Cincinnati finds new identity in New York

NEW YORK – If he could have, Mick Cronin would have built a bubble around his Cincinnati basketball team. Would have made it soundproof, television proof and Internet proof.

As one loss begat two and ultimately led to five in the past six, he knew the rumblings against his Bearcats were ricocheting off his players’ ears.

“I’ve been like Sigmund Freud,’’ he said. “I’ve tried to seclude them from people. People kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? What’s wrong with you guys?’ We’ve got a young team and they started wondering what’s wrong with them, too.’’

Turns out the best place to sequester the Bearcats is in the biggest city in the country.

“Coming here,’’ Cronin said, “has been very good for them.’’

It would certainly seem so. The Bearcats posted the lone upset on an otherwise chalk-heavy opening round Wednesday, sending Louisville, the Big East tournament defending champs, packing after one game, 69-66.

With the win Cincinnati advances to the quarterfinals against West Virginia and also doubles its win total in the league tournament – from zero to two.

Cronin has held fast to the fact that his team wasn’t nearly as bad as its middling 16-14 record might indicate. He constantly reminded his team that the Bearcats have suffered their share of close losses – of the 14 Ls, 10 have been by eight points or less and three in overtime – and reassured them that the law of averages would indicate that at some point, their luck would change.

“And they’d just look at me and say, ‘Yeah but when?’’ Cronin said.

The win against Rutgers in the prelim round here helped build a base of believing, but the fragile base appeared to be crumbling after the first half against Louisville. The Bearcats couldn’t buy a bucket – they shot just 29 percent – and only stayed in the game thanks to a yeoman’s effort on the boards.

But Cincinnati kept its composure and finally realized Cronin’s promise in the second half. The Bearcats methodically chipped away at the Cardinals’ nine-point lead by grabbing virtually every shot that came off the backboard.

“We felt the momentum changing,’’ said Yancy Gates, who led Cincinnati with 16 points. “Our energy picked up as a group, not just the five on the floor. It was the rest of the bench and the coaching staff.’’

Lance Stephenson, the Big East Rookie of the Year, who has perhaps suffered the ‘What’s wrong?’ question more than anyone in a Cincinnati uniform, played maybe not his best game but one of his smartest.

He scored 12 points but recognized over and over that he was drawing the defensive attention and deftly passed to the open man. He dished off three assists.

It was on the glass where Stephenson really made his mark. He finished with nine rebounds, seven on the offensive end, to help Cincinnati turn in some mind-boggling numbers. The Bearcats outrebounded Louisville, 54-33, including 28 on the offensive glass.

Those eye-popping numbers led to a few equally amazing stats: 40 points to 24 in the paint in favor of Cincinnati; 17-6 in second-chance points.

“They just took us to the woodshed on the backboards,’’ Rick Pitino said.

This time of year everyone wants to put a team’s status in the context of the NCAA tournament. The Bearcats are still a long way from that.

But the Bearcats are a lot closer to redefining their identity.

“I was worried our new normal was going to be losing close games,’’ Cronin said. “But it looks like maybe we’re breaking the cycle.’’