After two days of a program and its base tossing out all the goodwill and positivity unearthed over the past year, UC returned to the court Monday with a renewed sense of purpose and played its most complete game of the season.
I detailed as much as well as Cronin's incredibly unhealthy past 48 hours in my postgame column, here.
For those who scoff at beating the latest directional school, you may want to think twice with the Demons. They are picked to win the Southland Conference and boast some of the best defenders in mid-major basketball. I'm not picking them to beat Duke, only saying this was a quality mid-major opponent.
Now, they could have used somebody who can score consistently, but much of that goes as credit to UC's defense.
Regardless, this was a much-needed response in a game that meant more than anybody imagined it would when the schedule was released.
"I don't think it takes a genius to see that is the best we have played all year," Cronin said. "I think that's the best team we have played all year. They remind me of my Murray State teams. They are very athletic."--- This was the best game UC played all year because they did uncomfortable things they haven't done this season. At the top of the list was attack the basket, create contact and get to the free throw line.
Cronin has been preaching this since he arrived at Cincinnati, but his team settled for far too many jump shots, fadeaway post moves and out of control layups.
They needed to take the ball to the rim, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Here are their free throw totals through the first four games:
Alabama State 14-20
Jacksonville St. 11-14
Look at those numbers and it's no coincidence they also managed their highest point total of the season. This team looks completely different when everybody attacks basket. It took an ugly offensive half for them to realize it Monday. UC shot 12 free throws in the first half, but all came from Dion Dixon and Justin Jackson.
In the second half, six other players joined the parade to the stripe.
"Once we settled down and adjusted to their denying and pressure defense we were able to get the ball into the paint and get to the free throw line changed the game," Cronin said.
--- Another big difference between Monday and the rest of the season was the performance of the bench.
Take a look at the bench contributions over the first four games:
Alabama State 9
Jacksonville St. 6
At the top of that list was the continued emergence of freshman Ge'Lawn Guyn.
He enjoyed his best game at UC Monday playing 19 minutes going for 10 points on 3 of 4 shooting with an assist. He came in at the beginning of the second half and seemingly never left, playing 16 of the 20 minutes after the break. That included tenuous stretches where UC saw the lead shrink to the dreaded number of 14 with about 11 minutes left -- eerily similar to the Presbyterian game.
As UC responded with a 16-2 run, Guyn packed the punch with a 3-pointer and aggressive on-the-ball defense. He gives more than just another body, young player who can drain the 3 and create turnovers.
He gives Cronin versatility.
"He can play either spot because he can make shots and he's tough enough to guard a bigger guy," Cronin said. "(Wright's) experience is at chasing guys off screens, so you can rest (Wright) and let Ge'Lawn pressure the ball."
Finding a guy who can easily give a breather to both Dion and Cash will be a big luxury as the season progresses. And, considering the injury history of Wright and his knees, Guyn provides an important safety net.
--- The bench also received a lift Monday from the UC debut of JuCo transfer Cheikh Mbodj (ankle). Needless to say for anybody who watched the game, he is a definitive presence in the middle.
At 6-10, 245, he's difficult to miss. And he plays as solid of defense as you could ask for out of a big man in his first game. He only scored two points (2 of 4 FTs) with one rebound and one block, but Cronin saw him affect the game in other ways.
"He changes our team, I can tell you that," Cronin said. "He anchors your defense. He really knows how to play. When Bob Brannen played here, we used to watch film, you'd say he guarded four guys on that play. Covered him and got back to his man, covered him got back to his man. Cheikh is that kind of guy. He's huge part of our team as he gets healthy. That is what winning is all about."
He'll gradually work his way back, he played 11 minutes Monday. Cronin said he put Mbodj on a pitch count of 12 minutes and mainly wanted to get him running up and down the floor for some conditioning with his sprained ankle healed up.
Yancy Gates, who collected his second double-double of the year with 18 points, 11 rebounds, noticed the difference with Mbodj in the fold.
"That took nine minutes off my play tonight," Gates said. "I was able to come out for longer stretches and come back in fresher. That is a big body. Instead of having just me and Kelvin (Gaines), that is a third big body so Coach Cronin can do different things with that; play us together, sub us in. That is going to be real big as he gets into the flow and gets back healthy. For his first night out, he did real good. He didn't try to force anything. He just came in and tried to find his role and fit in."
--- UC committed 19 turnovers, including five more from Cashmere Wright, who now has 17 turnovers to 11 assists on the season.
Cronin pointed out that is what NW State does. They forced 22 turnovers against Marshall. Tough, denying defense is their calling card and will win them plenty of games in the Southland Conference.
That said, the offense still needs plenty of fine-tuning. There were a number of what Cronin called "head-scratching passes" trying to force the ball inside. For Wright, it comes down to not worrying about the turnovers. He himself can admit, this has become a mental issue.
"I'm thinking too much," Wright said. "I'm trying not to turn the ball over, but it is causing me to turn the ball over (more). If I get back to what Coach Cronin was saying, if you turn the ball over, then 'oh well,' just play. Just play aggressive and do your thing. Don't worry about turning the ball over. Don't worry about your stats, just keep playing."
Actually, for those who forget, his stats took time to come around early last season as well. He had more turnovers than assists in two of the first four games in his sophomore campaign. This season has been worse as he's now gone four games in a row with more turnovers than assists, but it's far too early to start using words like "regressed."
--- The annual attack on the non-conference schedule came from a story Doc put together for today's Enquirer. For all the information you could possibly want about the non-conference scheduling philosophy, you can revert to my preseason conversation with Mick Cronin.
Monday's monologue on it was more of the same. The only new nugget was the UC looks like it will be in a Thanksgiving tournament in Las Vegas next year that will involve UNLV, Oregon and one other team.
I'll say it one more time, this team needs one more big non-conference game to fill its preparation for the Big East. TV rights, politics and a still-growing program nullified that. Let's move on.
--- Party Rock Anthem season count: 14
--- I would be remiss without delivering a huge shout out to Elise on the Bearcats sports information staff for baking fresh cookies and distributing them to the heathen media. They were delicious. And I may or may not have eaten five of them.
--- Stat of the night: In the first half, Northwestern State missed 19 shots and only grabbed two offensive rebounds for a 10 percent offensive rebounding percentage.
--- Quote of the night: If fans like talking about the non-conference schedule, they LOVE talking about attendance. A total of 4,505 showed up Monday. That's on par with the numbers seen all season. And also on par with those posted last year at this time.
Still, following a loss, everyone expected a small crowd and it was most definitely late arriving. As the conversation swung to that topic, Sean Kilpatrick provided this gem:
"We know certain games on certain nights there is not going to be a crazy crowd. It's not going to be what we expect it to be, especially after a night that just happened. We came out for first warmups and we was like, yo, nobody is coming."