If the Big East is going to fulfill its much-lauded destiny as an 11-team -- not eight, or nine, or 10, but 11 -- conference come March, it will need at least three teams to finish strong. One of those is St. John's, which needs to stack a few more wins on top of its impressive victory over Duke last Saturday. Another is Marquette, which has to shore up defensively and close out a few more top-tier Big East games to feel confident about its bubble spot.
The third? Those promising Cincinnati Bearcats.
See, the Bearcats are 18-4, including a 13-0 run through nonconference play and a 5-4 start in their first nine games in the Big East. In a vacuum, that looks like an NCAA tournament team. But we don't live in a vacuum. In the real world, the Bearcats played one of the worst (if not the worst) nonconference schedules in the country this season; according to our nitty-gritty page (which is revamped and thoroughly awesome, if I may say so myself) Cincy's non-con strength of schedule comes in at No. 298 in the nation, which is, you know, really bad. The Bearcats held strong against that schedule, and they don't have a single bad loss on their résumé, but their only top-50 RPI wins came against Xavier at home and St. John's on the road. That's not exactly an impressive résumé.
In other words, yes, the Bearcats need a marquee win. Or two. Or three. But one would be a nice start. Fortunately for Cincinnati, its players seem to understand their dilemma. From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"We all feel that way," said forward Yancy Gates. "You need those signature wins to get in," Gates said. "I think we still need to go out and get one."
Gates, of course, is right. Mick Cronin, on the other hand, is a little more ambivalent.
"I'm worried about improving my team," Cronin said. "That's for you and Joe Lunardi. I'm not on the selection committee, so what's the point of worrying about it?"
"I'll tell you what we've got to do," Cronin said, "win games. The only way you win games is to improve. If you win games in this league, they're all signature wins for the most part. We've got plenty of ranked teams on our schedule."
That's pretty typical coach-speak, but you can imagine Cronin -- who began the season by admitting "there's pressure" on him to win in his fifth year at the school -- has kept his eye on the Bears' projected NCAA tournament situation for much of the past month. You can understand why he's eager to scuttle talk of "signature wins"; after all, coaches try to keep their teams focused on every game, and calling any game a "signature" by its very rhetorical nature creates a hierarchy wherein some games aren't as important. That's when you start looking ahead, and that's when you lose a game you shouldn't lose, and as much as Cincinnati needs a big win, it also can't afford a bad loss anytime soon, either. (Like, say, Feb. 8's game at DePaul.)
Cincinnati has the opportunities. There are plenty of big games left on their Big East plate. Now it's time to get one -- or two, or three -- of them. If it does, Cronin will be able to stop answering questions about his team's bubble chances, something he seems awfully eager to do.