With a few days of much-needed rest under the belt, the eighth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats return to work Friday afternoon against Southern Methodist in an American Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinal at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
As the regular-season champion, Cincinnati comes into the tournament with the top overall seed. SMU, the No. 9 seed, advanced with an 80-73 victory over No. 8 UConn on Thursday.
The Bearcats are a lock for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, but they still have plenty of motivation to make a strong showing in the conference tournament.
"It's important because of all the work we've put in," said Cincinnati senior forward Gary Clark, the AAC Player of the Year. "It's not enough to just win the regular-season conference and just be happy. Get another championship. Why not? Keep winning as much as you can."
Head coach Mick Cronin admitted he wouldn't lose much sleep over an early exit, but he wants his team to bring its best effort.
"It's most definitely important," junior guard Jacob Evans said. "It's another goal we set at the beginning of the year. It would really help the program going into the NCAA Tournament."
Most observers consider Cincinnati a No. 2 seed when the brackets are announced Sunday night, but Cronin shruggs off any discussion of seeding.
"You're asking the wrong guy about the committee, for a lot of reasons," Cronin said. "They're the least of my worries, because I have no idea what they see or what they're looking for. We just worry about the Bearcats. (Former NFL coach) Bill Parcells said they keep score for a reason, so if we're going we're gonna try to win."
The Mustangs (17-13) come into the game a heavy underdog and have lost twice to Cincinnati already this season. They have only an outside chance of even making the NIT but still have plenty to play for.
"We really don't (have anything to lose) at this point," said Jahmal McMurray, who scored 19 points against UConn. "That's something that Coach (Tim Jankovich) said to us a few games back. Like, why are we saving? We don't have anything to lose. Let's just go out there and fight."
Ben Emelogu put up one of his best showings in weeks against the Huskies, scoring a team-high 23 points that included four 3-pointers.
"He's been playing five weeks without his strength. It's like I'm having my next-door neighbor play, not Ben Emelogu," said Jankovich, whose team took a 19-point lead into the half. "Finally, finally, he gets to look like the player that he is."
Forward Akoy Agau scored a career-high 21 points and will play Friday despite rolling his right ankle while trying to block a shot in the final minute.
He limped into the postgame press conference but said he'd be ready for the Bearcats.
"It's just a little tweak. It's fine. I'm just icing it up," said Agau, who transferred from Georgetown before the season. "I'll be ready to play tomorrow."