Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin is no stranger to solving problems. He took a Bearcats program that had been rocked by the tumultuous dismissal of Bob Huggins and improved the team's win total in each of his first five seasons, from 11 in 2006-07 up to 26 in 2010-11.
His Bearcats made the NCAA Tournament that year, and they have done so each season since, even through the demise of the old Big East and entry into the American Athletic Conference, whose members the NCAA selection committee lives to underrate annually. Cronin has done it while dramatically improving the graduation rate that helped get Huggins fired.
On Friday, Cronin's No. 6-seeded Bearcats will take on Kansas State at 7:27 p.m. (truTV) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, with expectations high for a team that hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 2012.
But this child of Cincinnati basketball -- his father Hep Cronin is a legendary high school coach in the city, so young Cronin grew up in gyms and practices, then graduated from Cincinnati himself before eventually getting the head gig at 34 -- didn't hesitate to take up a challenge of a different sort after a game last week, presented by his 10-year-old daughter, Samantha.
"I had to build a castle last week -- it was her Christmas present," Cronin said, breaking down the task into its component parts for a reporter the way he discusses opposing offenses. "I'm on the floor for an hour, building a castle, a day after we played. People think I'm just watching film, and you've got to find time for that, too."
This is Mick Cronin now. He went through the kind of health scare that often leads to re-evaluating life. A massive headache turned out to be a diagnosis of vascular dissection, a relatively minor brain issue requiring three months of rest, ending his 2014-15 season that December. Yet the fear that it could have been something worse has animated the way he prioritizes and has slowed down the moments within a manic rise through the coaching ranks, often at the expense of taking in all that he'd done.
"Whenever anybody has a health scare, and what I had was minimal compared to what a lot of people had, I want to stress that -- I took an aspirin and laid low -- but you realize that you turn 45, and when you're young, you're just hard-charging," Cronin said. "You're building a career, you're trying to get the job, keep the job, and you really don't have the perspective of enjoy the job. You're lucky to have it, you compete, but enjoy. And I'm more cognizant of smelling the roses."
The difference in Cronin is apparent, even on the podium following a win. Cronin, back in the Big East days, would usually be antsy, combative, ready to dive into the preparation for the next game. As we stood and talked about life, his daughter and his worldview following Cincinnati's win over Tulsa in the AAC quarterfinals, the Connecticut-Houston game that would determine his opponent the next day began. He freely admitted that in the past, he'd have ended the interview just to go watch those teams. Now?
"I'm going back to the hotel with the team -- we've played these teams twice, the game's going to be on TV, and I'm going to go eat dinner with my dad. I'm still going to prepare all night."
Let there be no mistake: If you hopped into a time machine from 2011, you'd easily recognize Mick Cronin on the Cincinnati sidelines here in 2017. It's not like he's doing yoga during games. After the Bearcats allowed a backdoor layup to Tulsa in the first half, Cronin performed a frustrated coach's ballet, spinning 360 degrees in one spot, his arms up like wings, as if he'd use the power of a missed defensive assignment to take flight, before landing in an exasperated crouch. Later in the half, Cronin actually moved laterally like the bounciest Cincinnati guard in time with his team getting back on defense after a missed three, to instruct as they played.
As guard Jacob Evans, who never experienced Cronin prior to his time off, described it: "Well, I can definitely see the hunger ... and I can hear it in his voice at practice, see it in his eyes during the game. And I felt like it's really starting to carry over to us as a team."
Clearly, Cronin's found that balance between the endless preparation that animates successful coaches and making a point of being present with daughter Samantha as the two of them took a ride on the West Coaster at Santa Monica Pier during a vacation last year.
"I've read too many stories about coaches apologizing to their kids," Cronin said. "'Hey, I'm sorry I missed your childhood, I'm too caught up in my career.' I remember a story on Vince Lombardi -- it was sad, it was tragic. He wasn't even a parent. And I've heard modern coaches say it, I've got to re-engage with my kid. That's not going to be me."
There's another reason that Cronin finds himself smiling more these days.
"This year? Sure I look calmer, the ball's going in."
That's what makes his Cincinnati team so dangerous in 2016-17, a six-seeded afterthought in a bracket with North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA, but a team that could surprise them all. Cincinnati has been a top-15 team nationally in defensive rating every year since 2012-13, and it is 10th this year in that category. But the Bearcats' offensive ratings over that time? 175th, 121st, 179th, and 79th. This year? 25th.
The three biggest reasons for that jump? There's smooth freshman guard Jarron Cumberland, the kind of top-100 recruit Cronin wasn't used to getting. There's the jump in efficiency from do-it-all guard Jacob Evans, who shot 37.2 percent from the field last year but 47.1 percent this year. And then there's the N.C. State transfer, 6-foot-9 forward Kyle Washington.
"When it came across the ticker in April that he was transferring, I called him," Cronin said of Washington. "And I said, you better pick it up, because I'm going to call you all night until you turn your phone off or answer it. And when I got him, he said, 'I'm not going to rush.' I said, 'That's fine, just know, nobody's going to recruit you harder. You belonged here when you came out, and you belong here now. And I'm going to prove it to you.'"
For his part, Washington described his move to Cincinnati as simply "a place where I could be told the truth and be able to have an opportunity to compete at the highest level." But Cronin said he knew how good this Bearcats team would be with Washington before he even took the floor, calling him "the perfect fit for this group."
This group has already won 29 games, and Cronin knows this may be his best chance yet at an extended March run (Cincy is in the South region, with UNC, Kentucky and UCLA as the top three seeds). He's gotten as far as the Sweet 16, but no further.
"We're just more capable," Cronin said. "We have more weapons. It's just not scoring, the passing as well. It is skilled players. Our talent level is a little bit higher across the board and on the bench as well."
And yet, both his altered perspective and his imperatives as a father won't allow him to stew in it if Cincinnati simply enjoys a successful season with a brief trip into the bracket.
"She's my best friend," Cronin said of Samantha. "And she's extremely intelligent. And she wants the Bearcats to win. But I've raised her to enjoy being around, but she's not live and die. And I'm not either. I make sure she knows that."
That doesn't mean he wasn't anticipating his morning call to her to tell her about the game he'd just won, with the ultimate goal -- Phoenix and the Final Four -- looming as a real possibility.
"I told her: Don't come this week," Cronin said. "Come next week. Maybe we'll end up in warm weather."