Conversation with Mick Cronin, Part III

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Two weeks ago, I was able to sit down for a long conversation with UC hoops coach Mick Cronin. You may have heard of him. He's coming off his signature season running the program where the team went 26-9, 11-7, made the NCAA tournament and lost in the second round to eventual national champ UConn. The rebuilding portion of his massive project appears to be on the downward side of the mountain as he enters Year Six. The new job of holding a sustainable winning model began Thursday with the team's first practice.

Before starting that, however, we touched on anything and everything UC basketball. We discussed the always galvanizing topic of the non-conference schedule, the games he tried to get and the games he thinks are close. Also, he estimated how much closer he is sitting to the cool kids table in recruiting. From there topics ranged from season ticket prices to the importance of his new contract to why Doug Gottlieb has no idea what he's talking about. And, of course, we discussed the important pieces of this year's team and what could curtail them from meeting lofty expectations.

A breakdown of these topics will come in three parts over the next few weeks. The first part  talked about Cronin's view of the non-conference schedule and a number of other popular topics coming out of last season. Part II delved into Cronin's forthright talk about his new contract and what it means in the big picture of UC basketball. Part III, today, will focus on the 2010-11 Bearcats and the outlook toward a return to the NCAA tournament. Without further delay, here you go:

The 2011-12 Bearcats appear set up for success more than any squad in the Mick Cronin era and you could argue any squad even since the senior season of Steve Logan.

UC returns its top four scorers from a team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The two top scorers in Yancy Gates (11.9) and Dion Dixon (11.6) are both seniors. Gates averaged 16 and 8 during the final eight games of last season when he drove the Bearcats into the NCAA tournament.

Without doubt, Gates will be the driving force behind this team. The biggest question entering this year is can we expect to see the Gates of the final eight games of last season for all 30-plus this year? This is Gates' final chance to deliver on the hype and have the season everyone believes he can -- including NBA scouts.

"He's in a great place," Cronin said. "The table is set for him. I think that he's a microcosm of our team. He's improved each year and really played well down the stretch last year. We both finally - I don't care about myself, talking about my team and him - have a chance of getting the respect finally. They don't just give it to you. You got to do it one year and, oh let's see, then you do it again the next year then everybody believes it. And he knows it's his last chance. Being a senior you know it is time to show what you are made of."

Gates' numbers rose by about a point and rebound per game from his sophomore season last year. But because of his high-profile within the city, the fans and those inside the program expect more. They expect the man who dominated the final month of the season.

"He is no different than so many guys who played here," Cronin said. "He is in a different era. He is in an era that they want to see great freshman and sophomores. And everybody, it is a national phenomenon in college athletics, especially basketball. It sells. It's sexy and it sells. The truth is 90 percent of these kids need to improve and get better every year."

Sean Kilpatrick returns after a season where he held the second-best offensive rating (112.4) on the team and 13th best in the entire Big East. His 9.7 points per game are a bit of a mirage, considering he only played 20 minutes a game. Mick Cronin has said Kilpatrick will likely play more around 30 minutes a game this year.

It's time to take the training wheels off.

"The biggest thing was he was going 110 miles per hour because he is an attacker and your strength is your weakness. He's an attacker, so the problem with him was at times he didn't know when to not attack. When you are in a halfcourt Big East game you can't attack off the entry pass against Pittsburgh. They are too well coached. They are going to be sitting there and they are going to steal the ball from you. You got to wait until the ball gets swung before you attack. You aren't able to attack until you get ball reversal. Well, that was my fear at times last year he was awesome and at times last year I couldn't play him. You are in games and -- turnover, turnover -- you can't have it. You got to go with Rashad or Dion, a veteran guy. So, I think his understanding of the game is much better. That is going to be the important thing, his mental maturity, which improved all year. The big thing for him is going to be his defense.

Ah, yes, defense. It was the staple of last year's team. UC ranked third in the conference in defensive efficiency. They wore teams down with the rotation of 10 players, all flying around the court in different pressure schemes.

Gone are role players and defensive specialists Rashad Bishop, Larry Davis and Darnell Wilks, along with Biggie McClain and Ibrahima Thomas up front.

Can that continue without the group of six defensive-oriented, role-playing seniors?

"That's the ticket," Cronin said. "It's possible."

The key will come on the perimeter between Kilpatrick, more of an offensive weapon, and Dixon.

"We lose Rashad, and (Kilpatrick) and Dion, it has already been explained to both of them, somebody is going to have to guard somebody here," Cronin said. "We lost probably the best perimeter defender in the Big East. Perimeter-wise, Rashad was clearly the best, he was best defensive player I have ever coached from the perimeter standpoint. So, we got a lot to replace in that."

