WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mick Cronin acknowledged the elephant in the room, stared the pesky pachyderm right in the face and admitted what he was up against.
It was October and Cronin hadn't coached a single basketball game yet this season but already he knew what was at stake.
“Once you get to Year 3, there’s pressure,’’ he said in the middle of Big East media day five months ago. “That’s the reality of this job. In this league, you come in with all of these Hall of Fame coaches, you’re under pressure to win. You’re crazy if you think you’re not.’’
Cronin is a ways from walking step for step with the Hall of Famers but at least he can finally hold his head up on his alma mater’s campus.
Cincinnati has gone from oh-fer the tourney under Cronin to NCAA winners after the Bearcats topped Missouri, 78-63, for their first tournament win since 2005.
Cincy will get a familiar opponent on Saturday, squaring off against fellow Big East foe, Connecticut.
Missouri, once ranked as high as No. 8 in the country, slinks out of the NCAA tournament after completing an undistinguished season with a forgettable loss.
“This is huge for us,’’ Cronin said. “We’ve fought all season long for respect. A lot of my friends picked against us in this game and I understand that, but we’ve got guys who have fought all year.’’
Once criticized for all of the things he is not -- namely the entertaining and high-wattage personality of his predecessor, Bob Huggins -- Cronin now can be celebrated for what he is: deliberate and patient. He has deftly handled this team as he has handled his entire career at Cincinnati, aware that there is little time to waste but understanding that nothing happens quickly.
Before this program could win again, he would have to get it out of an academic quagmire. Before this team could be successful, he would have to get the house in order.
Cronin took care of the first step slowly. He edged Cincinnati from the brink of academic probation by recruiting four-year players who might not get him the quick wins of the one-and-done players, but would stabilize his program. The result: All but one of his players has graduated.
As for the second step, he got his team together in February. Cronin benched Cincinnati native Yancy Gates against Pittsburgh and used him only sporadically against DePaul and St. John’s.
The Bearcats lost two of those three.
He said on Wednesday that the decision wasn’t a risk, that he “spells love and discipline the same way.’’
But had the decision backfired, had Cronin lost Gates forever, he could have lost his job too.
Instead Gates responded and has scored in double figures in every game but one since that critical juncture.
“I think that did fuel me,’’ Gates said. “When I was going through that, a lot of people started counting me out. I was even reading things that my career was over. I kind of laughed at that stuff but that stuff really fuels a player.’’
The fuel continues to flow through March.
Gates was simply too everything for Mizzou -- too big, too powerful. He banged the undersized Tigers down low to the tune of 18 points and 11 rebounds, his offensive confidence so high he even drilled two 3-pointers.
“Worst thing that ever happened,’’ Cronin joked.
And now the Bearcats move on to a familiar opponent, facing Connecticut a team they actually finished above in the Big East standings.
It is yet another proving ground for a team that still feels like it has something to prove.
Cronin has chased the elephant out of the room. Now it’s time to get rid of the doubters.
“I’m not a Hall of Fame coach, we don’t have any all-league players, so I understand why people think the way they do,’’ Cronin said. “We’re just trying to win games and earn respect.’’