Most of the buzz at last week's Big East media day came from St. John's and new Red Storm coach Steve Lavin. To a lesser extent, Seton Hall's Kevin Willard received a great deal of attention as well. Yet on the other side of the room, Willard's former fellow Pitino assistant sat at his own table at Madison Square Garden taking in the hoopla around him while quietly divulging details about his own team; one that after a longer hiatus from NCAA Tournament action that most fans would expect, is poised to make their Big Dance comeback.
At only 39, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin is one of the younger NCAA head men, and after coming to the Bearcats from Murray State four years ago with only one scholarship player on his roster, the reticent yet affable Midwesterner has his program on the cusp of success that was achieved throughout the 1990s and early 2000s under Bob Huggins, who of course is now at the helm of Big East rival West Virginia.
That was one of the reasons why I made it a point to seek Cronin out at the Garden last week, along with his humble personality and penchant for delivering a solid interview that hits on all the key points a media member looks for. Cronin admittedly enjoyed Cincinnati's surprising run to the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, and despite losing rookie sensation Lance Stephenson and senior leader Deonta Vaughn, still believes he can contend. In fact, so do the majority of Cronin's coaching brethren, who feel the Bearcats were injusticed by their 12th-place standing in the Big East preseason poll.
Cronin has never been one to worry about the rankings in any poll, and is relieved to return the core of his team this season. "If you replace returning guys with recruits, you better hope it's John Wall," deadpanned Cronin when asked how much of a difference there was between having a veteran roster and reloading with freshmen the way some other college programs are forced to do sometimes. Nonetheless, the transition to the top half of the conference won't be an easy one, not even for "one of the best teams in the league," as Cronin had hoped his team would eventually be considered when gauging his team's chances in the upcoming season.
The Bearcats enter 2010-11 on the heels of an NIT appearance, and get a marquee nonconference matchup on November 27th against reigning NIT champion Dayton. One month and one day later, the Bearcats open Big East play with DePaul at home before hosting Seton Hall on New Year's Eve. From there, Cincinnati makes their 2011 debut on January 6th against intra-city rival Xavier and head coach Chris Mack, who could pass for a Cronin lookalike in some circles.