- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cincinnati forward John Williamson and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert hugged as the buzzer sounded to end the Hoyas’ 82-67 victory Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center, and the disparity the moment encapsulated was telling.

The 7-foot-2 Hibbert had just completed a workmanlike 26-point effort, a career-high scoring day built on easy buckets inside. The 6-6 Williamson was seconds removed from fruitlessly trying to provide some kind of inside presence for his undermanned team, especially after center Marcus Sikes fouled out with more than 13 minutes left.

Eight inches separate the two, a chasm in basketball, and the moment looked a bit comical. Yet it was apropos in the wider picture as well; Georgetown is probably headed for the NCAA tournament, while the Bearcats (10-10) will be lucky to avoid their first losing season in 19 years.

It’s gone downhill, and in a hurry, at Cincinnati, an NCAA tournament regular throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade. But an absurdly tumultuous season off the court last year — starting with the firing of Bob Huggins — helped strip the program of nearly everything.

There’s a new coach. There’s a roster of almost entirely new players. And there’s a slide into the cellar of the Big East, where the Bearcats reside as the lone team in the league with only one conference victory. They are .500 overall this late in the season for the first time since 1988-89, the year before Huggy Bear arrived on the scene.

It is impossible to find fault with the staff and players the Bearcats have to work with. It is certainly not a predicament caused by first-year coach Mick Cronin, whose history as an assistant coach (at Cincinnati under Huggins and then at Louisville under Rick Pitino) is impressive and three-year stint as a head coach at Murray State included two NCAA berths.

His roster, though, is barren. Four of Cincinnati’s top five scorers last year were seniors; the fifth, freshman Devan Downey, transferred to South Carolina.

Cronin added seven junior college transfers, including three of his starters and his sixth and seventh men, but still lost two guys early in the season. Also playing against Georgetown was Cedric McGowan, the program’s only senior and himself a junior college transfer; a freshman; a walk-on; and a football player who joined the team as an emergency stopgap last season

(The latter player, sophomore Connor Barwin, is a reflection of how precarious last season was for the Bearcats. Interim coach Andy Kennedy somehow coaxed 21 victories out of an injury-depleted bunch and eventually earned the top job at Ole Miss).

To state the obvious, the collection of players Cronin has at his disposal aren’t exactly the parts necessary for an NCAA run, which helps explain the Bearcats’ 1-7 slide since Dec. 30 and why frustrations have started to mount.

“We made a little pact,” Cronin said of a team meeting Friday. “We know what we have to do to make the Big East tournament and we know what we need to do to lay the foundation for the future of Bearcat basketball. We’re going to have fun doing it the rest of the way. We’re not going to hang our heads in a loss.”

Nor should they, given their roster limitations. The Bearcats don’t have a guy like Kenyon Martin, a guy who went No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, or guys like Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan and Danny Fortson, heck even guys like Ruben Patterson and Pete Mickeal. All of them played roles on rugged teams during Huggins’ tenure.

To put it kindly, the Bearcats aren’t the most skilled bunch, their absurd 3-point shooting effort against the Hoyas (14-for-24, including an 11-for-13 start) notwithstanding. But like Cronin, they aren’t at fault for the severity of their foibles and actually deserve quite a bit of credit for their resilience.

The rollercoaster against Georgetown — including an 11-0 run to end the first half and close within 40-35 and a push to get within seven points with five minutes left — isn’t Cincinnati’s only sign of spunk this season.

In just the last 10 days, the Bearcats erased a 19-point lead before sputtering in the final minute against Syracuse, then overcame a 17-point hole and upended West Virginia in overtime. To their credit, the Bearcats possess some moxie.

“They have been consistent with that all year,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “If you look at the tape, they’re not playing like a team that’s 1-5 in the league. They’re a few bounces away from having it reversed. What did show up over and over again and it showed up tonight is they’ve been down big and then they make their run. … They play hard.”

Still, there’s no confusing this for a good team — not after managing only 42 points against a meager Rutgers team this month or losing to Wofford at home earlier this season.

Outings like those are the price of instability with a program. Sometimes, a lack of continuity can lead to a gradual decline and bottoming out, hardly a fun process but certainly not as jarring as going from one of the last teams out of the NCAA tournament one year to struggling to make a conference tournament the next.

Perhaps the best illustration of Cincinnati’s circus: Not a single man on the roster played for Huggins.

As much credit as Cronin deserves for keeping his team plucky, he’s earned even more for being a realist. He might not be accustomed to losing — in nine years as a college head coach or assistant, his teams have never dropped more than 13 games in a season — but acknowledges his players’ effort as Cincinnati tries to build back in the coming years.

Williamson won’t make up that height difference on Hibbert any time soon. However, the Bearcats just might have a chance to surge back to at least the middle of the Big East in the next few seasons.

“We have to make sure we’re learning the league, learning what it takes in this league,” Cronin said. “We want to make sure we continue to improve during this process, never apologize for our situation because that’s not the kids’ fault.”

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