DALLAS — Sixth-ranked Cincinnati is still undefeated in the American Athletic Conference, with its longest winning streak and highest ranking in coach Mick Cronin’s 12 seasons.
The key now for the Bearcats is staying focused on the immediate future — and not what could happen in March.
“We obviously know where we’re at, but we have to keep on going,” senior Kyle Washington said. “We just know how many games we lost, and we know when practice is and when’s the next game. And that’s the truth.”
Washington scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shots and had eight rebounds in his 18 minutes as the Bearcats won their 16th straight game — including all 12 AAC games — with a 76-51 victory over short-handed SMU on Sunday.
The Bearcats (23-2, 12-0 AAC) missed their first seven shots in the game, but were down only 5-2 when they finally scored just more than 3 minutes in on a dunk by Nysier Brooks. That started a 9-0 run that put them ahead to stay, and they had as much as a 35-point lead midway through the second half after a span of making 11 of 13 shots.
Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray each had 19 points for SMU (15-10, 5-7), which has lost three straight and seven of 10.
“Obviously they’re dealing with injuries, but it’s still 5-on-5, so you’ve got to come out ready to play,” Cronin said. “We were able to get separation and do what we should have done in this situation that SMU is in, and be able to pull away from them.”
SMU knew it would be without preseason AAC player of the year Shake Milton for the third straight game because of an injured right hand, while Jarrey Foster (left knee) and Everett Ray (left foot) were already sidelined by season-ending injuries. But freshman starting forward Ethan Chargois then injured his ankle during pregame shootaround, leaving the Mustangs with only six available scholarship players.
This was the most-lopsided loss by the Mustangs in their five seasons as an AAC member. The previous low mark was a 76-56 loss at Cincinnati just a month ago, when they still had a full roster.
“Just the amazing events of the last three weeks is what has the mood where it’s at,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “It’s honestly most surreal situation I’ve ever been in my life, and because I feel that, I feel for (the players) like you can’t believe. … Injuries are no one’s fault. Injuries are luck.”
The injuries are compounded by the program still dealing with reduced scholarships — through next season — because of NCAA sanctions handed down in September 2015 when Larry Brown was still the head coach. They went 25-5 that season, but were banned from the NCAA Tournament. They were still short-handed last year when they won the AAC title and did get to accept an NCAA berth.
“I was always a little mad,” Jankovich said about the scholarship penalties. “Now with the bad luck, it seems surreal.”
Cincinnati: The Bearcats got to SMU last February also with a 22-2 record and a 15-game winning streak. The Mustangs won the matchup of ranked teams 60-51, and Cincinnati went on to a 30-win season as the AAC runner-up. The Bearcats want that conference title this season.
“I think we focused on the huge goals last year too much and I think we lost perspective of all the small details,” Washington said. “So I’m glad we’re paying attention to that now.”
SMU: Despite three wins over teams ranked 14th or better, the fade in conference play has been dramatic for a team already mathematically eliminated from a chance to defend its AAC title. Getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row has also become more of a longshot each day.
Ben Emelogu played only 24 minutes for SMU after getting banged up at last twice in the game. He finished 1-of-8 shooting for two points with three rebounds.