The country is finally talking about the Bearcats' play, not their past. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- What we learned on the second-to-last day before Selection Sunday, from the Big East tournament and beyond ...
1. Cincinnati has finally changed the conversation. Since Dec. 10, when the Crosstown Punchout marred Xavier and Cincy's seasons, all discussion of the Bearcats involved the fight -- from the punches thrown, to coach Mick Cronin's press conference, to the suspensions, and the team's response in the wake of the single ugliest moment of this college basketball season. They played well enough, going 12-6 in the Big East, to not let the incident define them, but in order to start a fresh narrative heading into the NCAA tournament, they were going to need to do something major.
Something like upsetting No. 2 Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, 71-68, and becoming the only the only team to beat the now 31-2 Orange with center Fab Melo in their lineup. That's what Cincy did on Friday at Madison Square Garden, blitzing its way to a 17-point, first-half lead on a barrage of threes (including six by Sean Kilpatrick) and then hanging on to win. It happened one day after the Bearcats came back from 11 down in the second half to knock out No. 13-ranked Georgetown in double overtime. Suddenly, a Bearcats team that had been projected as a No. 9 seed and didn't receive a single vote in the most recent coaches' poll ("Maybe," Cronin said, "they'll give us at least one vote in the also-rans") is looking like it will be dangerous -- in a good way -- in the NCAA tournament.
At Cincy's hotel on Thursday night, senior forward Yancy Gates, who threw those regrettable punches in December, was talking to his teammates and reveling in the fact that they were finally getting attention for their play, "rather than the mistakes that we made."
"People were talking about us on TV and Twitter, and it wasn't for us fighting or losing a game," Gates said. "It was about how hard we played and fought back to get a win. They were talking about the character we showed."
They showed it again Friday, in what was the most important Big East win of Gates' career. He had 18 points and seven rebounds -- five on the offensive glass -- and thoroughly outmuscled Melo in the paint. The four guards who surrounded him made 10 of 22 three-point attempts. Cronin believes he's finally seeing a fully-formed Cincy team, one that's beaten Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown and Syracuse over its past six games, and will face the Cardinals again in Saturday's final. "Now that our toughness has caught up to our talent," Cronin said, "when we make shots we can beat anybody."
It's odd to think that a team known most for a fight was still developing its basketball toughness, and that they would display a peak level of toughness while wearing Adidas' ridiculous, neon-fringed alternate jerseys with tiger-striped shorts -- like trashy '90s club gear converted into basketball apparel. Yet that's what happened. Gates lamented that it's impossible to look fearsome in that getup, but as his point guard, Cashmere Wright, said, "I don't think Yancy Gates has too much of a problem with anybody thinking he's not tough."
2. Syracuse is still a No. 1 seed, but it has no-show problems. Friday's loss cost the Orange the No. 1 overall seed in the bracket -- that's going to Kentucky -- but they'll still be on the top line of the East Regional, aided by partisan crowds in Pittsburgh and (as long as they get there) Boston. Coach Jim Boeheim argued that "most national championships -- not all, but a lot of them have been won by teams that lose in their conference tournament, including us." (Five of the last six title teams have won their conference tourney, but he's right: it's not a prerequisite. Syracuse remains a contender.)
What the Orange should worry about is the limited contributions they received from senior starters Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph. Jardine, their point guard, was a non-factor in this tournament; in the opener against UConn, he shot 1-for-6 from the field and was relegated to the bench for nearly the entire second half. On Friday, he scored six points, committed five turnovers (against two assists) and fouled out in 26 minutes. Joseph, who was once considered the Orange's best player -- that title now belongs to Dion Waiters -- scored nine points against Cincy but somehow failed to get a single rebound in 33 minutes, and committed four turnovers. "When we've played well," Boeheim said, "Scoop and Kris have been there for us."
They did not make their presences felt at the Garden. They have not made it past the Sweet 16 in their careers. Will they re-engage enough over the next two weeks to change that?
Friday's loss to Baylor might have cost Thomas Robinson and the Jayhawks their No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (Shane Keyser/MCT)
3. Kansas, unlike Syracuse, may have cost itself a No. 1 seed with its loss to Baylor on Friday. The teams vying to replace the Jayhawks have work to do, though: Michigan State or (bigger longshot) Ohio State would have to win the Big Ten tournament to get in the mix, just as Duke would have to win the ACC tournament (and probably beat North Carolina in the final). Missouri's weak non-conference schedule is probably going to keep its ceiling at a No. 2, no matter what happens in the rest of the Big 12 tournament.
The Jayhawks have one of the shortest rotations of any Final Four contender -- they rank 309th in bench minutes on kenpom.com -- so getting an extra day of rest before the NCAAs might not be a bad thing. But falling off the No. 1 line would have a serious impact on their tournament experience. A route through Omaha (for the second and third rounds) and St. Louis (as the Midwest's No. 1) would be one of the better geographic advantages in the bracket. They'd prefer not to lose it.
4. Seeing Bruce Weber get fired from Illinois was a strange thing for me. Not because it came as a surprise, but because in the season I started on the college basketball beat for SI, in 2004-05, Weber was on top of the coaching world. He had the best show on hardwood, and nearly went undefeated in the regular season with a backcourt of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. That was Weber's second year in Champaign, and there was no doubt that he had taken Bill Self's players and made them better. It seemed that the former Southern Illinois coach would have a long and prosperous career with the Illini -- that he would reap the recruiting rewards of a run to the national title game and build future powerhouses. The powerhouses never materialized. A string of hard luck, recruiting misses and declining offensive production led to him being ousted from the job this week.
I'm not going use Weber's story to lament the state of job security in the game. Illinois needed to make a change, Weber got a $3.9 million buyout and he'll have immediate options to coach at the mid-major level -- potentially even at SIU, which fired Chris Lowery last week. For me, it's a reminder of how quickly a coach's fortunes can change. There has been much hailing of the job Frank Haith has done with Mike Anderson's players at Missouri, and although Haith has done an amazing job, it evokes memories of what Weber pulled off in '04-05. That was a magical season, but it was no guarantee of long-term happiness.
5. The biggest stories of Friday were about bubble teams. Andy Glockner has you covered on that front: Xavier and NC State improved their standing, while Tennessee and Miami damaged their NCAA hopes, and Cal will have to sweat it out after losing to Colorado in the Pac-12 semis. My favorite story, though, was about Rob Wilson. The Wisconsin senior, who averages 3.1 points per game, dropped 30 on Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, going 7-for-10 from long range. The Badgers' bench was going nuts during Wilson's unconscious streak -- because he typically spends most of every game on the bench as a marginal role player. The one place Wilson has been a star is at the Boys & Girls Club on Madison's South Side, where he interns from 9-12 every weekday morning, trying to help disadvantaged children. Big Ten Network's The Journey recently broadcasted a heartwarming feature on Wilson's work, in which he talked about how his own mother's struggles as a single parent of three inspired him to seek out the charity. Anyone who watched it could not help but root for him.
My own mother, a Wisconsin season-ticket holder, has always had a soft spot for Wilson, who's received many a quick hook from coach Bo Ryan. Wilson has often been on Ryan's one-minor-mistake-and-done plan. "Poor Rob Wilson," my mom always says. "Bo never gives him a chance!" On Friday, Wilson got his chance, and he delivered in a bigger way than anyone could have imagined.
The blog will return with another nation-spanning post on Saturday night, from its home base at Madison Square Garden. As Cincy players wrote on their whiteboard after beating Syracuse, only one more game remains.