Last night was a meaningless game against a team everyone in the Big East should beat by 30 in an atmosphere that felt more like the glorified practice it was than the first game at Fifth Third Arena.
And I loved it.
I've always been a college basketball guy. There are few sports that perk me up more than the excitement and athleticism of college basketball.
Last night was like a breath of fresh air. And not just because of the recent struggles of the football team, but watching the development of players and physical skills of a guy like Yancy Gates is fun to watch -- I don't care who you are.
Let's talk about it...
--- I wrote last night about the three newcomers who made a big splash. Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and....the new Dion Dixon.
I'm counting him as a newcomer because he looks like a different guy out there. He was confident, decisive and focused. Granted, this was only one game against a team he should be able to run circles around, but his play struck me as the most encouraging sign of the night.
Selfishly, one of the best stories in all of sports is one of overcoming adversity. I love telling those stories. Regardless of whether or not that is the most points Dion Dixon scores in a game all season, he's already overcome what happened last year -- in particular in Madison Square Garden -- by his response to the failure. Across the board he's recognized as a player who worked as hard as anybody on this team and his development was apparent on Monday.
"It's not a fluke," Mick Cronin said.
It's hard not to root for Dixon.
--- Bill Koch delved into the Dixon topic as well during his game story.
--- So, Justin Jackson scared me. That guy plays with a fire and energy this program hasn't seen in a long time. It sparked the UC defense on a run that pulled away from Carleton last night.
He tipped passes, rebounded and supplied relentless energy that helped wear down the Ravens. Of course, he did nearly take a man's head off at one point.
"He's got to stop fouling," Cronin said. "Justin is going to have a great career here as soon as he learns college basketball is a lot different than high school basketball."
Cronin also pointed out the most underappreciated part of his game last night.
"Rarely will you find a big guy who passes as well as him," Cronin said. "He's only credited with one assist, but most of his passes resulted in guys who got fouled. He's not getting credit for the assists but he's getting guys layups."
--- I said multiple times the biggest story line to watch on Monday would be the first viewing of the new Gates. After an early foul and missing a few easy shots in the lane, we saw what we hoped for.
Again, this disclaimer should accompany every note here like a Surgeon General's warning, but this was Carleton not Connecticut. Still, Gates ran the floor well and was rewarded with some big finishes. The guy had 23 points and 5 boards in 25 minutes. Hard to complain.
--- The guys at BearcatLair were talking about how the Bearcats played tough defense from the opening tip to the final whistle. Considering this was a nothing exhibition, that was a sign of the maturity Cronin has been talking about with this team.
"We just focused on working hard,' Gates said. "Whether we are working hard in practice or its time to play, we just still got kind of the same mindset. Just worried about working hard and executing. By working hard this summer and in practice it kind of carries over to the game."
--- Last year, when I was with CNati I sort of made up a stat that UC had the one of the worst shot selection percentages in college basketball if you looked at the number of 3-pointers taken relative to the percentage of 3-pointers made.
Forcing shots for Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson played a major role in the stagnant offense.
Addressing shot selection was at the top of Cronin's list this offseason and we saw the fruits of that labor on Monday -- the same as we saw it in Canada earlier this fall.
Rarely were the Bearcats settling for bad shots and the players say they feel a difference in the way the offense is run. Some of it is philosophy, but I one of the more interesting elements is that it's probably more a reflection of maturity.
"That's the biggest difference on offense," Gates said. "We were young so coming out of high school we all were the main guy scoring on our team. Coming to college it seemed like plays were kind of being ran this way or this way. Young and immature, you don't know how to really accept that. Now, we are older with this offense. Now, it doesn't matter who scores. The open guy is going to score. It doesn't matter if we take a shot, we just want to take good shots as a team, that is how we feel we are going to put the ball in the hole."
--- Cronin was open to some self-evaluation as well this preseason as he said he brought in a couple big-time college coaches to evaluate his practices -- how he runs practice and the players on his team. He said former Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio was one of them and the other was "under the radar."
It helped to develop some of the defensive chemistry and the improved communication on defense.
"I had a couple coaches come in during the preseason and evaluate our team -- big time college coaches that are sitting out this year," Cronin said. "They gave me some good advice. It is always good to have people come in and they are high on our team. This happens a lot, sometimes coaches do too much talking in practice, so you have to go silent to let the players practice talking. That's just committment, talking on defense may be a little corny, but I would rather be corny and win with corny."
-- Stat of the night: UC knocked down 13 of 13 free throws in the first half. We'll work on finding out in the record books if that is the most consecutive free throws knocked down in a meaningless exhibition game against a Canadian team.
--- Quote of the night: UC coach Mick Cronin on how many more games his team would have won last year if they shot free throws at the 72.5-percent clip he did last night as opposed to 63 percent they finished with from the line: "I get approached by some extremely loyal fans who I appreciate that have stats on that. They all equate, I have heard anywhere from 4 to 6."