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Dayton game meaningful, not critical

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Racking up victories against directional schools serves a purpose: Add wins, develop chemistry, assess talent.

 

Overpowering Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, however, doesn't exactly inspire invincibility.

 

Staring down a month of December with more opponents the Bearcats will play as double-digit favorites and Oklahoma program picked at the bottom of the Big 12, opportunities for this version of the Bearcats to simulate the rigors of Big East play are nearly non-existent.

 

That is, except for Saturday night at U.S. Bank Arena.

 

The neutral site matchup with the undefeated Dayton Flyers (5-0) allows the Bearcats a chance to see where they stand against an opponent they don't have to Google to find out where they're located.

 

"A game like that with the way our schedule is, you don't want to lose a game like that," Yancy Gates said. "This is a chance to play a good team. It's a game that could maybe decide later on if you are on the bubble or not. This game does have a lot of things riding on it."

 

As much as we judge this game as a measuring stick, crucial non-conference test and first honest glimpse at the 2010-2011 Bearcats, a residing truth will hang inside the UC postgame locker room regardless of final score.

 

"The reality of the situation," Mick Cronin said, "in our world, our fate will be decided in the Big East."

 

True, but without beating a respected team and program early, the confidence of this team entering conference play on Dec. 28 against DePaul could fall into question. Taking a big step on Saturday could go a long way to taking the next step come Big East time.

 

"You have to develop scorers," Cronin said. "You have to learn how to play smart. You have to learn to get baskets against good defensive teams that are going to game plan against you. You have to develop your talent in your players."

 

Of course, this team did make an early statement last season in the Maui Invitational with convincing wins against Maryland and Vanderbilt. It even cracked the Top 25. That would be the peak of the season.

 

A season that ended at the hands of these Dayton Flyers in the NIT. Dayton blew away the Bearcats 81-66 in a half-empty Fifth Third Arena on the way to a tournament championship.

 

Among those filling a seat high in the upper deck was Rashad Bishop. The senior was suspended from the team and watched helplessly from the shadows as his season ended.

 

Don't think for a minute that memory doesn't burn Bishop and provide an extra motivation to exact revenge.

 

"That was a bad feeling, seeing everybody out there," Bishop said. "Not being able to be there with them. I just felt lost out there."

 

In the eyes of Gates, Bishop wasn't alone. He suspected some players didn't give full effort in the loss. Being outrebounded 42-34, including 15 boards from the Flyers guards would back up his point.

 

"Some people really didn't grasp the NIT as maybe a couple of players, which is expected to happen sometimes," Gates said.

 

Gates' own stat line of 2 points and 4 rebounds in 17 minutes that night suggests he could be referring to himself. His response throughout the offseason and first four games of this year infer effort should be the least concern this time around. Nobody can question what he's brought in averaging 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. He's finally taking pride in crashing the boards.

 

When asked if he knew he finished one rebound away from his third double-double in four games Wednesday night, his flippant tone told the story.

 

"I know," he said, "and I was pissed."

 

More importantly, he's averaging 32 minutes a night. His effort and energy sets the pace. With a change in attitude and better understanding of the effort it takes to win games like the one played Saturday night, Gates and the Bearcats feel this year will be different.


Will it be different?

 

Will UC be able to establish its size against a team that matches up physically?

 

Will it show maturity and resolve in a close game?

 

Will it be able to establish offensive fluidity against an athletic defense?

 

Will it respond to the big-game atmosphere?

 

The list of questions go on and on and on. The game will be telling. But, at the end of the day, it's still November basketball. It's still test No. 1 in a season filled with dozens.

 

"Saturday is a huge game for us," Cronin said. "But whatever happens Saturday, it's not going to put us into the NCAA tournament and it's not going to put us out."

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