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Lunardi: Keys to NCAA Bid for UC

The Cincinnati Bearcats returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 for the first time since the 2005 season. For many, their return to the big dance also marked the return of a Bearcat program that had fallen on hard times after their streak of 14 consecutive trips to college basketball’s biggest stage ended in 2005.

Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin has his squad on the bubble for an NCAA berth.

If the Bearcats hope to continue their success and reach their second consecutive NCAA Tournament, however, they still have some work to do.

The Bearcats were a 12 seed in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, which preceded their convincing road win over Saint Johns on Wednesday night.

Lunardi, who only recently moved the Bearcats inside of his main bracket as opposed to placing them in a play-in game, lists the Bearcats odds of avoiding an extra game at an even 50 percent.

Lunardi believes for the Bearcats to avoid Selection Sunday heartbreak, there are three keys.

“Most importantly for Cincinnati they need to stay above .500 in conference,” Lunardi said in an email. “They’ll also need to avoid another bad loss (Providence or South Florida) and make sure they do not lose to a lesser seed in the Big East Tournament.”

The Bearcats took care of business against St. Johns on Wednesday; one of the teams Lunardi didn’t believe they could afford a loss against. Still, games against Providence at home and South Florida on the road could prove to be difficult for a team that tends to play to the level of its opponent.

The Bearcats currently sit in an interesting position. On paper, it appears the Bearcats could have a difficult time moving certain numbers (RPI: 94, SOS: 171, Out-of-Conference SOS: 327) to a level that would look attractive to the selection committee.

Still, 20+ wins and a top-5 finish in the Big East Conference, all of which are attainable, would be tough to leave out of the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats would make it even more difficult on the committee to leave them out by winning more than one game in the Big East Tournament.

It would also be impossible to rule out the possibility of the Bearcats securing the fourth seed in the Big East Tournament with wins over Louisville and Marquette. They currently sit in a tie for fifth place and are only 1.5 games out of second place.

As of now, the Bearcats have notched three very solid wins on their resume with road wins over Georgetown and Connecticut and a win at home against Notre Dame. They also have one awful loss on their resume in Presbyterian, albeit long ago.

As the familiar saying goes, the Bearcats have been a riddle wrapped in an enigma throughout the entire year. There was a stretch where it appeared the Bearcats had established themselves as one of the top three teams in the conference, but that was followed by a three-game losing streak that had fans scratching their heads.

Until the Bearcats find a way to begin a new streak of wins, the committee may also view them as trending down. Finishing strong is just as, if not more important than, starting fast.

The scenarios are endless for the Bearcats. As of now, it would appear as though the Bearcats are on the inside looking out, albeit with very little room for error. Looking at the field, though, one thing becomes very clear.

Of the teams currently listed as “in,” there are some interesting cases. You have Seton Hall, who has lost six consecutive games and is falling well below .500 in the big East, you have North Carolina State who is just 2-6 over teams currently in the field, and you have Arizona who has 4 losses in a Pac-10 Conference that has been nothing shy of awful.

What does all of that mean? It means that the bubble is wide open. It means that the opportunity is there. It means that should the Bearcats fail to reach the tournament in March, they’ll have only one group of individuals to blame – themselves.

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