Fay: The Bearcats are on a roll, so why can't they sell out Fifth Third?

CINCINNATI -- You had a loud and enthusiastic crowd. You had the requisite celebrities -- Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips. You had a fine basketball game that came down to final seconds.

What you didn’t have at the University of Cincinnati’s 66-64 victory over the SMU at Fifth Third Arena Thursday was a sellout.

The game drew a season-high 11,344 audience members, but the arena was nearly 2,000 short of capacity.

If UC couldn’t sell out Thursday night, you’ve got to wonder if they’ll be able to do so this season for any game other than the Crosstown Shootout with Xavier on Jan. 26.

Thursday’s game was a big American Athletic Conference matchup. Both teams came in undefeated in the league. SMU is one of the name schools in the AAC. The game lived up to its billing.

The crowd did its part -- they cranked up the noise from jump ball.

"That’s what we expected," Troy Caupain said. "Nine o’clock game. ESPN. First game with the students back on campus. That helped the Red Force. We can’t give up home court. We got a saying in our locker room -- I’m not going to really say it -- but it’s you don’t let no one come onto your street and take over your street.

"That’s how we were thinking. The crowd helped us. When (SMU) went on runs, the crowd was screaming ‘defense’ and just yelling. I don’t if it rattled them because they’re a great team. But I got the shakes a little bit."

It would have been louder if not for the 1,832 empty seats up in the corner.

I covered UC in the middle of Bob Huggins’ run. The one thing you could always put in your story before tip was the attendance. It was always 13,176 -- the capacity at the then-Shoemaker.

Terry Nelson, a player from the Huggins Era and now a UC broadcaster, thought Thursday was a night the Bearcats would sell out.

"I’m very surprised it wasn’t," he said. "We have a great product. This is a special team. I don’t know why the people haven’t caught on to it yet."

It is hard to figure. It took the Bearcats eight games to get to the 10,000 mark.

UC is having a great year. The Bearcats are ranked No. 22. They are 14-2, including 10-0 at home. And -- this is the important part to me -- they’re really fun to watch.

They may be Mick Cronin’s best offensive team.

So why are they having trouble selling out a medium-sized arena?

"Seeing is believing," Nelson said. "Some of these games we were losing last year, we’re winning. It’s a great product. Last year, we had a lot of heartbreak. This year, we’re the Cardiac Cats. Things have changed. We’re no longer losing the one- or two-possession games. We’re finding a way to close out."

I mentioned UC’s failure to draw to someone Thursday afternoon and he said he thought it was the Huggins Factor -- that some fans are still staying away because of the way university cut ties with Huggins.

I think there’s some credence to that theory. But, man, oh man, how long does it take people to get over things? That was 12 years and two UC presidents ago.

Huggins was and is beloved in Clifton.

But Cronin, after taking over the program that was in very bad place, has the Bearcats in a good spot. They’ve gone to the NCAA Tournament six straight years. You can quibble with their success in the big show -- they’ve only made it to the Sweet 16 once in those six tries. But Huggins only made it past the second round four times in his 16 years at UC.

Another factor is Fifth Third. It’s not a great place to watch a basketball game. In fact, it you’re high enough in the second section, it’s pretty bad. When your view is through the rafters and your seat doesn’t have a back, it’s not a good thing.

That will change when the arena is renovated. The 2018-19 Bearcats will have a home up to current major college standards.

Whether the Bearcats will draw in the meantime is hard to say. A win over Xavier would help.

Nelson urges you to check out this team.

"Fans got to come out," he said. "Because this team is going to do some special things. They need the energy in the building. There’s nothing like it when this place is rockin’ at full capacity."

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