New blood will take over on the interior surrounding Gates. Center Kelvin Gaines (6-10, 225 pounds) returns from a redshirt freshman season and Cronin added JuCo transfer Cheikh Mbodj (6-10, 245), of Senegal, to the middle to help fill the gap left by Thomas and McClain.

Gates was at his best last season when Thomas played well as his complement. With new players inside, can Yancy receive the assistance he needs in the post? Cronin was as resolute about that question as any he answered.

"Cheikh is the hardest working kid I have had since I've been here," he said. "He and Kelvin Gaines. Both of those guys are working their butts off.I am really confident in our front line. Really confident."

Because Mbodj is a center from Senegal, some would assume he's the same type of player as Thomas. That's not the case.

"No, no, completely different," Cronin said. "More of an inside player. We turned Ibrahima into an inside player late in his career."

Cashmere Wright underwent offseason knee surgery. He played much of last season with nagging knee injuries, but still was a spark and one of the better point guards in the Big East averaging 8.8 points and 3.9 assists per game with a 1.9 assist/turnover ratio.

Look back at some of the Bearcats biggest wins last season, those were when Wright played his best. Perhaps none was bigger than the home win against Louisville that flipped the momentum of the season. He poured in 20 points. The next road game at Providence he contributed his lone double-double of the season with 11 points with 11 assists. The win at Marquette that all but clinched the NCAA Tournament? Cash contributed 15 points and 5 assists.

He must be healthy for the Bearcats to reach their goals last year. That, more than ability or effort, is the question with Wright.

"He's been good, no swelling," Cronin said. "It's conditioning and workouts are a lot different than everybody practice. He just needs to be mature about it the rest of his career. Hopefully he is going to have a long career. He's got to learn how to take care of his body."

Both Cronin and Wright are learning as they go along with the health issue. They are figuring out how to deal with his knees and if that means letting up a bit in practice, so be it. It's a fine line for both, but there will be an understanding as the season starts becoming a grind.

"We practice more than we play," Cronin said. "In basketball, you got to make sure I don't' let him be a hero and just be smart about making sure -- his knee may be fine and there may be no reason to be cautious, but we are still going to be cautious. He knows how much he needs to practice to be sharp and he knows he has to be in shape. At the same time, at the first sign of any type of swelling or soreness, you just have to stay on top of things. It's maturity level for him. If I turn around and he is on the bike, I know why."

A highly-touted freshman class of five arrived with high expectations. One of the top recruits, Shaq Thomas, will not play this season due to ineligibility issues. Jermaine Sanders (6-5, 225) leads the class as far as most likely to contribute, the Rice HS product was one of the best players in New York City last season. Joining him are G Ge'Lawn Guyn, G Jeremiah Davis and F Octavius Ellis.

"We know our goal right now is we have six new guys and we have got to incorporate them into who we are," Cronin said. "Right now we are spending a lot of time becoming a team. You have half these guys who have been through a lot and we have all these new guys. So we spent all this time coming together as a team because the storm is coming. Especially after Christmas. You got to make sure you are ready to handle it because it is real in our league you are going to lose a game. It is going to happen. You are going to have a tough week."

Thus exposes the biggest concern about this year's group. Can they handle success? They've never been ranked in the Top 25 preseason. They've never had people talking about them as a possible Big East champion. The goal was always to take the next step. With Gates and Dixon as seniors, the time is now. This is different than fighting the disrespect card all season. Teams will be gunning for the Bearcats and they will be expected to win big games.

That's my concern," Cronin said. "The one new thing for these guys is handling success and expectations. We just need to make sure we understand that stuff didn't matter last year. And it doesn't matter this year. All that matters is what goes on between the lines. That's all that matters."

Considering the road veterans like Gates (expecations), Dixon (WVU in BE tourney), Wright (ACL tear) and Kilpatrick (redshirt behind Lance Stephenson) have traveled to reach this point, Cronin believes their mental toughness shouldn't be in question.

My upperclassmen here, they have been through the meat grinder. And I don't begrudge anybody. The hardest thing for a fan base is to have their program ripped away from them.  That's just a fact, I am not blaming anybody, but that's what happened. I think all parties were at fault. And I'll tell them all to their face and one of them I dearly love. But at the end of the day the suffering party were the fans. When you have your program ripped away from you and you are told it's going to take five years to recover, that sounds good, but after about two years you don't want to hear that anymore. That is reality. I don't blame anybody. These kids, though, went through that. They lived through all that. Because of that, they were forced to stick together. They've gotten A-pluses on staying focused."

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