But a coveted double-bye, giving UC a pass to the quarterfinals, was put into flux after a 46-45 loss at South Florida on Feb. 26, which lifted the Bulls into a fourth-place tie with Georgetown. The loss ended a three-game winning streak for UC as it scored a season-low 45 points.
Aside from conference tournament implications, the loss at USF was disheartening for the Bearcats, who were coming off an emotional victory at home over then-No. 17 Louisville.
"You hate to lose a game at the foul line," said UC head coach Mick Cronin following the loss.
The Bulls had just eight free throw attempts in the game, but made four straight in the final seconds to seal the victory.
It was the continuation of an offensive trend for the Bearcats, who have yet to prove they can play consistently well and win when they aren't hitting perimeter shots. UC went just 3-for-14 from 3-point range in losing to USF, after going 11-for-27 in the win over Louisville.
The Bearcats have stepped up their defensive intensity since a 95-78 loss to Marquette on Feb. 11, holding four straight opponents to under 41-percent shooting. But they need to get more production from Yancy Gates, who scored just four points against South Florida. Gates needs to be more of a scoring option for the Bearcats in the post.
Now UC prepares for its final week of the regular season, beginning with a grudge rematch at home against Marquette on Feb. 29 and a trip to Villanova in the finale on March 3.
--Cincinnati's victory over Louisville last week improved head coach Mick Cronin's record to 4-3 against his former boss and mentor Rick Pitino. Cronin was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under Pitino at Louisville for three seasons.
--Entering their Feb. 29 home game against Marquette, the Bearcats are 70-31 at Fifth Third Arena under Mick Cronin.
--Cincinnati has 133 blocked shots this season, most during the Cronin era. They had 129 in 34 games last year.
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- The Bearcats have four victories against ranked opponents this season, the most during Mick Cronin's tenure as head coach. UC has won 7 of its past 11 games vs. ranked opponents going into this week's game against Marquette.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "No, we talk about execution and improvement as a team and individuals. We don't worry about things we can't control and we don't let other people define us. If you do what you are supposed to do as a person and player, that stuff all takes care of itself." -- UC head coach Mick Cronin when asked about his team's NCAA Tournament chances.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Marquette, Feb. 29
KEY MATCHUPS: The Bearcats will be looking to avenge their worst defensive performance of the season which came on Feb. 11 in a 95-78 loss at the Bradley Center. Marquette shot 56 percent and went 7-for-18 from 3-point range that night. Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom had 23 points each for the Golden Eagles.
--at Villanova, Mar. 3
KEY MATCHUPS: The Bearcats edged Villanova 82-78 in this season's first meeting, despite 39 points from Maalik Wayns who went 6 of 13 from 3-point range. UC will need a better defensive effort this time around after allowing 45 first-half points in that game.
FUTURES MARKET: If the Bearcats are going to have a future in the NCAA Tournament their consistency on defense will need to continue to improve. Since giving up 95 points in a loss at Marquette on Feb. 11, the Bearcats held three straight opponents to under 38-percent shooting. USF shot 40.4 percent on Feb. 26 against South Florida but scored only 46 points.
--Junior G Jaquon Parker left the Louisville game on Feb. 23 with an undisclosed injury late in the first half and did not return. But he recovered in time to make his sixth consecutive start on Feb. 26 at South Florida.
--Senior F Yancy Gates is on track to become the first player in school history to lead the team in rebounding four consecutive seasons. Gates averaged 9.3 rebounds through his 22 games played.