Anthony McClain has always had a hard time putting on - and keeping on - weight. As a 7-footer weighing 245 pounds last year, he looked basically like a tall, skinny kid trying to play with the heavyweight power forwards and centers of the Big East.
That's kind of how he felt, too.
But in the offseason, as he prepared to enter his junior season with the UC basketball squad - which takes the court tonight at 7:30 for an exhibition game against Division II Saginaw Valley State - McClain has gained 20 pounds. His arms look bigger. His confidence has grown. And he's looking to make a big impact in the paint for the Bearcats.
"Putting on the weight was big. Real big," McClain said. "Playing at 245 pounds in the Big East, where people like to bang a lot, it takes a big toll on your body. This is going to help me out a lot. It is a big difference from when I was playing at 245 to playing now at 265 practicing against Yancy (Gates). Yancy is a big guy - him and Steve Toyloy. I feel like I can handle my own more in practice. I don't have to find myself getting pushed out of the way. I can stand on my ground."
I watched him play in the UC scrimmage last Saturday, and for the first few minutes, McClain looked pretty darn good. Looked more aggressive, looked stronger. Eventually, he seemed to tire, which limited his effectiveness, but if he plays like that, he will improve upon his career averages of 2.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game.
"You gain confidence as you gain experience," Mick Cronin said. "At times, he looked like a puppy out there in Big East play. He was 7-0, but it's been a struggle to get him to where he's at. He's 267 right now. He's grown an inch and gained 20-something pounds. He's older, he's tougher and he has more physicality. He has more presence around the rim. That's what we need from him - presence around the rim, dunking the ball, finishing plays, blocking shots, clogging up the paint."
Last season was tough for McClain. His role on the team decreased, and when he played, he seemed overmatched. It was not an easy time for him.
"It was a learning experience," McClain said. "Every year I've had here has been a learning experience. I was playing a lot my freshman year and getting used to it. Then, in my second year, the experience of not playing and going through all types of things, that's helped me out a lot going into this year."
Said Rashad Bishop: "I've seen a big change. He works harder. He's put on a lot more weight - that was one of his biggest problems. His body wasn't really ready. He had to put on more weight to improve. He's stronger, he's grabbing more rebounds. He's going to be big."
For himself and for the Bearcats perimeter defenders. Last year, they felt more pressure while playing because they knew if they let their man get by them in the lane, nobody would be around to help defend. If McClain is in there, though, he becomes a shot-blocking force.
More than that, Cronin has seen a big change in McClain. He's fully invested in the program these days.
"What happens with juniors is that they're in your program and they're working hard but they always have an option to transfer," Cronin said. "Once you get to your junior year, you're in and you're not leaving. You believe in the program. Now you're just focused on getting your degree and being the best player you can be. Things kind of clear up for you. Now it's on you to decide your future. He's done a great job in the offseason."