rebounds.
--Coach Mick Cronin still doesn't completely trust redshirt freshman guard Cashmere Wright when the game is nearing its conclusion. Against the Huskies, after Vaughn fouled out, Cronin inserted sophomore Dion Dixon into the lineup at point guard, leaving Wright -- who played only six minutes -- on the bench.
--Sophomore forward Yancy Gates didn't start for the third straight game, but he provided a solid performance. He finished with six points and three rebounds in 18 minutes, though he's still not completely out of Cronin's doghouse.