Mick Cronin is justifiably all smiles tonight after his Cincinnati team prevailed in a defensive clinic at Madison Square Garden, defeating Pittsburgh 44-43 in Jimmy V Classic. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. Sounds like a classic Big East showdown, doesn't it?
Realignment be damned, the Bearcats and Panthers gave the impression of a mid-March conference tournament battle in Cincinnati's 44-43 victory, a grind-it-out struggle that was more reminiscent of a Bengals-Steelers game than a matchup of two former college basketball rivals now peddling their wares in the American Athletic and Atlantic Coast Conferences, respectively.
"I thought it was a well-played game," Mick Cronin said after Titus Rubles' putback with 4.2 seconds left gave Cincinnati the edge in a game marked by a suffocating defensive scheme that is vintage Bearcats. "It's like when a pitcher throws a no-hitter and wins 1-0, and then you say 'oh, well it wasn't exciting.'"
Exciting or not, the win was a solid character test for a now 8-2 Cincinnati team, who handed previously undefeated Pitt their first loss of the year despite being outscored 19-1 at the foul line. Granted, the Panthers attempted 26 more free throws, but Cronin, now in his eighth year at his alma mater after rebuilding a program Bob Huggins left for dead from the ground up, was more than satisfied.
"Against us, everybody says 'take care of the ball and let them run,'" he said. "You've got to learn how to win those games. We had two losses, (to New Mexico and Xavier) we gave up 53 percent (combined shooting) from the field. I don't care who you are, you've got to get stops to win games."
And get stops Cincinnati did, forcing Pitt into an 11-of-35 performance in which the Panthers played the final 14:54 of regulation without a field goal, rendering a normally dangerous Lamar Patterson into a non-factor with just 11 points on the evening as the Bearcats turned back the clock to a reminder of where the program used to be.
"Although we didn't score a lot of points, guys," Cronin intimated, "that's the best offense we've run in a long time. We got a little soft from dominating teams in November and then getting away from it, but we played in the Big East. We understand."
It is the Big East experience that has enhanced this Cincinnati team, a squad that bears resemblance to the 2011-12 Sweet 16 team despite being much deeper, according to Cronin, since it has played essentially the same style and rebounded from a one-sided loss to Xavier in much the same fashion.
"I coached in the Big East when I remember saying 'if I get the 9 (seed in the conference tournament, I'm doing a good job,'" Cronin said.
No one questions Mick Cronin's tactics now, even if his wins are unattractive.