COLUMN: Where does Greater Cincinnati stand in the discussion of college basketball epicenter?

CINCINNATI -- The dust has settled on another NCAA hoops season and big surprise, the North Carolina Tar Heels have another title. 

It’s the latest piece of hardware to make its way to Tobacco Road, a stretch of North Carolina considered by many to be the epicenter of college hoops. It’s hard to argue, with three schools within 25 miles of each other boasting 13 national championships -- UNC now with six, Duke University with five and North Carolina State with two.

Add their fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member and often-ranked Wake Forest about 100 miles to the west and you definitely have a college basketball hotbed.

It’s no secret that our region can make a case for this imaginary hoops epicenter title when you get into this 100 miles in each direction business.

Many would contend that the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Ohio State and Indiana should be added to the mix of our “local” teams. There’s certainly enough of a fan base for each to be considered our teams, especially UK. And UK and Louisville don’t take a back seat to UNC and Duke in prestige.

We can't forget Dayton either. Archie Miller left the Flyers in great shape as Anthony Grant takes over the program. It's definitely part of the regional equation.

But if we’re talking seriously local, as in the kind of local UNC, Duke and NC State have, how close are we to making a case for being the best?

If the judgment is based on national titles and final four appearances, we don’t hold a candle to that triumvirate. Other than our Cincinnati Bearcats being dominant in the early 1960s and winning a couple of titles, a UC final four appearance in 1992 and Xavier making some nice runs to the elite eight in recent years, we don’t have the firepower that UNC and Duke bring to the table.

However, there are signs that in the coming years we can get more into that discussion. Taking a look at our four truly local schools, here’s why:

Cincinnati Bearcats

There was a time during the Bob Huggins-era of the ‘90s and early 2000s that UC battled for No. 1 seeds and McDonald’s All-American recruits. But with Huggins’ fall from grace went the program.

UC’s Jacob Evans will be a key player for the Bearcats in 2017-18. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Even though the sting of the program being gutted sticks with many fans, no one can deny the resurrection that coach Mick Cronin has accomplished since taking over in 2006. The Bearcats have 20 or more wins in seven straight seasons -- including 30 this past season -- and have made the NCAA tournament every year in that stretch.

Big-name players again play for UC. They might not be as initially ballyhooed as Kenny Satterfield or DerMarr Johnson, but players like Sean Kilpatrick and Troy Caupain have developed into stars. Current players like Jarron Cumberland and Jacob Evans have that potential.

UC is not only back to being stable, it's a very good program. The Bearcats are hurt by a weak conference that doesn’t offer enough built-in schedule strength. And if our area is ever going to sniff Tobacco Road status, UC will need to go further than Sweet 16s in the tournament. That said, things are definitely pointing up for the Bearcats.

Xavier Musketeers

Xavier has long been the little engine that could and did it again this year. Unlike UC, the Musketeers play in a great conference. Much like UC, they develop young players into stars -- recent NBA draft entrants Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner being proof of that.

J.P. Macura was one of the heroes of Xavier’s elite eight run. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Xavier has two huge things going for it: A devout fan base that packs Cintas Center for every game and head coach Chris Mack, who has become a perennial candidate at bigger schools but to this point has stayed loyal to his hometown. Mack has proven to be both a terrific recruiter and game coach, a combination that has kept Xavier strong and dangerous every March.

There’s no reason to think Xavier will sag anytime soon. Even if Mack were to leave, Xavier’s lineage of successful coaches creates confidence that a new leader would emerge.

Much like UC, Xavier will need to go further in the tournament to raise the area’s prominence. Gonzaga and Villanova have shown the past two season that a small, Catholic schools can play for titles. If UC must become our poor man’s UNC, then Xavier has to be our poor man’s Duke. That’s no doubt a reach, but the point is those two are our foundation.

Northern Kentucky Norse

Here’s where things get interesting. NKU is not new to our area, but it is new to life in Division I and made a huge splash in its first year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament. The Norse’s showing against UK in round one was a huge building block for a program that is establishing an identity.

NKU’s Lavone Holland III dunks against the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bigger than Xavier and with a nicer venue than UC, NKU already holds some advantages. Lack of D-I history and being in a one-bid mid-major conference are its shortcomings.

Much like UC and Xavier, it has a homegrown coach in John Brannen who has gotten this team to heights no one expected so soon. Brannen’s recruiting has been smart, nabbing Kentucky kids who fit his system and showed they can play with the big boys.

If the Norse don’t take a step back and are able to make another tournament, they'll add to this area's hoops mojo.

Miami RedHawks

This is definitely our wild card and likely won’t raise the local profile overnight. But there is hope.

Last week Miami introduced Jack Owens as its new head coach. A disciple of Purdue coach Matt Painter, Owens has been part of successful programs throughout his coaching career, making it to four Sweet 16s as an assistant. By all accounts, he is a winner.

New head coach Jack Owens will try to turn around the Miami RedHawks. (Greg Lynch/Dayton Daily News)

Rebuilding won’t be easy. The biggest bright spot of an 11-21 season for the RedHawks was Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year Michael Weathers, who averaged a team-leading 16.4 points per game. Weathers and his twin brother Marcus, who chipped in 9.9 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game, announced they were leaving Miami after the coaching change.

In other words, Owens needs to reload. He plans on doing so by recruiting the Midwest hard, similar to Brannen keeping the focus more local.

It’s not impossible for Miami to be good again. It’s a program with a strong history, including 20 MAC regular-season titles and renowned players over the years like Wayne Embry, Ron Harper and Wally Szczerbiak.

Miami might be a long way from an NCAA Tournament bid, but if the RedHawks manage to be like NKU and get ahead of schedule, we could be looking at four teams in close proximity being relevant in the NCAA picture. It’s a big if.

Better comparison?

OK, we’re not going to become Tobacco Road anytime soon, but it’s fun to dream. Maybe the better bet is to set our sights a little lower for the time being. What other city could we look to leapfrog?

In terms of closely linked schools, Philadelphia’s Big 5 -- Villanova, La Salle, Temple, St. Joseph’s and Penn -- has been a longtime benchmark for close-proximity rivalries.

I know you want to say, “La Salle hasn’t been relevant since Lionel Simmons!” But keep in mind the Explorers made the sweet 16 in 2013. Temple and St. Joe’s were in the 2016 tourney, with St. Joe’s knocking off UC. And, of course, Villanova won the 2016 title and the Big East, Xavier’s conference, in 2017. Penn, however, is not exactly in its glory days.

A nice collection, for sure, but do they have a rivalry has great as the Crosstown Shootout? They would probably say so, but there's no way.

We can at least aim for Philly if UC and Xavier can move to the next echelon, NKU can prove it wasn’t a one-hit wonder and Miami can rise from the ashes. It’s not impossible. We can even throw Dayton into the mix if we must have five. 

Maybe we’re not Tobacco Road, maybe we’re not even the Big 5, but there’s a lot to like moving forward about college hoops in Greater Cincinnati.

Dave Niinemets is a Digital Enterprise Editor at WCPO.com and oversees sports content for the digital team.

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