Fay: It's Sweet 16 or bust for Cincinnati Bearcats

Never mind their 29 wins: Only The Dance matters

CINCINNATI — Now the real work starts for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. 

The 34 games played so far were just a prelude. Whether UC’s season is deemed a success or failure will come down to what happens this weekend in Sacramento. The Bearcats, a sixth seed, will play the Wake Forest-Kansas State winner Friday (7:27 p.m. EDT on truTV).

If the Bearcats advance, they’ll play the UCLA-Kent State winner. 

It’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of months now that the Bearcats would get to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year. 

Five of the previous six trips ended on the first weekend. As difficult as it will be to advance — UCLA is really good — the Bearcats have to get to the Sweet 16 for this season to be considered anything but a slight disappointment — even with 29 wins in the books. 

RELATED: See game times, download bracket and check out our Live NCAA Tournament Blog

UC came into this year sort of like the Bengals went into theirs. The Bengals had to make the playoffs and advance to look at 2016 as a success. We all know what happened there.

The Bearcats, to their credit, took care of business in the regular season and in the American Athletic Conference tournament (until Sunday’s 71-56 loss SMU) to put themselves in a position to make the season a success by getting to the Sweet 16.

I think UC is in good position to do so — yes, even after Sunday’s debacle in Hartford. For top teams, the conference tournament is anticlimactic and does little to predict success in the NCAAs.  

This is by far Mick Cronin’s best offensive team, but the Bearcats also play defense and rebound like all Cronin teams. But the added element of the having six reliable scorers bodes well.

Consider this: The Bearcats average almost 75 points a game this season. In their last six NCAA Tournament defeats, the Bearcats have scored 58, 66, 63, 57, 51 and 76.

UC has two good inside scorers in Kyle Washington and Gary Clark, and four 3-point threats in Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, Jacob Evans and Jarrod Cumberland. Caupain, Evans and Cumberland also can get the ball to the rim.

But Cronin says the Bearcats have more than that going for them.

“This is by far the best chemistry of any team we’ve had,” Cronin said last week. “If you stand outside a meeting, which I’ll do, the jokes that are flying, camaraderie among the players, the chemistry ... They have fun. 

“That’s a huge thing in team sports, especially in this day and age when there’s so many people trying to pull your locker room apart. Everybody outside your locker room — 90 percent — have individual interests in what’s going on with the team. They don’t have team interests. They try to get a kid focused on statistics instead of our success.”

But Cronin senses that this team, which starts two seniors and two juniors, was ready to get to the important part of the season. 

“I thought for the weeks before that our  guys were ready for March to come around,” Cronin said.  “I can see the mental focus of some guys. ‘OK, it’s time.’ You see it in your defensive execution, in your game-plan execution. That takes effort. But it also takes focus.”

Cronin tosses around complements like manhole covers at times, but you can sense how much he likes this team. 

“It’s made a fun year for the coaching staff,” he said. “It’s made a stress-free year without ever having to deal with off-court issues.

“It’s probably been worth five wins.” 

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