WASHINGTON -- In the hallway outside his team's locker room following a comprehensive 78-63 deconstruction of Missouri, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin addressed the question that has dogged his 26-win Big East team all season: Why doesn't anyone take them seriously?
"I'm not in the Hall of Fame," he said, in a clear reference to some of his coaching brethren in the league. "We don't have a player on our team on an all-league team. The truth is the media likes what sells."
"We've been fighting an identity crisis all year," he added. "I think everyone under the sun, even my friends in the media picked against us tonight. I hope they do it again Saturday. I'm sure they will, and I fully understand why they would."
You'd think, by this point, a team that finished a solid 11-7 in the nation's best conference would have earned some measure of national respect, but the Bearcats remain an enigma. Some of this was brought on by their mostly meat-free non-conference schedule. Then, after play began in the difficult Big East, Cincinnati never won more than three straight games over the final two-and-a-half months of the season.
Every big moment was seemingly followed by a misstep or a caveat. After opening 2-0 in the league, they crushed Crosstown Shootout rival Xavier by 20 ... but the Musketeers weren't very good at the time (though they would go 15-1 in an Atlantic 10 that produced two NCAA winners Thursday). Then Cincinnati had a road test at Villanova ... and lost. The Bearcats subsequently won at St. John's and beat Rutgers ... and then dumped a home game to West Virginia. A huge win at Georgetown was marred by Chris Wright's hand injury, and the return game was tainted by his absence. They finished 11-7 ... and then lost by 38 to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament.
On Thursday, they dominated Missouri ... so, of course, it must be noted that the 11th-seeded Tigers have been mediocre since December. The post-victory excuses have become a familiar refrain.
"The way this season is going, no matter who we beat, they find a reason for us beating them," forward Yancy Gates said.
The main reason this time was the reason Cincinnati has had much of its success this season -- the Bearcats bludgeoned the Tigers to the tune of 42 points in the paint and a 45 percent offensive rebounding rate. They also showed their typical balance, with Gates posting a highly efficient 18 points and 11 rebounds and getting support from three other Bearcats in double figures. For the season, five Cincinnati players are averaging between eight and 12 points a game.
The style may be effective, but as Cronin noted, it doesn't sell. And it bothers him that his players are not receiving the attention that bigger-brand teams in the league often receive.
"That stuff matters," Cronin said. "It affects recruiting. That's recruiting, and kids see other teams on TV that [are ranked] and talked about and my team's not. I'm fighting for the program."
Such are the undertones of the rematch with league rival Connecticut on Saturday. The Huskies' win at Cincinnati on Feb. 27 was the Bearcats' lone setback in their final six league contests, and they want payback. Strangely, Cincinnati was the 7-seed in the Big East tournament while UConn was the 9. Now, a week and one stirring Big East tournament title run later, the Huskies will be wearing white as the No. 3 seed in the West regional, and the Bearcats are, once again, an underdog.
While Cronin said that his team has been playing in and winning big games all season, he admitted that this one was important for the program, one of three more the Bearcats must win to get senior Larry Davis a Final Four homecoming in Houston. Cronin thinks he has the roster to get it.
"I've got a team that does not want to stop," Cronin said. "They love their seniors in that room. It gives me an added edge as a coach. I've got guys in there fighting to keep our season alive."
If it's alive past Saturday night, the Bearcats surely won't have to answer any more questions. Will they?