The 2010-11 season was a monumental one for Cincinnati's basketball program. Along with making their first NCAA tournament appearance under coach Mick Cronin, the Bearcats officially rejoined the Lunch Room Club.
That's what Cronin likes to call the faction of "brand name," Top 25-caliber schools that can make a recruit feel special by expressing interest in his services. A letter from Ohio State or Michigan State one day leads to bragging and boasting in the high school cafeteria the next.
"As a recruit, your friends are going to think you're a whole lot cooler if you're going to a brand-name school," Cronin said. "The more we win, the more we become one of those programs. We don't have to fight that in recruiting as much now.
"We don't have to overcome the fact that we're not in the Lunchroom Club."
Cincinnati's 26-9 record last season marked the continuation of a steady climb the Bearcats have experienced under Cronin. According to its media relations department, Cincinnati is the only Division I school in the country whose record has improved from one season to the next for five consecutive years.
Still, until last season, simply getting better wasn't enough for Bearcats fans who had fresh memories of the 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (1992-2005) the program experienced under Huggins. If Cincinnati wouldn't have earned a bid last spring, some believe Cronin may have been out of a job.
Instead Cronin's squad thumped Missouri in the opening round before falling to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut in the second. Cincinnati actually posted a better Big East record (11-7) than the Huskies (9-9). Following the season, Cronin was awarded a new, six-year contract worth about $1.5 million per year.
"You can't fix what we had going on overnight," Cronin said. "It wasn't going to happen.
"When I first got the job we had nobody on the team. I had to get junior college guys that could graduate to fix our APR. There really was no option. If I signed high school guys that weren't good enough I would've been stuck with them for four years."
Eventually Cronin was able to sign players who were viewed as more than a stopgap. Standouts such as Yancy Gates, Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon are all veterans who will be a part of this year's squad. So, too, will Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 9.7 points as a freshman last season.
"We've got our four leading scorers back," Cronin said. "I like the fact that we've got a good mix of veteran guys and young guys that are going to be able to play with them. The longer you coach in this league, the more you realize that you're a fool if you ever feel comfortable. Everybody in this league has good players. It's not how good you are. It's who are you better than? It's a real tough reality to live with."
One spot where Cincinnati will be as good as anyone in the Big East is at forward, where the 6-foo-9, 265-pound Gates returns for his senior season. Gates leaves July 29 for Colorado Springs, where he'll be one of 22 players trying out for the 12-member Team USA squad that will compete in the World University Games in Shenzen, China.
"It's one of those things I never thought about, it just happened," Gates said of the phone call notifying him of the invite. "Not many people get to wear that type of jersey in college.
"It'll help going against competition like [Ohio State's Jared] Sullinger and Tyler Zeller from North Carolina. That's not the type of competition I would see in normal summer workouts."
Gates has averaged double figures in scoring in each of his three seasons with the Bearcats. Cronin believes Gates' senior year will be his best.
"He's had to play 27-30 minutes a game for us," Cronin said. "I haven't been able to baby him or nurse him through it. It's only going to make him a better person, a stronger person. I think he's going to reap the benefits from all of his hard work."
The Bearcats are also welcoming six newcomers, including four-star small forward Shaquille Thomas from New Jersey. Cronin said the biggest key, however, will be the health of Wright, the team's point guard who is recovering from offseason knee surgery.
"I like my team," Cronin said. "But to be an elite team you have to have your veteran guys out there and have them at full strength. All you have to do it look at Michigan State and how the injuries affected them last year.
"The good thing is that we needed to get continuity and get to the point where we were playing juniors and seniors, and now we're there. You're not going to win in the Big East if you don't have veterans. It's just not going to happen."
As well as they did in league play last season, the Bearcats fared well outside of it, too. Cincinnati opened the 2010-11 campaign with 15 straight wins, although Cronin was mildly criticized for playing a rather soft non-conference schedule that kept his team on the NCAA tournament bubble until the final few weeks of the season. The Bearcats played just two true non-league road games – against Toledo and Miami (Ohio) – and also defeated Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. They didn't face a ranked opponent until Big East play.
"If you have my job you can't worry about that stuff," Cronin said. "You do what's best for your program. It's not like I can sit here and say, 'You know what? I think I'd like to play Duke on CBS.' It doesn't work that way. That'd be great, but everyone wants to play Duke on CBS, and Coach K can't do that for everyone. He plays St. John's because of their alumni in New York. He doesn't do it as a favor to St. John's."
Still, Cronin said, as Cincinnati's program continues to improve, so will the schedule.
"I'd like to get us to a point," Cronin said, "where we could get a national TV game every year against Ohio State or Michigan State … someone in our region. All you can do it keep working on that stuff.
"There are financial situations that come up when you're one of main revenue producers in your athletic department. You've got to make so much money for home games. There are a lot of factors that go into it. You can't always get what you want. You've got to serve a lot of masters with your schedule. That's why I don't worry about it.
"You do what's best for your team. I study the guys in this business who have had long-term success. They've always done what's best for their program."
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- Mick Cronin