Cincinnati’s late skid puts its NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy

Even after Cincinnati reeled off 12 straight wins to start the season, opened Big East play with a victory at Pittsburgh and surged to an 18-4 record in early February, there was concern the Bearcats might not have enough firepower to sustain that success.

Three weeks later, that skepticism appears to have some merit.

A Cincinnati team once a fixture in the top 20 in the polls has backpedaled to the point that an NCAA tournament bid is no longer a certainty. Sunday's 62-41 no-show at Notre Dame was the Bearcats' fifth loss in six games, a stretch that sent them tumbling to a tie for 10th place in the Big East at 19-9 overall and 7-8 in league play.

Quality wins over Marquette, Pittsburgh, Oregon and Iowa State are enough to prevent Cincinnati from dropping below a No. 10 or 11 seed in most bracket projections, but the Bearcats are under pressure to emerge from this skid. They've fallen to No. 51 in the RPI and their next two games are against Connecticut and Louisville before a very winnable regular season finale at home against last-place South Florida.

If Cincinnati can win two of its final three regular season games, its spot in the NCAA tournament should be secure regardless of what happens in the Big East tournament. Anything less than that, however, and the Bearcats might need a win or two at Madison Square Garden to feel safe.

That makes Saturday's home game against UConn vital to Cincinnati, but it's hard to like the Bearcats' chances considering how anemic their offense has been lately.

Cincinnati already was overly reliant on its backcourt because none of its big men are viable scoring threats in the post. A stingy defense and dominance on the glass were enough to overcome those issues up until mid-January when point guard Cashmere Wright sprained his right knee against DePaul.

Since returning from that injury, Wright has not been the same player, shooting 23 of 95 from the field and sinking barely 20 percent of his 3-point attempts. That has enabled opposing defenses to focus even more defensive attention on Cincinnati's leading scorer Sean Kilpatrick, whose shooting percentage during that same eight-game stretch has dropped off to 35.7 percent.

The Bearcats had kept most games close with their rebounding and defense despite those issues, but Sunday's Notre Dame loss was a step backward. And the Irish shot well from the perimeter and won the rebounding battle 41-25, building a 14-point halftime lead and rolling to one-sided victory.

Frustration finally came to the surface for Cincinnati players in their postgame comments.

Coach Mick Cronin bemoaned his team's lack of scoring options, admitting to the Cincinnati Enquirer, "there's no reason to help off SK ever." Kilpatrick acknowledged the Bearcats need other players to be more aggressive with defenses geared toward stopping him and Wright.

"That’s been happening all year and it’s going to continue to happen," Kilpatrick told the Enquirer. "More people on this team have got to be more assertive. Two people just can’t win the game for you."