WASHINGTON — On the day before Cincinnati's first NCAA tournament game in six years, Sean Kilpatrick was in the locker room putting on a show worthy of Saturday night at the improv.
The red-shirt freshman was doing impersonations of teammates and coaches, with such spot-on hilarity that his fellow players were doubled over in uncontrollable laughter. Some of the biggest guffaws came when he began mimicking coach Mick Cronin, strutting up and down an imaginary sideline and gesturing with hands and hips.
"Listen! Do me a favor!" Kilpatrick screamed into the face of senior Larry Davis. "You don't like it? Get out!"
It was definitely one of the more entertaining open-to-the-media locker room sessions in NCAA tournament history, and it helped prove a point Cronin made a few minutes earlier when asked if he was concerned his players were happy simply to be there.
"They're happy to be everywhere," Cronin said. "I have one of the funniest teams on earth. We could win a talent show, for sure."
The sixth-seeded Bearcats (25-8) open play Thursday against 11th-seeded Missouri (23-10), completing a comeback road so long and arduous that no one could blame the players for relaxing with a few belly laughs. Cronin inherited a mess of a program in 2006, a year after longtime head coach Bob Huggins was ousted amid criticism over low graduation rates, a series of player arrests and NCAA rules violations that ultimately led to probation and a reduction in scholarships.
"When Huggins left, a lot of people were down. They just felt like it was over for the program entirely," said junior Yancy Gates, a Cincinnati native. "And even for a minute it seemed that way with the losses that Cincinnati was taking. But every year, the record got better. But Cincinnati has a lot of impatient fans. It's been a long process, but we're back in the NCAA tournament now, so a lot of fans are happy and smiling and so are we. I don't think they forgot about Huggins, but kind of put him in the mirror."
The win total under Cronin has increased from 11 to 13 to 18 to 19 to this season's 25. Fans have started to come to the games again, and the coach seemed to have a legitimate gripe when he complained about the lack of national attention during the Bearcats' strong regular-season finish in the Big East.
Cronin also had to deal with a mid-season crisis of sorts this year, when Gates pouted after being benched during a home loss to St. John's. Clear-the-air meetings were held, trust was restored, and Gates is enjoying the last word from those who felt he was done.
Explained Gates: "Stuff like that really fuels a player."
Explained Cronin: "I spell love and discipline the same way."
While the Bearcats boast only one player who's been to the NCAA Tournament before — Ibrahima Thomas, who transferred from Oklahoma State — Missouri can adopt the been-there-done-that mantra under coach Mike Anderson, who has the Tigers back for the third consecutive season with his now-familiar "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" style. Cincinnati has the better seed, but Missouri has the experience.
"I don't think they come in here with that 'wow' look," Anderson said of his players. "Like, 'Wow. We're in the NCAA tournament.'"
The game should be quite a matchup, pitting Missouri's furious pace and pressure against a stingy Cincinnati defense that allowed a Big East-low 59.2 points per game. Anderson figures his team is built for March because not many teams face anything like the Tigers' style during the regular season, and it usually takes a few days to properly prepare for it.
"It's going to be who can force their will on which team," Anderson said. "And hopefully we can do it for 40 minutes. ... We'll see if it all comes together here in March. What a great time for it to come together."
Cincinnati's Cronin has prepared by spending three days telling his players to pass the ball to the open man. In other words, the same jokesters who improvise so well in the locker room don't need to be doing the same on the court.
"The worst thing you can do is try to be a hero and over-dribble," Cronin said. "They easiest way to deal with it is pass it."
Eleventh-seeded Missouri Tigers (23-10)
vs. sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats (25-8)
WHEN: 8:50 p.m. CT
WHERE: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM