ORLANDO, Fla. – It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was as close as Mick Cronin’s UC Bearcats have come this season.
There’s no telling what the long-term effects of No. 15 UC’s 53-49 loss at Central Florida might be. But it could end the Bearcats’ prospects of winning the regular–season conference championship and moving up to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Kevin Johnson acknowledged the latter Sunday.
"In my opinion, the (NCAA selection committee) doesn't really think that well of our league, so taking a loss like this today, even though UCF is a pretty solid team, probably will affect some seeding things," Johnson said after UC fell to 25-4, 14-2 in the American Athletic Conference.
In the short term, It probably will cost the Bearcats the regular-season conference title and the top seed in the conference tourney. UC entered the day tied with SMU (25-4, 15-1) for first place. The Bearcats have two more conference games to go – vs. Houston Thursday and at UConn Sunday - and need help to claim the title.
"It's something we wanted, but we just have to go back to the lab and make sure we get the rest of them," said guard Jacob Evans, UC’s top scorer with 17 points.
The immediate effects should be clear Monday:
A drop in the polls. (Monday update: UC fell to 18th in the Associated Press poll, 20th in USA Today).
A drop in the tournament forecasters’ brackets and RPI. To Johnson's point, UC came in as a fourth seed on Jerry Palm’s bracket on CBS Sports and a fifth on Joe Lunardi’s bracket on ESPN - low for a team with only three losses that was 13th in NCAA RPI. (Monday update: UC slid to 14th in NCAA RPI).
If you’re an optimist, you might think a dumbfounding defeat like Sunday’s could be the best thing for the Bearcats. It might get their heads out of the clouds and reset their sights on what’s important – playing their best basketball in March.
But Cronin wasn’t thinking that – at least, he wasn’t saying so after the game. He was too disappointed in his team's shooting and effort. UCF's zone defense – best in the nation - limited the Bearcats to 29 percent.
"We were awful. Shot selection was awful. Our open shooting was awful for the most part," Cronin said. "Our shot selection by our big guys was beyond terrible and our lacking of passing is what bothers me the most."
Guard Troy Caupain was 1-of-9 from the field for three points, and forward Kyle Washington was 3-of-15 for seven points.
Most exasperating: Tre Scott’s missed dunk with four seconds left could have tied the game and sent it into overtime, but it clanged off the rim. In Scott’s defense, he had only entered the game 19 seconds earlier and he probably hurried the shot with UCF’s 7-6 Tacko Fall bearing down on him.
Besides his four blocks, Fall scared UC’s big men into forcing their shots or passing them up all together.
"In my opinion he was a huge factor in the game," first-year UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. "He was changing shots, blocking shots. His presence in the lane when they were coming in, I could see guys looking for him and you know when guys are starting to do that they aren't focused on what they are trying to accomplish."
Fall’s two free throws with two seconds left gave the Knights their first win over UC in 10 tries.
Point guard B.J. Taylor was the catalyst for Knights (19-10, 10-7). He buried a 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining to all but seal the deal and finished with 27 points.