At the beginning of February the Cincinnati Bearcats looked to be well on their way to not only reaching the NCAA tournament but possibly grabbing a “protected” seed as well.
But since their 65-59 win at Seton Hall on February 2 the Bearcats (19-9, 7-8 Big East) have lost five of six, and the breathing room Mick Cronin’s team once enjoyed with regards to returning to the NCAA tournament has mostly disappeared.
Cincinnati lost at No. 25 Notre Dame by 21 points (62-41) on Sunday afternoon, and Cincinnati needs two best offensive weapons (Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick) to get back on track if they’re to turn things around.
Wright hasn’t been himself since missing Cincinnati’s two-point win over Marquette back in mid-January due to a knee injury suffered at DePaul, shooting just 24.2% from the field in the nine games he’s played since. On Sunday Wright failed to score, attempting just two shots (both three-pointers) and finishing with just one assist.
Is the knee still an issue for the senior point guard? Wright hasn’t been able to get into the paint off the dribble as often as he was before the injury, and when Wright is able to beat opponents off the bounce things open up offensively for Cincinnati as a whole.
One of the chief beneficiaries this season has been Kilpatrick, but with opponents focusing even more attention on him the redshirt junior has struggled to find his groove offensively. Kilpatrick shot just 3-of-13 against Notre Dame, and over the last nine games he’s making just 35.9% of his shots from the field and 30.1% from beyond the arc.
Given Cincinnati’s lack of an interior scorer they cannot afford for key players such as Wright and Kilpatrick to go through prolonged shooting slumps, and that’s exactly what has happened in February.
With games against Connecticut and Louisville next on the schedule, the five days before Cincinnati’s home game against the Huskies are critical as they look to turn things around. Drop both of those games (Cincinnati finishes the regular season with a home game against South Florida) and the Bearcats will arrive in New York for the Big East Championship with some work to do if they’re to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
That wasn’t the expectation for this group a month ago.