Shedding any past reputation as a defensive-minded power, No. 6 Cincinnati caught fire and dominated No. 11 Kansas State 75-61 in Friday's South Region showdown at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.
The warning shot fired at the rest of the region made the Bearcats the only No. 6 seed to avoid the upset bug this year. It also ended a trend of bad luck, as Cincinnati had lost in the Round of 64 in three of the last four brackets.
Cincinnati (12th in ESPN.com's RPI rankings) hit on a blistering pace right out the gates en route to shooting 62.8 percent from the floor, with Troy Caupain posting 23 points and combining with Gary Clark (15) and Kyle Washington (16) to tally 54 of the team's 75.
CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein explained Caupain's value to the Bearcats:
Kansas State (56th RPI) struggled to match, digging a deep hole in the first half as senior Wesley Iwundu fell into foul trouble, yet still led the team in scoring with 19 points. The Wildcats shot 38.9 percent from the floor and lost the battle on the glass 31-23, which were both direct results of playing from behind all game.
It's hard to stay competitive against a team that doesn't miss, which is what Kansas State found itself up against in the first half as Cincinnati was perfect from the field for almost the first 10 minutes, going 8-of-8.
The Wildcats would have killed to be even close to perfect. Instead, the offense settled for too many long shots and Iwundu, who led the team in points and rebounds per game (12.9, 6.4) went out early with two fouls. He came back in the first half and picked up a third right away.
Before the third, Riley Gates of GoPowercat.com had stressed the importance of the senior's presence on the court:
With Kansas State's best player mostly on the bench, Caupain cruised to 14 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting, gunning the Bearcats to their second-best shooting half of the season, per the broadcast, checking in at 65.2 percent and a 39-28 advantage.
Cincinnati didn't necessarily cool coming out of halftime, but Kansas State clearly made adjustments to start working back into the game. About six minutes into the half, the Wildcats grabbed palpable momentum:
But again—Cincinnati didn't exactly slow, momentum for the other side or not. And as Kellis Robinett of the Wichita Eagle pointed out, key Wildcats were getting emotional with one another on the court:
The sparring between teammates keyed another slump for the Wildcats, where a lack of boxing out and missing transition layups dug the hole deeper as the Bearcats kept the pace set from the tipoff.
And the Bearcats were continuing to feast on a small-ball lineup:
Now would be a good time to mention the Bearcats still have plenty of that defensive prowess, as the eventual victor also tallied four steals and four blocks. Clark had one of each to go with his 15 points, while Jacob Evans had three steals and three blocks alongside nine points.
Cincinnati advances to face the winner of Friday's encounter between No. 3 UCLA and No. 14 Kent State. Regardless of the opponent, the Bearcats will look to bring the same offensive efficiency to the game with the usual tough defense to match.
For the victors, the attention centered on Caupain.
Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin told the media he thought it was the best game of Caupain's career, according to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Aly Cohen of Local 12 in Cincinnati captured more of Cronin's thoughts:
According to Ken Corbitt of the Topeka Capital-Journal, Cronin's plan all along was to keep Iwundu away from the basket: "Our game plan was to make him beat us from the perimeter. We didn’t want to let him get to the rim."
As for Cronin's counterpart, Bruce Weber, he had nothing but praise for the Bearscats, per Corbitt: "Cincinnati brought it's A game and played at a high level. We didn't play our best, and some of that was them."
Iwundu himself talked about how early fouls changed the complexion of the game, per Corbitt: "The fouls called on me the first half changed things. I wasn't able to defend how I wanted to and it hurt the team."