Coach Mick Cronin and Cincinnati take on Georgia State in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
With the American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles tucked neatly into their pockets, the Cincinnati Bearcats set out to tackle their next mission: the program's first Final Four since 1992.
Cincinnati's No. 2 seed in the South Region marks the school's highest seed since drawing a No. 1 in 2002. The Bearcats haven't been a No. 2 since 2000 and haven't been higher than No. 5 since the 2014 season.
Their march to San Antonio begins Friday with a first-round matchup with No. 15 seed Georgia State at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Head coach Mick Cronin was thrilled with the scheduling, saying his team needed some time to rest after a challenging run in the conference tournament, including a 56-55 nail-biting victory over Houston in the title game.
"That's big," Cronin said. "I hope that helps us."
Head coach Ron Hunter's team earned the Sun Belt Conference's automatic bid with a 74-61 victory over Texas-Arlington in the tournament final over the weekend.
Hunter, who famously coached from a stool and moved around on a scooter after tearing his Achilles when his son hit a buzzer-beater to beat Baylor in the 2015 tournament, said despite the seed discrepancy, his team would be prepared for Cincinnati.
"Cincinnati stays at Hyatt and we stay at Comfort Inn," Hunter said. "Cincinnati eats at Ruth's Chris (steakhouse). ... We got to eat at Wendy's ... but by 2 pm on Friday. we'll be ready."
Sophomore D'Marcus Simonds earned the league's player of the year honors after averaging 20.9 points per game.
"He's going to be the next first-round pick at Georgia State," Hunter said. "How many mid-majors can have two first-round draft picks in three years? The last time I had a guy who was drafted in the first round who was the (Sun Belt) player of the year, I think we beat a team called Baylor."
"We have the exact same situation with D'Marcus right now, so we'll see what happens. I have all the respect in the world for Cincinnati, but I have a great deal of respect for the Georgia State Panthers."
The Panthers have made the tournament four times in its history and twice in the last four seasons.
The Bearcats are expecting a somewhat-friendly crowd in Nashville, about a four-hour drive from the UC campus; of course, with crosstown rival Xavier also playing its first-round games in Nashville, the Panthers may have some additional fans for the day.
"Last time we were there (in 2012), we won two and went to the Sweet 16," Cronin said. "We're excited.
"It's a great city. When I was at Murray State, that was our airport. ... I cut down the nets twice in Nashville as the head coach of the Racers. And like I said earlier, we won two there to go to the Sweet 16. So, Nashville's been pretty good to me."
The winner of Friday's contest gets either No. 7 Nevada or No. 10 Texas Sunday in the second-round.