Following the second-consecutive 100-point game for the Bearcats, Mick Cronin and his players admit the special feeling of last year's run to the NCAA tournament has returned.
CINCINNATI - Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker didn't look at each other, but the same response snapped off immediately when asked if this is the most fun they've had at the University of Cincinnati.
"Oh yeah," Wright said.
"Definitely," Parker slipped in.
About nine months prior, only a basketball toss away from the podium where Parker and Wright made this proclamation following a 101-53 win against Arkansas-Pine Bluff Wednesday night, Wright and Parker were among a group that danced on scorers tables and circled Fifth Third Arena in wake of the most important eight-game run in the Mick Cronin era.
That group made a breakthrough some believed would never come and laughed during every minute of it.
Yet, on this December evening, only 11 days removed from one of the ugliest, darkest moments in program history, no doubt remained. This was better.
"Wasn't like we wasn't having fun (before)," Wright said. "He's allowing us to have more fun on the court now. Most of the time we had fun off the court and on the court it was like business. Now, we are more free. He's letting us do what he recruited us for."
Some of them are doing what they haven't done since those recruiting visits - specifically Wright. He followed up a career high 25 points on Saturday with a career high six 3-pointers Wednesday as UC hit the century mark in back-to-back games for the first time since the Ford administration.
Over the last three contests, Wright is averaging 19 points, 6.3 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 turnover per game. Every point guard in the country just developed a case of stat-line jealousy.
Records are falling like 3-pointers. Wednesday was the largest margin of victory under Cronin. Their 15 3-pointers were most since 2006 against Wofford. Their 16 steals were the most in the Cronin era. The 29 turnovers forced were tied for the most in a Division I game this season. JaQuon Parker poured in a career-high 17 points. Jeremiah Davis III finished with 13 for a career high and buried his first 3-pointer. Jermaine Sanders tallied a career high seven rebounds. Even Alex Eppensteiner knocked down his first shot of the season to send 4,874 to its feet. Only topped by the Davis 3-pointer from the corner that guaranteed the 100-point mark.
What's not to like?
For these guys, nothing. This isn't just about winning, it's about how they are doing it. For Wright and company, that's why wins against Radford and Arkansas-Pine Bluff hold water in comparison to wins against Louisville and Georgetown.
"Last year, we had a good team but it was a system," Wright said. "You throw the ball here, you go to this corner. Now, it is everybody got their time. Everybody is going to score, everybody is going to play hard, everybody is going to get their shots. Everybody is happy."
Most notably, Cronin.
A coach who spent the first month of the season searching for answers finally found one. Embarrassed days and nights spent grinding over how to allow this team to play to potential are temporarily gone.
He admitted after the game he's never had a team at UC he felt confident could score like this. Truth be told, he's never had a team like this - period. Figuring out that last sentence is why UC plows ahead with three losses and a month of frustration in their back pocket.
This group playing today is as far from last year's group as can be. That team was driven by defense and determination. While the 2011 Bearcats will ultimately reach their goal if they can use those attributes, the foundation of the team is raining buckets.
"From the beginning I thought these two teams from this year to last year are totally different teams," Wright said. "This year is a more offensive team, last year a more defensive team. When we started off playing that way, you can't play the same way with a different team. Right now we are getting a bunch of energy off offense because we have a bunch of offensive players."
When asked why they weren't playing that way earlier, Wright correctly offered up the company line.
"I don't question him," he said. "That's a question you have to ask him."
So, like good scribes, we did. Why wasn't this offense utilized earlier?
"I don't know," Cronin said. "I'm not smart enough."
All of the Bearcats look intelligent for now - with ineptitude of Radford and UAPB on the assist. As Cronin loves to say, the storm is coming. It's a storm this team thrived in last year. The coach still believes if it weren't for a tournament draw that placed UConn in their pod, they had a legitimate shot at the Final Four.
"I didn't think anybody could beat us but (Connecticut) and they almost didn't," Cronin said. "That team was locked in. They loved each other, they were having an unbelievable amount of fun like these guys are having now."
The fun, enjoyment and focus disappeared.
"Our mental state wasn't where it needed to be," Cronin said. "We were going nowhere fast."
The smiles, laughs and words of players and coaches the last three games prove that locked in feeling has returned. And just in time.
"We're back in that place," he said. "We are a team."