The Cincinnati Bearcats enter Big East play against DePaul on Tuesday night with an unblemished 12-0 record. All debates about how they got to that mark go out the window as the team gets down to the business of returning the program to the NCAA Tournament in March.
Head coach Mick Cronin likes for his guys to play with a chip on their shoulder, and with the other 7 unbeaten programs all finding a spot in national rankings, he thinks his guys are ready to prove they belong.
“I think our guys are a little agitated that they dominated our opponents,” Cronin said. “The guys don't feel like they are getting any respect so they're anxious to get started. They really haven't been challenged and they're looking forward to it.”
Junior forward Yancy Gates has taken on more of a leadership role in his 3rd season on campus, and he knows respect is earned on the court. With Big East play ready to roll, he and his teammates are poised to show what they are made of.
“We've been talking about how we've got to earn our respect from the beginning of the season,” said Gates. “We're just taking it as we still have to earn some respect. If we stay focused and keep taking care of what we need to, the respect will come.”
Senior guard Larry Davis has been around for most of the rebuilding project, and knows the rest of the league is likely writing off the 12-0 start because of the lack of a quality out of conference schedule. While it's a valid stance on December 27th, Davis knows they will have every opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
“They probably think they we haven’t played anybody yet, but we're not going to stop now,” said Davis. “We're going to keep trying to win and win and win. That's what it's about.”
Cronin has slowly built the program back to respectable levels in his 5th season at the helm, but the next step is the toughest leap forward. He feels the team has grown from the large number of close defeats a season ago, and learned the hard way how tough it is to win close Big East games if you don't consistently execute at a high level.
“When you're building a program, and you're in the league we're in, intangibles are the difference and it takes time to develop those,” said Cronin. “The focus of our players on the little things, that equal winning, is the difference in our team, and I would attribute that to last year losing the tough games that we lost.”
The last time the Bearcats took the floor in a Big East game Da'Sean Butler crushed their NCAA Tournament dreams with a 25 foot heave over two defenders that helped propel WVU on a run to the Final Four. Gates and the rest of the Cats certainly learned the value of every possession a season ago and are ready to put the heartbreaking experience to good use.
“Now it's in everybody's mind that we have to try to do everything right,” said Gates. “We know that you have to try to limit mistakes because we know that there's going to be mistakes through the course of a game but you have to try and limit those.”
Up first on the path through the Big East gauntlet is a home game against DePaul and new head coach Oliver Purnell. The former head man at Dayton and Clemson is known for his aggressive full court pressure and up tempo style of play. Cronin knows the Blue Deamons are a work in progress, but it's not going to be a walk in the park getting to 1-0 in league play.
“His one constant is his full court press and his style of play,” Cronin said. “He doesn't have the depth; he has a young team, so he's still in the rebuilding process. He's implementing his style right now and he's not going to change. He's going to press on every opportunity and we're going to have to make sure we're ready for that.”
Davis and the Cats have been talking about proving themselves in conference play for months, and the guys are understandably excited to show they are more than a product of their schedule.
“We've just been working on things we have to work on and just been getting ready for the Big East,” said Davis. “In the locker room everybody's excited about the game tomorrow.”
While defense has been the calling card so far, DePaul has four players scoring in double figures on the season and the team averages 72.7 points a contest. Cronin concedes keeping the scoring low at that pace is not likely.
“I would expect a higher scoring game,” Cronin said. “Our holding teams in the 40s in probably in jeopardy tomorrow night.”
Gates has learned the hard way that taking opponents for granted in Big East play is a recipe for disaster. Despite DePaul's 6-6 record the Cats will be ready to make another statement at 5/3 Arena Tuesday night.
“You always get excited when it's time to go to conference play, especially us being in the Big East,” said Gates. “You know every night no matter who it is you're going to have a tough ground it out game.”