Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj returned to the lineup with everyone outside the program concerned about what would happen. What happened was more of the same scrappy, gritty victories that marked the first six games of the seven-game win streak.
CINCINNATI - The writers analyzed. The bloggers wondered. The fans worried.
What would happen when Yancy Gates returned to the suddenly surging Bearcats?
Only, while the writers, bloggers and fans grinded stats and theories, Gates and his teammates practiced and laughed. They weren't concerned. Not in the least.
"It didn't matter because I knew," Gates said of the outside discussion of his role. "I'd been in practice. I knew the style, I knew I was going to fit in."
As a 71-55 UC victory unfolded on Wednesday, the truth became apparent. Gates was right. There was no need for concern. The four-guard offense zipped around Gates on the inside, as the he collected eight boards, hit 3 of 4 shots and blocked three more.
Gates played his role. He did so happily. This wasn't a night when 6-foot-9, 265-pound senior stole the spotlight. There were no thunderous dunks or gaudy numbers. He grinded in the shadows: deflections and blocks, passes and screens.
He finished with a +/- of +3 in his 21 minutes.
The offense altered since Gates last appearance, but more than any schematic adjustment, the mindset of the team is the most drastic change from Xavier to Notre Dame.
"Everybody is more focused coming out of the locker room," Gates said. "Even coming into the locker room before the game. Everybody focus is high coming off the bench. It helps everybody's energy level. Everybody is worried about winning."
It's also all they're doing. As much as Wednesday was a change for the Bearcats, it played out exactly the same as the previous six games. UC scrapped for deflections, it irritated the opponent with the press, it aggressively let fly from 3-point range.
Different components. Same result.
"When he came in the game you could tell that he was trying to fit in with us and he was giving us a chance to do our thing we were doing when he wasn't here," Cashmere Wright said. "We still gave him the ball like last time when he was here. We just trying to gel and make everything work."
Any concerns about nerves were quickly erased as Gates moved to the scorers table at the 14:31 mark with a cheer from the crowd serving as the soundtrack.
"I noticed it," Gates said of the fan reaction. "It helped ease it in."
The cheers grew louder as soon as he entered. A swipe on a Jack Cooley post move for a steal was soon followed by a left-handed baby hook. A soft jumper from the right baseline and fading jumper from the left side added up to a perfect first half shooting in his return.
only took one more shot the rest of the way, and finished with his
second-fewest points of the season, but his effect was felt even
beyond a team-high eight boards.
"I really don't think its the rebounding," Wright said. "It's the presence he brings on defense. Our defense is a scheme, a lot of scuffling and rotating, He knows the five spot. So when we rotate, he knows where he is supposed to be at, he blocks shots and get the rebounds. It gives us more opportunities on offense to score and more room for error on defense when we do."
For Mick Cronin, Gates, along with Cheikh Mbodj, bring versatility when gameplans begin to stray.
As Kilpatrick and Wright both found first-half foul trouble, the versatility provided by the return of the suspended players provided an immediate impact. Cronin swapped to a standard two-guard attack with Gates at center running next to Justin Jackson.
"People say is that going to mess you up, those guys coming back?" Cronin said. "We need them. To think youa re going to be able to play that small throughout 18 games in the Big East was probably unrealistic. Guys are going to wear down over time. The versatility is the key."
Versatility was the key to a long day for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
"Our scouting report today went twice as long," he said. "The four-guard stuff and into the two-big guy stuff. And we saw both of it."
What he mainly saw was a brand of UC basketball admittedly unfamiliar to him. The confidence and swagger emanating from this team struck him during the game and after.
"This group has the best vibe about them (of any Bearcats team) and we have played them a lot and repeated them a couple times," Brey said. "I compare a little bit to our team last year, just old and we were men. I said it during one of the timeouts to our assistants, it is kind of men among boys right now. Very impressed by them."
Hard to argue with the assessment right now. On a night Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon combine to shoot 2 of 13 from 3-point range and new pieces adjusted to game speed of this offense on the fly, the Bearcats won going away, never leading by less than eight the entire second half.
The brawl and fallout officially became old news on Wednesday. UC's ascension and Xavier's freefall running remarkable, divergent paths in the aftermath.
Now at full strength, the old adage holds true: The more things change, the more things stay the same.
it's all working in Big East play, that's a story bloggers, writers
and fans should be talking about.