Two undefeated and under the radar teams showed well in Brooklyn on Saturday.
Not many pundits have mentioned Cincinnati or Louisville as major players in this year’s march to the madness, but both showed – in different ways – that they are likely to be formidable squads to be reckoned with.
Cincinnati took home the Barclays Center Classic with a 61-56 victory over a good George Washington (6-1) team, a day after handling Nebraska in the semifinal. The Bearcats (7-0) were led by junior guard Troy Coupain’s 16 points, while Farad Cobb and Kevin Johnson chipped in with 11 points each. Senior forward Octavius Ellis was named MVP of the tournament.
Cincinnati held George Washington to 38% shooting, including 35% in the second half. They made the game a typical Bearcat ugly slugfest and their offense, led by Coupain, made timely buckets when it mattered most.
Coach Mick Cronin, who sat out the second half of last season and played the role of “general manager,” due to a vascular condition, is back in full health this season and has his team playing like they always have: tough and scrappy.
“We gotta get better,” Cronin said after the game. “We’ll be a better team the more we can pick up tempo. For us to get where we’re going, we’ve got to be able to play a little bit more with the pressure in the backcourt and use our depth.”
That’s a scary thought considering the Bearcats have been successful simply grinding games to a halt in the recent past. Regardless, Cincinnati figures to do a lot of damage in the American Athletic Conference and with that should come a pretty decent seed in the NCAA Tournament.
While Cincinnati is used to being a bit underrated, Louisville and coach Rick Pitino are not so accustomed to it.
“Louisville’s always going to be ranked in the beginning of the season and you just look at the rankings, we’re not even ranked,” Pitino said, feigning astonishment after the Cardinals’ 77-57 win over Saint Louis at Barclays Center Saturday night.
“There’s so much talk about other things, [the media] didn’t really focus on basketball. But, that’s OK. It makes you hungry.”
Pitino was of course referring to the prostitution allegations his program is dealing with. He has not spoken much on the topic, but he used Saturday night’s press conference to vent a little bit.
“I’ve kept my mouth quiet – the NCAA asked me to – and I certainly won’t read the book,” the coach began. “The thing that I’m disappointed in – because I like a lot of people in the media, I’m someone who has been media friendly for a long, long time – is that [the media] bought into it, you believe it. That’s the startling thing.”
Pitino continued: “Now I’ve got eleven women coming forward saying it didn’t happen, signing affidavits. Everybody just bought it. I wouldn’t buy it for a second. I don’t know, I’m a doubting Thomas. So, what I’ll do is let the NCAA do their job. But, I know this basketball team had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
On the court, the Cardinals (5-0) don’t seem to be too distracted. They used a 16-4 run early in the second half to break open what had been a close game versus Saint Louis (4-1). Louisville shot 70% from the field in the second half (53% for the game) and used their considerable size and length advantage to out-rebound the Billikens 36-14.
The Cardinals’ signature full court pressure defense also took its toll on Saint Louis, who could not get into a rhythm offensively and committed some ill-timed turnovers.
Trey Lewis’s 22 points and 7 rebounds led five Louisville players in double figures. 6’10 redshirt junior Mangok Mathiang dominated the paint with 17 points and 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive rebounds.
The Cardinals are far from a finished product and they have yet to be tested by a truly quality opponent this season. However, that will change this Wednesday when they travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State.
“This is a new basketball team,” Pitino reminded us. “Four starters have left, 85% of our points are gone, but this is a damn good basketball team. Not since 1987 have I coached a group with this type of character, as people. They’re fun to coach.”
Pitino sounded confident that this Louisville team would be every bit as formidable as his teams of the past, come March. If this team grows and matures to the level Pitino expects and their freshmen gain more confidence, this team just might equal his 1987 run with Providence.
It would be unwise to bet against a Rick Pitino coached team.
Syracuse (6-0) may have had the most impressive holiday tournament performance, after beating UConn and Texas A&M on back-to-back days. The unranked Orange were not thought to be among the ACC elite this season. That thinking should probably change.
Wichita State (2-4) will be unranked come Monday afternoon. The Shockers, playing without three rotation players, including star point guard Fred VanVleet, lost all three of their games in the AdvoCare Invitational.
Speaking of the AdvoCare Invitational, Xavier (7-0) is very good. After an impressive 16-point victory at Michigan over a week ago, the Musketeers blew through this weekend’s Invitational, culminating in a 90-61 Championship Game victory over Dayton. Their next big game is versus heated rival Cincinnati on December 12th.
Follow Jamal Murphy on Twitter: @Blacketologist