Mick Cronin initially groused about heading West for another NCAA Tournament.
The Cincinnati Bearcats coach earlier in the week wondered why a 29-win team could be seeded only sixth and shipped to the sunny coast, far from home, for the third time since 2014.
Basking in a the glow of a 75-61 South Regional triumph over No. 11 Kansas State on Friday night at Golden 1 Center, the Cincinnati alum clarified his true feelings, saying how good it feels to avoid being bitten by a lower-seeded team in one of those games that have given this tournament the moniker “March Madness.”
Keep in mind that this is a prideful old Irishman who joked that he was ready for a few cold ones to celebrate victory and St. Patrick’s Day in Sacramento.
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“I love the West Coast,” Cronin said. “Two of my best friends are here from L.A. I can’t get ’em out of California. The only way I can see them is to come here. It’s hard to get them out of southern California.”
Cronin admitted he feels for the families of his players who cannot easily travel cross-country to watch their sons play.
“The only problem is the family travel for all of our kids,” he said. “It’s such a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our kids. Parents are driving the guys around to AAU tournaments (over the years), a lot of long drives, bad food, fast food, sitting in the gym all day, weekend after weekend. To see their son on the biggest stage, you want them to be able to be there. But Sacramento has been great. Our hosts here have been great, and for those of us from the midwest, it’s good to see the sun.”
Cronin said it’s also good to see the Bearcats in typical fierce fashion: fast and effective on offense and stingy on defense.
Troy Caupain scored 23 points and Kyle Washington 16 for Cincinnati to prevent No. 6 seeds from going 0-4 in the first round after sixth-seeded Maryland (West Region), Creighton (Midwest) and SMU (East) all fell to No. 11 teams.
Cincinnati made its first eight shots to storm to a nine-point early lead as Caupain made all five of his field goals. The Bearcats shot 62 percent and stymied Kansas State, which beat Wake Forest 95-88 in a First Four play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, to advance.
The Bearcats (30-5) were bounced in the first round last March, a fact not lost on players, though Cronin downplayed any vibes of public perception. Cincinnati lost tournament games in games played in Spokane, Wash.
“That’s the way it is,” Cronin said. “I could care less what anybody said. We understand it, but if that’s why you’re playing or why you’re coaching, you’re going to have a hollow ending, and I don’t care how many games you win. What makes it real is these guys love each other and they play for each other. They’re not playing to silence their critics. I know I’m not. I try to get that to rub off on them. I don’t lack in competitiveness.”
Said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, “Obviously, we’re disappointed that (the season) came to an end. Cincinnati brought their ‘A’ game and they played at a high level. I didn’t think we played our best game. There is no doubt. Some of that’s them, the way they played.”
Cincinnati moved to 7-1 all-time against Kansas State, though that’s a bit misleading. The last meeting was in 1968. The Bearcats have one of the more successful programs in college basketball, playing in its sevent consecutive tournament and 31st overall. But Cincinnati’s last regional final was in 1996 and its last Final Four in 1992.
Cronin again looked at the big picture.
“We’ve had a successful year,” he said. “Only one team is going to win this tournament, and I’m talking the whole tournament. I want to coach Troy (Caupain) for three more weeks. That’s why I want to win.”