At 16-11 and coming off a home win over DePaul, Mick Cronin's basketball Bearcats feel they can get back in the hunt in the Big East and in NCAA tournament conversation. After losing a tough one in overtime to Marquette with Yancy Gates and Lance Stephenson playing limited minutes, Gates and Stephenson rebounded with big games Wednesday (23 points, 8 rebounds for Gates; 18 and 10 for Stephenson).
"We're a lot more focused in the way we need to play as far as hitting the offensive glass as much as we need to and playing harder defense," said Gates. "We felt it was just a slump we had to work our way out of ."
Cashmere Wright (whose minutes are increasing again) chimed in.
"We never really lost confidence in ourselves," Wright said. "So, when it all happened we just felt it was one bump in the road. We've got to move forward and work harder to get better. Team chemistry's coming back to the team."
If team chemistry's getting better, perhaps the shooting will too. The numbers from the foul line have been atrocious in the last two contests (8-16 vs. Marquette, 14-32 against DePaul) and UC missed ALL of their "threes" Wednesday night against the Blue Demons.
"I think we're coming along," Wright said. "We're going to make shots some nights and some nights we're not. Every night we're going to play defense and we're going to go all out and give ourselves a chance to win."
"They can go 0-10 too," said Wright when reminded of the "goose egg" from the arc. "You never know,it's all about how the ball falls that day. We don't think that's going to happen again (0-9)."
The law of averages says it shouldn't happen again, which is good because UC plays three ranked teams in a row now. It all starts at West Virginia, a game that will always generate interest since UC's all-time winningest coach now squats in front of the Mountaineer bench.
The game is a big game for everyone, except the players.
"Not really," said Yancy Gates when asked if it were a game of significance. "I know it's a big game because he was the coach here. But, I don't take it as (being) any special significance or anything because it's Huggins. When I got here as a student, it was a big game and I just joined along with the team in preparing for it."
Actually, UC and Mick Cronin are 2-0 against Huggs and WVU. However, this particular team appears consistently better than the last two Huggins-coached squads.
"We expect about the same from them," said Gates. "They try to play fast. We've just got to try and outrebound them again. This year, in games they get outrebounded, they're 1-3. If we can outrebound them again like we did last year, we'll be able to pull it out."
Gates just has one Mountaineer game under his belt, the 65-61 win nearly a year ago. However, he obviously was familiar with Huggins and actually was recruited by him. Fortunately for UC (and unfortunately for Huggins) Gates elected to stay home and play.
"When the recruiting really started for me, it was kind of the time where the change was being made," Gates said of the former UC coach. "Huggins, he recruited me when he was still here and when he got to Kansas State and West Virginia. I had a couple phone calls. With the recruiting thing, I really didn't have a lot of contact with him. A little bit--not too much though."
Huggins will have another close-up look at Gates Saturday in Morgantown. So will West Virginia's fans who can be intimidating if you let them. Luckily, Gates has been in a hostile arena before.
"We're not really concerned with the crowd--the crowd's not playing," said Gates. "We expect a live crowd. We expect it to be loud, them cheering against us. Just your average rivalry home crowd. Kind of like the Xavier game, maybe even a little worse because they know the history with Huggins. We're just expecting to go in and play hard (and) really not pay attention to it."
West Virginia was UC's last win of last year's season. Yancy Gates pulled down a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Should that happen again, you've got to feel good about UC's chances.
That, and if Huggs pulls out that French's Mustard suit again....