It is never easy to build a successful basketball program, but starting one from almost scratch in a league as tough as the Big East Conference is a brutal assignment for anyone.
Yet it appears as if Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, in his fifth year with the Bearcats, has put that program on the cusp of becoming one of the conference's top teams.
Certainly the Bearcats appear to be ready to become an annual NCAA tournament team and that in itself is quite an accomplishment according to Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, given how far the program backpedaled before Cronin became head coach.
Fourth-ranked Pitt (20-2, 8-1) will play host to Cincinnati (18-4, 5-4) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Petersen Events Center, and Dixon knows the Panthers will have their hands full, especially considering the Bearcats could use a road win against a Top-10 team to solidify their NCAA tournament resume.
Cincinnati has improved its win total in each of its past four seasons under Cronin, who inherited a team that was deplete of talent because of academic issues. A victory against the Panthers would allow the Bearcats to match their win total from a year ago when they finished 19-16 and went to the NIT.
Dixon said he has watched the Bearcats improve as they have added players and developed some depth.
"I refer to the situation that Mick went into as being about as close to a death penalty as there was in college basketball," Dixon said, "because they really had no players at all once he got the job. They have gotten better every year and that is more than you can ask. Getting better every year is another rare and nearly impossible feat to do in our conference because, you need some teams to take a step backward.
"There have been a lot of teams in our league waiting for teams to take a step backward and there haven't been too many of those."
Cincinnati has not been to the NCAA tournament since the 2004-05 season and many thought the team from a year ago was built to make a run. But the Bearcats never quite developed enough chemistry and lost too many close conference games and had to settle for an NIT bid.
Then this season they began 15-0 and, even though they didn't play a rugged non-conference schedule, appeared to be headed for great things.
But the reality of the Big East has begun to set in as the Bearcats have lost four of their past seven and all four of their losses have been to teams currently in the top six spots in the conference.
Dixon, who helped build Pitt's program as Ben Howland's top assistant and then as head coach, said he can't imagine trying to pull off what Cronin has had to under these circumstances given how much better the Big East is now than it was in 1999 when he and Howland arrived.
"I think going back to 12 years ago there are a lot of similarities but there are some differences," Dixon said. "Everybody talked about how good the conference was then, but it is far better now than it was then and the conference has gotten stronger over the years.
"I know there were a couple of teams that were down when we started to turn the corner and that was a big factor. A lot of times you like to sit here and say, 'We did this right and that right,' but you need some breaks, too, and you need some things to fall your way and you need to recognize that and be realistic."
The Bearcats, who come to the Petersen Events Center off a 66-56 loss to West Virginia, will present the Panthers with a stiff challenge because of their powerful inside game, their physical defense and they have several players who can score both inside and out.
Pitt center Gary McGhee said the key for the Panthers to win the game will be their ability to control Cincinnati's standout forward, Yancy Gates, who averages 11.4 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Gates, who is 6 feet 9, had a huge game against the Panthers a year ago with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks, but Pitt won, 74-71.
"He is a really good post player, he had a big game against us," McGhee said. "He played really well in the first half and he is going to be a load inside so I am going to have to bring my defense. I think they are real close [to becoming a top team] but they just have to keep winning in the conference.
"It is going to be a really tough matchup because they are a gritty team, they like to grind it out and they are really physical."
NOTES -- Sophomore forward Dante Taylor missed practice Tuesday and then left practice Thursday with soreness in his knees. Dixon said Taylor had an MRI Thursday night and his status for the game Saturday against Cincinnati is questionable. He said Taylor began practice but "banged knees" with another player and was held out for the rest of it. "Dante got a little banged up, we are going to get him checked out with an MRI, we don't think it is too serious but the knees have been bothering him as we know," Dixon said.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720. First Published February 4, 2011 5:15 AM