Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told anyone who would listen the Bearcats would go undefeated while senior forward and unquestioned team leader Yancy Gates served his six-game suspension for his role in an ugly brawl with crosstown rival Xavier three weeks ago.
The statement was designed to inspire confidence in his decidedly undersized team. Cronin didn't actually expect it to happen.
Until, of course, it did.
JaQuon Parker scored a career-high 21 points and Sean Kilpatrick added 19 as streaking Cincinnati beat No. 22 Pittsburgh 66-63 on Sunday night, the Bearcats' sixth win in as many games since switching to a four-guard offense while Gates, center Chikh Mbodj and forward Octavius Ellis sat while serving their respective suspensions.
"All this was (done) with relentless effort by the guys," Cronin said. "You watch those guys play you think 'How are they doing it, they're so small?'"
The answer? A heavy dose of fullcourt pressure and a dash of fearlessness.
Cincinnati (11-3, 1-0 Big East) won at Pittsburgh for the first time in 33 years by forcing 17 turnovers and hitting big shot after big shot in the second half. The Bearcats made 11 of 27 3-pointers, including several in the second half to keep the reeling Panthers at bay.
"We don't look up (at the scoreboard), we just shoot the next open shot and stay on the attack," Cronin said.
The Bearcats have eagerly embraced the frenetic style, pushing the pace at every opportunity and using their quick hands to disrupt the opponent's offense.
""Playing four guards is actually kind of easier for the press, because everyone on our team is really fast and really athletic," Kilpatrick said. "We use that to our advantage."
Pitt (11-4, 0-2) simply couldn't keep up and has lost three straight for just the third time in coach Jamie Dixon's tenure.
"We can't make excuses," Dixon said. "We need to find a way. We have the guys to get it done."
Nasir Robinson had 19 points and Ashton Gibbs added 18 for the Panthers, but Pitt — picked to finish fourth in the Big East in the preseason — again was undone by sloppy ballhandling and poor outside shooting.
Playing without point guard Travon Woodall, who sat out due to lingering groin and abdominal injuries, the Panthers had trouble getting organized offensively. They looked out of sorts at the end, missing several chances to tie in the final 30 seconds. Making just 5 of 19 3-point attempts didn't help either.
"We've just been missing shots and not taking advantage of opportunities," Gibbs said. "We had too many turnovers and they capitalized on them. We made too many mistakes and they just took advantage of it."
The Bearcats had no such confidence issues from behind the arc. With Parker and Kilpatrick firing early and often, Cincinnati overcame a 44-30 disadvantage on the boards to win their fifth straight Big East road game dating to last season.
"You always look smart when guys make shots," Cronin said with a laugh.
And the Bearcats are making them in bunches after Cronin has reinvented his team following the embarrassing 76-53 loss to Xavier on Dec. 10 that ended with a free-for-all in front of the Cincinnati bench.
The ensuing suspensions forced the Bearcats to go small. It's a look that certainly suits them.
Cincinnati didn't back down against the suddenly vulnerable Panthers, never panicking after getting down by eight points early. Instead they kept shooting, kept getting their hands in passing lanes and kept frustrating Pitt in the process.
A 3-pointer by Dion Dixon gave Cincinnati a 66-59 lead with 3 minutes to go and Cincinnati dug in defensively to overcome a couple of costly missed free throws.
Pitt drew within three on two free throws by John Johnson with 40 seconds to play but couldn't take advantage after Parker and Kilpatrick clanked the front end of two 1-and-1s.
Johnson was called for an offensive foul to end one possession. Gibbs missed a 3-pointer on Pitt's next trip but the Panthers got the rebound and called time out with 2.4 seconds remaining. Lamar Patterson's 3-pointer from the top of the key wasn't close and the Bearcats poured off the bench in celebration.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction. Pitt has struggled searching for an identity. The team's normally tenacious defense has only been so-so Woodall's absence has forced Gibbs to do the majority of the ballhandling, with mixed results.
How bad are things going for the Panthers? They're suddenly beatable at the Petersen Events Center.
Pitt started the season winning 55 of its last 57 home games but has lost at the Pete three times in the last six weeks. Long Beach State raced by Pitt on Nov. 16, then Wagner stunned the Panthers two days before Christmas.
Missing Woodall hasn't helped. The junior played for the first time in nearly a month in a 72-59 loss to Notre Dame last week but didn't even dress against the Bearcats because of continued soreness.
The Panthers could certainly use him, particularly after Cincinnati spent 40 minutes harassing Pitt into sloppy mistake after sloppy mistake.
Gibbs made 7 of 15 shots but couldn't find the range when the Panthers needed it most.
"We tried to eliminate him beating us," Cronin said. "We didn't all the way ... but down the stretch we made it really, really hard on him."