Mick Cronin has yet to lead Cincinnati to the NCAA tournament, but he also has yet to lose to Bob Huggins.
Huggins tries again for his first win over his former school Saturday when No. 8 West Virginia hosts Cronin’s Bearcats.
Cronin is in his fourth season at Cincinnati, and has won both games against Huggins and West Virginia (21-6, 10-5 Big East) the last two years. Huggins guided the Bearcats to national prominence from 1991-2005, including 14 straight trips to the NCAA tournament before he was ousted by school president Nancy Zimpher shortly before the start of the 2005-06 season due to the basketball program’s image and Huggins’ drunken driving arrest.
The Mountaineers are back home after matching their lowest point total of the season in Monday’s 73-62 loss at Connecticut in which Huggins was ejected. That has Cronin worried.
“Two things I’ll tell you,” Cronin said. “I know coach Huggins. His team lost their last game. Not good for the Bearcats. We won the game last year. Not good for the Bearcats.”
Cincinnati (16-11, 7-8) has used terrific defense to beat West Virginia the last two years, holding the Mountaineers to 20.0 percent shooting in a 62-39 road win Jan. 30, 2008 and 33.3 percent in a 65-61 win Feb. 26, 2009.
“We’ve played pretty good defense, but they haven’t made shots against us in all fairness the last two years,” Cronin said. “We’ve tried to keep them out of the paint, make them shoot jump shots.”
West Virginia ranks 12th in the Big East in field-goal percentage at 43.9 and is worse at home, shooting 42.3 percent - the second-worst mark in the conference.
“We’ve really struggled to make shots in general,” Huggins said. “I think we’ve been fairly consistent defensively and for the most part, fairly consistent rebounding. But we’ve just struggled to shoot the ball.”
Leading scorer Da’Sean Butler is averaging 16.8 points on 33.3 percent shooting during West Virginia’s 2-3 stretch in the last five games. Butler scored eight points each of the last two years against Cincinnati, making a total of 8 of 23 shots.
The Mountaineers were unable to contain Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates in last year’s loss. Gates had 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed 11 boards.
“We couldn’t stop him,” West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks said. “He has good post moves and help-side (defense) got there a little late.”
Gates scored a career-high 23 points in 33 minutes in Wednesday’s 74-69 win over DePaul. He had logged a total of 38 minutes in back-to-back losses due to poor defense.
Big East freshman scoring leader Lance Stephenson also responded with 18 points and 10 boards after he was limited to 11 minutes in Sunday’s 79-76 overtime home loss to Marquette.
The loss to the Golden Eagles dashed Cincinnati’s chances of gaining its first NCAA berth since Huggins left. The Bearcats know a strong finish with matchups against No. 7 Villanova and No. 11 Georgetown upcoming could get them back on track.
“We’re one of the so-called bubble teams,” Cronin said. “Our guys understand that we’ve got to find a way to get some wins.”