This was too long for the game preview, so this is bonus content today. Game thread will be posted around 1PM Eastern time. See also: 5 questions with Bearcats Blog (St. John's/ CIN pregame) | St. John's enters familiar Midwest road trip | Game 15: St. John's at Cincinnati Bearcats (preview)
Despite an 18-team Big East conference, the Bearcats and the Red Storm have met twice in 2008, 2009, and 2011. In five season, St. John's and Cincinnati have met eight times. For a comparison, St. John's has met local rivals Rutgers and Seton Hall six times apiece. This season, St. John's faces Cincy twice... and Seton Hall and Rutgers once apiece (both in New Jersey).
Cincinnati has been scheduled like a rival, and in many ways they are. Coming off of the bitter end of the Bob Huggins era - and the Andy Kennedy stewardship in 2005-2006, after now-West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had been fired - Cincinnati has shared a cozy boat with the Red Storm, part of the cohort of teams trying to break into the top half of the league.
Just like St. John's, last year the Cincinnati Bearcats finally broke through to the NCAA Tournament.
Since Cincinnati joined the Big East, both teams are even head to head at 4 wins, 4 losses apiece. Both teams have struggled to bring top-100 talent into their programs. Both teams have been phyiscal; both teams have been comfortable with low-scoring affairs. Both teams have had coaches come under fire; but Mick Cronin outlasted the calls for his job and rewarded his employers with an NCAA trip.
For last year's graduating class, the Bearcats were familiar - long, gritty, unheralded players fighting for respect. You may remember the 2011 class winning at Carnesecca 70-58 back in their freshman year. They looked competent, hopeful, and Larry Wright hit a few shots to give a semblance of an outside game. So they traveled to Cincinnati's Fifth/ Third Arena and looked like freshman, getting blown out by Cincy 60-43 in The Fraction, unable to score inside.
Or maybe you remember D.J. Kennedy and Rashad Bishop getting booted in 2009 after a scuffle at halfcourt. That scuffle - and the loss of Kennedy, St. John's most pivotal player at the time - sparked a Cincinati run at Carnesecca for a 70-61 St. John's loss. St. John's lost by about the same margin later in 2009, 71-61, where Yancy Gates' quote stung for those with serious questions about the coaching staff:
"It was really just the plays coach [Mick Cronin] was calling. He got me open on a lot of cross screens from the guards. I don’t think St. John’s knew we ran those plays."
Lance Stephenson came in 2010. St. John's won 52-50. It was about as pretty as a 52-50 game (played at a 63 possession pace) usually is. The crowd booed Lance, who teased St. John's like a backup prom date for months. But Dwight Hardy stole the show in the turnover-filled affair.
Last year, St. John's bricked the first game away, losing 53-51 (in a 58 possession game) on the road, going 12-25 from the free throw line at Carnesecca. A few weeks later, the Johnnies squeezed out a 59-57 win at Carnesecca. Par for the course, a para from our recap:
But clutch late free-throw shooting (helped by a Rashad Bishop lane violation on a Malik Boothe free throw), a late composure boost, and timely defense wrested the lead away from the home team.
These close games with the Cincinnati Bearcats are becoming a yearly habit. And it's an ugly, low-possession, turnover-filled, hair-pulling, heart-in-throat, breath-stopping habit. In the end, the Red Storm scratched out a crucial win against a squad they'll be compared against when the selection committee looks at at-large resumes. The Johnnies stole a road win that leave them in a very good position to dance in March.
The Bearcats are like the man in the mirror as St. John's tries to get to the upper reaches of the Big East conference. This year, once again, the Bearcats and Red Storm meet twice, hoping to use the other to gain ground in the conference.