Biggie more than a fan favorite

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Anthony "Biggie" McClain has always been a fan favorite, but this season he's become a coach's favorite as well off the bench for the Bearcats.


CINCINNATI -- Nobody struggles to figure out when Anthony "Biggie" McClain checks into the game. No, not because he nearly eclipses the court at 7-foot-1 and 290 pounds. Rather, every time he saunters the sideline to the scorer's table, the Fifth Third Arena crowd lifts to an excited stir.


"Biggie!" comes from almost every corner of the stands.


He's only cracked double-digit minutes in a game four times the last two seasons. He only scored a grand total of 13 points all last year.


Yet, every time he checks in, the fans love to love him.


Only, last season, Biggie didn't always want to hear it.


"Coach Cronin would ask me if I wanted to play, I'd tell him, 'I'm tight, Coach,'" McClain remembered. "I would just come up with any type of excuse so I wouldn't have to go in."


McClain recalls being unsure of himself and pushed around on the interior. However, along with nearly 25 pounds of muscle, McClain added confidence this offseason. While his minutes have been limited, he's made the most of them, usually spelling Yancy Gates.


He's played more minutes already this Big East season (27) than all of last year's conference slate (26). Most importantly, he wants to play those minutes.


"I think my whole mental state all year has been better," McClain said. "Now, I am more cool, calm, collected -- just anxiously waiting. Call my name and I will do what I got to do and give Yancy a break."


McClain did more than give Gates a break on Saturday at St. John's. He broke out himself.


"He changed the game completely," Gates said. "St. John's is best when they are going to the basket and he was big in the middle and he really swallowed up a bunch of shots and made it tough for them."


His stat line was four points, six rebounds, one assist and one block in eight minutes. When he entered, the Bearcats trailed. With himself and Justin Jackson filling in for Gates and Ibrahima Thomas in foul trouble, UC closed the half on a 15-1 run.


McClain scored on the interior, dished off an assist as time expired in the first half and even pulled up from 15 feet at the elbow and buried a jumper with the shot clock running down.


Many Bearcats fans may have been shocked to see that type of production out of the reserve center, but don't count the head coach among them.   


"I've said this all year, Biggie is a way better player," Cronin said. "Two things, you get older you learn how to play harder. You learn little things on defensive end of how not to be out of position, how not to be exploited. And then, the physical strength. His first three years he wasn't physically strong enough to do what he can do around the rim. He's a brick wall down there around the basket."


Cronin and McClain shared a long journey for Biggie to reach the point he's at now where he consistently contributes quality minutes. When McClain first arrived on campus he only weighed 228 pounds. Cronin needed McClain to add size and the big man wasn't going to play a major role until he did. Prior to this season, McClain considered a transfer but after some long talks with Cronin decided to stick with the Bearcats.


His return and the investment he gave to the team in the process created the role player Cronin desired and a role McClain thrives in.


As a space-eater in the middle that's no longer a defensive liability, he's provided depth. He strengthened his positioning through long practice bouts battling on the block with Gates.


"With me and him," McClain said, "it will be like wrestling down there."


Offensively, McClain's there to grab rebounds and score when he's under the rim. Of course, when situations like his 15-footer from the elbow come about, don't think he's incapable of sinking the shot.


The affable 7-footer will gladly tell stories of the contrary. 


"One day somebody from the news came and watched me practice and I was shooting 3's from out there," he said. "I made about eight straight before I missed. The camera guy started laughing, he starting videotaping me doing it, I was talking trash to him.


"People don't really know I can shoot."


Little by little, they're starting to learn. And even though McClain probably won't be firing off many more jump shots, he will always be the fan favorite at Fifth Third Arena.


Only spending a few minutes laughing with the kid who received the nickname "Biggie Talls," while riding around rapping with his high school coach, quickly reminds you why he became a fan favorite in the first place.


"The thing I am most proud of is his attitude," Cronin said. "He has given us great leadership all year. The fact he's ready to go in there and play, plays well, doesn't even get in the game in the second half (against St. John's) and he's the happiest guy in the locker room after the game. It says a lot about our team this year. It says a lot about him and his character. He's just a great kid. He's a tremendous person."

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