Why the Cincinnati Bearcats Should Still Have NCAA Aspirations

Mark RainesCorrespondent IJanuary 28, 2009

The Power of Positive Thinking

There are 11 games left in the basketball season, and the Bearcats have officially matched their win total from last season.  At this point it is really hard to project how the rest of the season will go, so I am not going to even try.

Last season the Bearcats got their 13th win on Feb. 20 and then went on to lose seven more times without picking up a win.  This team is considerably better than that one, so I expect the season to go better this time around.

Instead of projecting, I want to look at what the Bearcats need to do to make the NCAA Tournament.

Many of you may be thinking that the NCAA tournament is out of reach this season, but we are the University of Cincinnati, and the NCAA tournament is exactly where our eyes should be fixed.  I think there is a lot of confusion about what the selection committee looks for in terms of NCAA tournament teams, so let’s get out the myths right away.

1. The Selection Committee does not factor in conference affiliation.  Playing in a better conference helps insofar as you have opportunities for more quality wins and play a better strength of schedule, but the committee does not count the number of teams in each conference when they are selecting the teams.

2. RPI is purely a grouping mechanism.  It is used to get a feel for how many quality wins a team has.  In the end it is supposed to come down to the most deserving teams based on their body of work. You will see teams with lower RPIs ahead of teams with higher RPIs all the time.

3. The other polls do not matter one bit.  The committee does not look at them at all.  They discuss the teams, who they have beat, and what they thought when they saw them play.  In fact, when you start looking at seeding, you notice how little it really reflects the polls (though the polls generally get the top seeds close to right).

With all that said, it is time to evaluate the Bearcats to date in much the same way the committee will do come March.  As of right now, the Bearcats sit at 59 in the RPI.  This is not important in and of itself; what is important is who they beat and who they lost to.

Five of Cincinnati’s seven losses are to teams in the RPI top 25.  Those losses are not really hurting the Bearcats.  The Bearcats' other two losses are to Providence, a team ranked 65th in today’s RPI.  These are the losses I worry about come Selection Sunday.  Providence, in beating Cincinnati twice, would clearly get the nod if both were sitting on the bubble (though there is always the possibility both could get in). 

The Bearcats have three solid wins to their credit.  UNLV and UAB are both currently sitting in the top 50 RPI (43 and 45 respectively).  The UNLV win could loom particularly large for the Bearcats because it will be a road win against a team that likely is going to finish on the good side of the bubble.

Mississippi State has a lower RPI, but if they could somehow win the SEC West, that could help the Bearcats.  Both UAB and Mississippi State are likely to be sitting on the wrong side of the bubble come Selection Sunday (admittedly there is a lot of basketball to be played). 

Here are the basic numbers you need to know about the Bearcats right now.

They are 0-5 against the RPI top 25.

2-0 against RPI 26-50.

1-2 against RPI 50-100 (both losses to Providence).

2-0 against 101-150.

And 7-0 against sub-150 RPI teams.

(This is another issue that hurts the Bearcats.  The committee does not look positively when more than half of your nonconference wins are against teams with sub-150 RPIs.  It should also be noted that the Bearcats only have 12 victories according to how the committee will evaluate because one of their wins was against a team not factored in the RPIs.)

All in all, the Bearcats are not in bad shape right now, but they are going to have to play significantly better basketball to make the Big Dance.  I still think losing to Providence twice could loom large, but looking at the rest of the schedule, the Bearcats have plenty of opportunities to play their way into the dance.

I have bolded some games that are as close to must win games as you can have (they are St. John’s, @South Florida, and Seton Hall).  For the Bearcats to be an NCAA team they almost certainly have to win those games.  I think 4-4 in the other eight games will get the Bearcats into the NCAA tournament.  That would put the Bearcats 20-11 overall and 10-8 in the Big East.

I think at 3-5 in those eight games the Bearcats would be left with some work to do in the Big East tournament, but could play their way in with a run to the semifinals (which would likely include winning three games). 

Jan. 28: No. 23 Georgetown 7:30 PM ET 

Feb. 1: at No. 21 Villanova 12:00 PM ET 

Feb. 4: No. 22 Notre Dame 7:30 PM ET 

Feb. 7: at No. 23 Georgetown 12:00 PM ET 

Feb.: 11 St. John's 7:30 PM ET 

Feb. 14: at No. 3 Pittsburgh 4:00 PM ET 

Feb. 21: No. 7 Louisville 2:00 PM ET 

Feb. 26: West Virginia 7:00 PM ET  

Mar. 1: at No. 15 Syracuse 2:00 PM ET 

Mar. 3: at South Florida 7:00 PM ET 

Mar. 7: Seton Hall 12:00 PM ET

The question then becomes: Where do those wins come from?  The two key four-game stretches are Georgetown/Villanova/Notre Dame/Georgetown and Pittsburgh/Louisville/West Virginia/Syracuse...at least on paper, the latter looks significantly harder.

If the Bearcats can somehow manage to go 3-1 in the next four games, it will be time for Bearcat fans to get excited.  That is no doubt a tall order, but one that could really pay off huge.

If the Bearcats go 2-2 the next four games, I think things start to look a little more bleak, but there will still be hope.  If the Bearcats go 1-3, I think you can close the door on an NCAA bid. 

So let’s say the Bearcats win the next three games before losing to Georgetown on the road.  They then manage to spoil Huggy Bear’s homecoming and take out the Mountaineers.  That would give the Bearcats 5-6 top 50 RPI wins with two of those wins possibly being top 25 wins.  It would give the Bearcats 20 wins and a winning record in the toughest conference in the nation.  That is an NCAA tournament profile.    

All in all, we are not in terrible shape.  The chance will be there to play our way into the tournament over the course of the next few weeks.  It is going to take significant improvement.  It is going to take big-time efforts night in and night out, but it is very possible.

The next four games are enormous for this team.  By the time they are through this stretch, we may start getting a pretty good idea of where the Bearcats are heading come March.