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MEET THE TEAM NIGHT

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  (Awkward Blackberry photo of Yancy Gates taken by Scott Springer)


      Last season, Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn scored over 34 percent of UC's points. If you factor in Yancy Gates, that figure goes to nearly 50 percent as those three were the only double digit scorers for the Bearcats.

      In terms of minutes, Rashad Bishop, Gates, Vaughn and Stephenson all played at least 25 per game with Vaughn leading the pack at 30.5.

      If Coach Mick Cronin has his way this season, those same numbers won't be posted. The only numbers that Cronin and the team want to increase this season are in the win category.

If the first exhibition is any indication of things to come (and yes, that's a mighty reach) the Bearcats are going to come at you with fresh bodies as eleven players were in double figures in minutes, with Dion Dixon staying on the floor the longest (27 of the 40).

      "We're a team," said Dixon. "That was just an exhibition, nothing major, but we're getting our chemistry together."

      The key words in that quote were, "we" and "team". The omission of an "I" reference is encouraging as UC looks to gel as a unit, having had a taste of the postseason and then an unpleasant early bounce in the second round of the NIT.

      To make that "other" tournament, bonding and cohesiveness is a must. Therefore, the Bearcats are using their personnel to chase and wear out the opposition, with more players determining the outcome of the game.

      "Yeah, I love it," said Dixon. "We've got ten guys that are going to play. You go out there and give your all and someone will come get you and give his all. That's good."

      Certainly, this is far from a new idea, but it's one that Cronin has been striving for since their last loss to Dayton back in March.

      "The mental focus of our team has been my focus for six months and it's going to continue to be," said Cronin. "We continue to have great team mentality, very coachable. I'm excited about our team."

      This is not to knock Deonta Vaughn or Lance Stephenson. Vaughn guided the Bearcats for pretty much his first three years, then "Born Ready" showed up and changed UC's presence again.

      No one will ever know how good UC might've been had Stephenson stayed, but there's a pretty good argument being made right now that the departure of the last season's scorers may result in a better overall team focus. Particularly, with the pressure defense being displayed. Communication and support for your fellow man are crucial there.

      "It helps out a lot, especially on defense," said Gates. "You've got more guys out there talking and it helps you stay alert instead of maybe falling asleep and getting back cut. You know what's going on behind you, it just makes it easier on the defense, like a sixth man."

      Gates no longer is an underclassman, neither is Dion Dixon. Those two seem to have had the proverbial "light bulb" go on above their heads in terms of conditioning and dedication. That's another positive sign as both entered UC the same year.

"     We're real close," acknowledged Gates. "We've had a lot of classes together, we've had the same lift time. We're both a lot alike, we're willing to do anything to win."

      It's all apparent in Gates' new toned body and Dixon looks leaner, yet stronger. Dixon's offseason work has also been documented by Paul Dehner Jr. and when he was in town, he put more hours in at Fifth Third Arena than the lead custodian.

      "He was in the gym all summer all day and night driving Scott Wilhoit (UC facilities management) nuts," said Cronin. "(He was) doing two-ball dribbling drills and shooting drills. When you've got a guy doing that on his own, you've got a dedicated guy."

      Again, it's early, but the one-game returns on Dixon were 19 points in 27 minutes, while Gates had 23 in 25. The only thing selfish I can report in either of them is Dixon's answer when I asked him which Bearcat would be the most improved this season....

      "Hopefully me, hopefully me," said Dixon with a grin.

      Beyond that, this appears to be a year of great teamwork. This is also the beginning of the 50th anniversary of UC's back-to-back NCAA champions who won "The Dance" with great teamwork.

      They were honored with a luncheon about a month ago and more is planned for them as the season progresses. It should be noted that Mick Cronin and his staff and Yancy Gates were present at the luncheon honoring the '61 and '62 champions.

      The winning equation they heard about that day is the same equation set forth every year by most coaches. However, in a "Playstation" world, not all take heed.

      A few months from now, we'll know whether or not this group did.

      "The key is getting guys to believe it," said Cronin. "You've got to have guys committed to winning and sacrificing and willing to play a certain role to separate yourself from other teams. The key for us is we're talented enough to do it. Coach saying it is one thing, players understanding it is another."

      The current learning curve begins shortly and extends into March.

      Those that learn well, play more.








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