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UC-St. John's preview

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UC's defense has been the big reason why the Bearcats won 10 of their first 13 games. When you're allowing only 62.7 points per game, chances are pretty good you're going to take the victory.

 

This is what coach Mick Cronin has preached since he took over the UC job. The philosophy he espouses - his teams are going to be tough defensively - is the major reason the Bearcats had a chance to earn an at-large NCAA tournament berth last season with only two scorers who averaged double figures.

 

But since beating UConn and Rutgers to open Big East play this season, the defense has been quite dubious. It's been a tad surprising from this squad. It's also caused the Bearcats to drop their last two games - allowing 74 points to Pittsburgh and 83 to Seton Hall - while falling to 2-2 in the conference.

 

The main culprit: the UC perimeter defenders haven't been doing a good enough job.

 

"It boils down to three things," Cronin said. "Points in the paint - because teams are going to make layups - and not fouling the other team and letting them parade to the free throw line. You give up layups and free throws, you're going give up points."

 

The third point in his three-pronged hypothesis is for the players who are trying to implement the scouting report (more on this later).

 

"Most teams only have one or two guys capable of having a big night against you," Cronin said. "In the Pitt game, we allowed (Ashton) Gibbs 14 first-half points. It's a game we should have been up six or eight points at half, but we were down six. And we allowed (Seton Hall's Jeremy) Hazzel to have 33."

 

Last week I asked Cronin about the team's help defense. Since he had touted having big men -  like Yancy Gates, Steve Toyloy, Anthony McClain and Ibrahima Thomas - who could play solid interior defense while blocking or changing the projection of an opponent's shots, I figured he could live with it if an opponents wing or a guard beat a Bearcats perimeter defender every once in a while.

 

No, Cronin responded. That, he said, is when the Bearcats get in trouble.

 

Here's why: when a perimeter defender gets beat, Gates - or whoever is in the post - has to move over to play help defense. That's one rotation, and the Bearcats are fine with that. But the problem occurs if the opponent with the ball passes to the player that Gates just left. Where, then, is the helper for Gates?

 

"What's happened recently is that our rotations aren't what they need to be," Cronin said. "After we have one scramble, where we have to closeout on (a shooter), we're getting beat too easily. Our closeout is bad - we're not containing the ball and that causes a rotation. Now, you're always going to have some rotation, but you can't have to rotate every play. If you're getting beat every play, it's going to put too much pressure on your rotation. We're getting beat too much off the dribble."

 

This is where the scouting report problem is evident. Let's say I'm Larry Davis, and I'm guarding Good Shooter A. If Rashad Bishop gets beat by his man and Yancy Gates leaves his own man (Call him Post Player B) to help, Davis will be reticent to leave Good Shooter A and take over Post Player B. That's because if the player driving the ball, who's now being defended by Gates, then flips the ball to Good Shooter A, Davis won't be there, because Davis had to help out on Post Player B. Then, Good Shooter A - who the scouting report says can't be allowed to get off a wide-open 3-pointer - has a wide-open 3-pointer.

 

It's a problem.

 

--St. John's has begun its Big East conference schedule with an 0-3 mark. But don't be fooled by that record. The Red Storm won't be an easy team for UC to beat tonight at 7 p.m. in Madison Square Garden. After all, this is the same team that beat Siena by nine, knocked off Temple by seven and lost at Duke by nine.

 

Plus, to go with the talent of D.J. Kennedy (16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game), St. John's finally has Anthony Mason Jr. - who's missed much of the past two seasons with foot and hamstring injuries - back in uniform. The Bearcats have a challenge in facing Mason, because they can't be sure what to expect from him.

 

"He hasn't played in a year and a half," Cronin said. "I'll say that, and he'll probably get 30 on us. For Norm (Roberts), it's a long awaited return of a guy that can score and try to incorporate him in their offense. The challenge for us is preparing for a guy who hasn't played a lot."

 

Lest you forget, Pitt's Gilbert Brown, who had only played a few games before facing UC, scored 17 vs. the Bearcats.

 

--So, what's sophomore guard Dion Dixon's explanation and solution for why UC gave up a 12-point first-half lead against Seton Hall before losing by seven?

 

"It's executing down the stretch," Dixon said. "We fall apart down the stretch, and that's not good."

 

Said Cronin: "The key is weathering the storm and staying focused and playing all the way through, which has been an issue for us at times. My message is you can't worry about the scoreboard. We have to worry about the next possession. We have to understand how to grind. You have to grind through this league; it's not going to be pretty. You have to understand the other team is going to play well at some point in the game. We just have to win."

 

--One last interesting stat on the Red Storm: they've outscored their opponents by a combined 64 points in the first half. In the second half, they're only plus-nine. Quite a difference, eh?

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