CINCINNATI (AP) — One of the Bearcats' worst losses became a turning point.
Cincinnati got dominated during a 17-point loss to Xavier on Dec. 14 at a neutral site. One of the most lopsided losses in the series' history became a rallying point. The Bearcats decided they weren't going to get pushed around again.
They haven't lost a game since. The Bearcats (15-2, 4-0 American Athletic) have won eight in a row and moved into the Top 25 on Monday for the first time this season.
The 19th-ranked Bearcats trace the season-best surge back to that bad loss.
"Embarrassed," forward Justin Jackson said before practice on Monday. "We felt we were embarrassed as a team. Our whole image is a tough team, a hard team to play against, and we got away from that."
In the past month, they've gotten their image back.
The Bearcats rank sixth nationally in points allowed. They're giving up an average of 56.2 per game and have held their past 24 opponents under 70 points, the longest current streak in the nation. Nobody has scored more than 67 points against them this season.
But it's more than just stopping the other team. Cincinnati has started to score consistently, which was a major problem earlier in the season.
Cincinnati's first loss was a 63-54 defeat at New Mexico. Then came the 64-47 loss to Xavier, with the Musketeers pulling ahead by 20 points in the first half and leading by double digits the rest of the way. The winning streak started with an ugly 44-43 victory over Pittsburgh.
Since then, the team's freshmen have started contributing more to the offense and coach Mick Cronin has turned them loose.
"Coach knows that everyone on this team can score," senior shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick said. "What he encourages us every time we get the rebound is to go. That's something you rarely see from a college coach — when you get the rebound, play with confidence and go. Don't look over at the bench. He wants us to feel comfortable on the court and keep running up and down."
Freshman point guard Troy Caupain has played at least 22 minutes in four of the past five games, giving the offense a lift with his ability to lead fast breaks. Caupain had 14 points during a win over Rutgers on Saturday.
"I can't do what I did in high school," Caupain said. "When I got here, everything was getting blocked. They're bigger, stronger than players in high school. I finally realized what I had to do to make myself open to shoot.
"This is a faster game here. Me being a freshman, I had to adjust. But I feel I've adjusted well."
They've kept the winning streak going even though they're best player has been in a deep shooting slump. Kilpatrick leads the AAC with 18.4 points a game, but has gone only 4 of 33 from beyond the 3-point arc in his past five games.
Kilpatrick was a season-worst 1 for 10 during the 71-51 win over Rutgers, but finished with a team-high 16 points. He drove to the basket, drew fouls and was 9 of 10 from the free-throw line.
Cronin would like to see Kilpatrick take the ball inside more when Cincinnati hosts Temple (5-9, 0-4) on Tuesday night.
"He's got to get back to playing with his mind a little more so he can be more efficient," Cronin said. "He's just relying too much on the 3-point shot."
Kilpatrick has gotten open shots from behind the arc but missed, forcing him to try other things.
"I've been trying hard to get fouled a lot," he said. "Being able to make cuts and post up little guys, that's my advantage and something I've got to keep taking advantage of to get us in a better spot."
A win over Temple would leave them 5-0 in conference play for the first time since 2002-03, when they were in Conference USA. They're 12-0 at home, where they have a 14-game winning streak overall since the end of last season.
Cincinnati is in first place in the AAC's inaugural season, a game ahead of Louisville and Memphis.
"What's the key to winning a regular-season conference championship? Don't lose at home," Cronin said. "I thought this team had a chance to do it. I've talked to them about it all year. I've just tried to challenge them: No matter who we're playing, we will not lose at home."
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay