Few college basketball programs have hit Cincinnati's highs. Multiple national titles and Final Fours, legendary players and a bevy of conference crowns make the Bearcats among the all-time elite.
They've hit some lows, too. Cincinnati's endured some serious Big Dance drought and heartbreak through the years, not to mention its off-court issues.
Still, it's impossible to overlook how good the Bearcats have been. If not for its forgettable seasons between 1978 and Bob Huggins' arrival in 1989, Cincinnati likely would've been higher than No. 11 on the list of the greatest college basketball programs. (Having Sandy Koufax as a hoops recruit doesn't hurt the school's lore, either.)
First, the good stuff. Actually, it's really good stuff.
Cincinnati reached five straight Final Fours from 1959-1963, including back-to-back titles in '61 and '62. Only UCLA and Duke have matched that run of success.
Forty-five weeks atop the AP poll is fifth best in NCAA history.
The Bearcats sport 24 NCAA tourney appearances and 22 regular-season conference titles and routinely fill the NBA with their players, six of whom have been consensus All-Americans.
Few teams can match Cincy's recent success – 399 wins in 16 years under Bob Huggins – while winning 1,535 games (more than UConn or Villanova) at a .6301 clip (just behind Louisville) is pretty sweet.
And any program that can point to Oscar Robertson as its best player deserves plenty of props – even if the "Big O" never did cut down the nets. But don't hold it against him. The three-time player of the year and All-American did nearly everything else during his three years in Cincinnati.
Robertson, a 6-5, 220 pound guard who could play any position, is considered one of the game's greatest players with good reason. He led the NCAA in scoring every season, averaging 33.8 ppg and was the career scoring leader until Pete Maravich came along.
He hit the boards – 15.2 a game – and got teammates involved – better than 7 assists an outing. His teams won, too. Cincy was 79-9 and reached back-to-back Final Fours during his three seasons.
Watching him on video now, it's clear Robertson was bigger, faster and stronger than most players, but he was also a smart, unselfish player who rarely coasted on his natural abilities. This excellent piece from longtime NBA reporter Sam Smith details Robertson's on- and off-court gifts.
If all that's not enough praise, his jersey was retired before he even left school, while the United States Basketball Writers Association annual award to the nation's best player is called the Oscar Robertson Trophy.
Still, it's amazing that the Bearcats were even better after Robertson left.
George Smith, who recruited Robertson and nearly every player behind Cincy's golden era, became the athletic director when Robertson left and promoted his assistant, Ed Jucker, to head coach. Cincy started 5-3, then ripped off 22 straight victories, including a national championship game victory against defending champion and in-state rival Ohio State.
If that start wasn't impressive enough, the Bearcats stretched their win streak to 37 games and capped the 1961-62 season with another title-game victory against Ohio State.
Jucker's crew had a chance at a three-peat, but lost to Loyola of Chicago in the 1963 title game, failing to maintain a 15-point lead in the second half.
However, that kind of success wore on Jucker, an intense, devoted and excitable coach. After the 1965 season, he retired with a 113-28 record, including an 11-1 mark in the Big Dance, still the NCAA standard.
"I hardly know my family," he said. "I have four children growing up who hardly know me. They have got to come first."
Jucker's departure didn't crush the program, but it failed to reach the same heights for quite some time. A short resurgence in the 1970s (three-straight NCAA berths) was just a blip until Huggins came to town.
He started fast, too. By his third season, he had the Bearcats in the Final Four, a glorious resurgence that established them as a perennial contender. Between 1993 and 2002, Cincinnati was a No. 2 or 3 seed seven times and averaged nearly 28 wins a season.
That success also brought hard falls. After the Final Four run, the Bearcats made it past the NCAA's opening weekend just three times during the rest of Huggins' tenure. Whether it was not meeting preseason expectations or bad luck (such as when national player of the year and future No. 1 NBA draft choice Kenyon Martin broke his leg before the NCAA tournament), Cincy couldn't get back to the Final Four.
Complicating things more were Huggins' clashes with the NCAA and players' off-court issues.
Huggins often defended the school's graduation rate – usually cited as zero, but not always the case – and seemingly had a player in trouble with the law every season.
As a result, the school had a rough image surrounding it. It won games, but wasn't upheld as an ideal program. That seemed to be confirmed in 1998 when the school lost three scholarships and was placed on probation for lack of institutional control.
The school's missed the NCAA tourney ever since and has had one winning season post-Huggins. Cincy should recover, though. It's not the first time it's had to replace a hoops icon.
Next Tuesday, No. 10 on the list of greatest programs.