On occasion this season, Mick Cronin has started some decent size in the UC line-up with 6-11 Ibrahima Thomas joining 6-9 Yancy Gates around the center circle. While both young men have had productive games, neither have been the force many would like.
That could be about to change as Thomas is coming off one of his better games as a Bearcat with 13 points and seven rebounds against Syracuse. While you may write those numbers off as not being overwhelming, they still represent and improvement over what Thomas has done most of this season.
You would think that a transfer who played two years at Oklahoma State would have more impact. But, most transfers aren't from Dakar, Senegal with only about five years of experience.
Unlike most college big men, Thomas grew up playing soccer and really is more comfortable playing outside and lofting three-pointers. While the threat of a "three-ball" is nice, UC has needed Thomas to play more in the post. After a year of sitting out and another half-season of learning the ropes in the Big East, Thomas seems to be responding.
"It's like Coach tells me everyday, it's just coming out and doing the main things," said Thomas.
"At first, yeah, it was different--being limited at practice here because I wasn't playing. Now, I think I'm getting the flow of the game."
If he is, a 6-11 scoring threat next to a 6-9, 260-pound presence (Yancy Gates) could open up a lot of doors for the Bearcats. Factor in the blue collar work ethic of 6-8, 255-pound Steve Toyloy and UC can bang with anyone in the league underneath.
"I would say that we're not afraid of nobody," were Thomas' exact words at a press gathering this week. "It don't matter if we're playing the number one or number two team in the country. It's just a matter of how hard we're going to play and how hard we're going to compete. You always play good people, especially in a conference like the Big East."
Confidence and the ability to back it up can go a long way in this rugged conference. It's so rugged that Coach Mick Cronin has actually wondered if sophomore Yancy Gates is, "too nice" when he plays.
"I don't think I'm nice," said Gates in response to the accusation. "I'm never nice. I think that 'nice' statement is not true. Just some nights may not be my night to score the ball. I just try to go out there every night and do what the team needs me to do, whether it's throwing it in the post to me or defense and rebounding."
The slender Ibrahima Thomas agrees on the "nice factor" of the bulkier Gates.
"Just like he said, he's not nice," said Thomas of his practice partner. "After every practice I've got to go home and get in my bed and try to get my body together. Just bangin' around with people twice your weight ain't that easy."
While Thomas and Gates combined for 23 points and 12 rebounds against #3 Syracuse, it wasn't enough to bring the Orange down. However, the longer Mick Cronin can keep the "length" on the floor, the better UC's chances are in further Big East battles.
"You take it and you try to learn from it," said Gates of the most recent loss. "We feel that we had a chance to win the Syracuse game and we didn't close it out the way we knew we could. We can't just be up with five minutes left in the game, we need to be up when that clock's at zero."
Now, the Bearcats have a seven game stretch where production from Thomas and Gates will be crucial. Lack of size can no longer be an excuse. This is why both players came to UC--to have a chance to play meaningful games in March.
"Everybody's focus is on trying to pull together a stretch of games to where we can still make the tournament," said Gates. "We feel as if we're just as good as anybody, that kind of helps us keep our focus in practice."
There's no reason not to believe that statement. Outside of Marquette, UC's beaten the teams that are left on the schedule in the last two years with some of the same talent on the floor that you've seen this season. They haven't beaten Marquette since 2006, but the Golden Eagles are currently just one game better than the Bearcats.
With UC's inconsistent shooting, a bigger presence inside could put the Bearcats over the top against some of the upcoming competition. As long as Thomas and Gates can remain planted in the post instead of planted on the bench, the Bearcats have a chance.
That, and if they can just stop being "nice" for 40 solid minutes....