Mick Cronin, Cincinnati Bearcats Hope to Make Noise in Big East

Ryan HaderContributor INovember 14, 2008

For the Cincinnati Bearcats, nothing ever comes easy.

Ever since the forced departure of Bob Huggins (courtesy of she-who-shall-not-be-named), the Bearcats have faced incredible amounts of adversity. Injuries, decommits, transfers—clearly, Cincinnati has been in rebuilding mode for a couple years.

But the 'Cats keep clawing back. Under new head coach Mick Cronin, two Big East wins in 2006-07 turned into eight only one year later. This season, the third-year coach may have his best team yet.

Junior guard Deonta Vaughn, a 2007-08 first team All-Big East selection, will be aided in the backcourt by freshman Dion Dixon and sophomore Larry Davis. The frontcourt will feature five sophomores, providing much-needed depth for this young team. Senior Mike Williams and the eagerly anticipated arrival of local prep star Yancy Gates, from Withrow High School, will be expected to produce in the paint for UC.

Junior forward transfers Nick Aldridge and Steve Toyloy also hope to improve the scoring woes for the Bearcats this season. Toyloy is a 255-pound semi-truck that will plug the middle, while Aldridge is a legitimate scoring threat from Western Carolina University.

Despite a devastating season-ending injury to highly-touted freshman Cashmere Wright, the Bearcats are looking to improve on last season's turnaround and even make a push for the NCAA tournament.

However, their schedule seems to think otherwise.

Aside from the raucous Big East, UC will have a pretty tough non-conference schedule.  Naturally, the Bearcats are going to have to take full advantage of their non-conference schedule and build up quality wins where they can. Among these key non-conference games are Florida State, No. 13 Memphis, and, of course, Xavier (another team creeping around the top 25).

And then, well...things get a tad bit tougher.

Welcome to the Big East, folks. This conference has turned into the equivalent of SEC football: Seven teams in the AP's preseason top 25, four in the top 10, and three—three—in the top five. Of course, you have to take preseason rankings with a grain of salt. But, regardless, this conference will be the strongest in the nation from November to April.

Connecticut. Louisville. Marquette. Pittsburgh. I'm getting lightheaded. Notre Dame. Villanova. Georgetown. I need to lay down.

This conference is a marathon, from start to finish. The key for the 'Cats to stay competitive is the consistent play of Deonta Vaughn and nightly contributions from their bench.

So before I pass out from dizziness, here is a look at five key games the Bearcats have that will determine their season.

Xavier, Dec. 13

Never underestimate the rivalry game. Xavier could be ranked by this point, or have three losses. It doesn't matter. Win this game, and the team's confidence is through the roof heading into Memphis only two weeks later.

XU's Derrick Brown is on the Wooden Top 50 to watch list, and is returning experience from an Elite 8 team a year ago. UC forward Mike Williams must body up Brown and play physical, and must win the battle on the boards for UC to stay in the game

at Memphis, December 29

The Tigers are ranked No. 13 in the preseason, and although without last year's stud Derrick Rose, Coach Calipari always has his boys ready. Guard Antonio Anderson and forward Robert Dozier are two senior leaders that will pose a big challenge to Deonta Vaughn and freshman Yancy Gates, respectively.

at Marquette, Jan. 4

The 'Cats kick off the new year and conference play with a difficult road test in Milwaukee. UC could create serious momentum with a road upset win, because three straight home games follow this one. Of course, all eyes will be on the delicious matchup of guards Dominic James and Deonta Vaughn, two of the Big East's best guards.

Jan. 17, 19, and 22

The Bearcats have three road conference games against DePaul, Providence, and St. John's—all three being winnable matchups. A 3-0 road trip would gain considerable momentum preceding a six-day layoff.

Louisville, Feb. 21

Nothing needs to be said about this rivalry, but I'll say it anyway. This is always a must win, especially this late in the season. Last season's upset victory at Freedom Hall left a bad taste in the Cardinals' mouths, and they will come out on fire. As we saw last year, as point guard Edgar Sosa goes, so go the Birds. Shut him down and the 'Cats have a great chance in this game.