By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer
On the day before Selection Sunday last March, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats were downtown at U.S. Bank Arena hoisting the trophy they had won as champions of the Conference USA Tournament and waiting for what they were certain would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But like so much about this season, the scenario was quite a bit different for the Bearcats on Saturday.
After practicing on Thursday and Friday, the players and coaches went their own way, still confident their 17-11 record and No. 31 standing in the Ratings Percentage Index would earn them their 12th straight appearance when the pairings are announced at 6 p.m. today.
"It just feels kind of different," said Jason Maxiell.
The Bearcats will gather at Shoemaker Center to watch the selection show, then will answer questions from the media.
Maxiell admitted to a degree of nervousness as he waits to see if UC plays in the NCAA or is forced to wait for word from the National Invitation Tournament.
But UC coach Bob Huggins and senior forward Leonard Stokes remained outwardly placid.
"From everything that everybody tells me," Huggins said. "I think we're in."
No school with an RPI higher than No. 33 has ever been denied a chance to play in the tournament.
Huggins said there was a time of uncertainty in the moments following UC's disappointing upset loss to Southern Miss on Wednesday in the first round of the C-USA Tournament, but once he had a chance to analyze things more rationally that uncertainty disappeared.
"When you step back and look at the numbers and you talk to people, I haven't heard anybody say we're even on the bubble," Huggins said. "Everybody says we're locked in. It's just a matter of are we an eight seed or are we a 10?"
So disappointing was UC's finish that neither Stokes nor Maxiell have watched other conference tournaments.
"I see some highlights to see if there were any upsets or anything," Stokes said. "But when we lose, I just try to watch tape to see what it is that I'm doing wrong or that the team is doing wrong.
"Sometimes it's frustrating watching when you know in your heart and your mind that you should still be out there."
UC caught a break Saturday when Louisville held on to outlast UAB in the C-USA Tournament final. Had UAB won the automatic bid that goes with the tournament championship, the selection committee would have had to take five teams from C-USA for UC to make it. The league has never sent five teams to the tournament.
The Bearcats, who won eight straight at one point and boasted a 13-3 record, had plenty of chances to lock up an at-large bid. But they lost six of their last 10 games.
"We had chances to seal our fate and do what we had to do," Stokes said. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen. But I think we've done enough for us to get in."
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