I've seen hundreds of basketball practices over the years, but as the Bearcats prepared to face St. John's, they did something that I had never seen before.
As UC studied the St. John's offense, whoever was pretending to be leading-scorer D'Angelo Harrison, ran through the Red Storm's plays either wearing or waving a white t-shirt.
"That helped us know where he was going to be at all times," said Dion Dixon. "We were like, 'He's over here...now he's over there.' I give all the credit to the coaches. They did a great job of preparing us."
"In football they put the red jersey or the green jersey on the quarterback, so for the last couple of days, we had a white t-shirt on D'Angelo Harrison," said head coach Mick Cronin. "Our guys were trained to find him. We were not going to let him beat us."
The St. John's freshman entered Wednesday's game averaging 16.7 points, including eight 20-point performances. In his previous game, Harrison dropped 23 points on first-place Syracuse.
But after Cincinnati's "white shirt" practices, Harrison might as well have waved a white towel in the Bearcats' 76-54 win over St. John's. D'Angelo nearly reached his scoring average with 15 points, but he shot 4-for-13 from the floor, and 10 of his 15 points came in the last 6:25 after the outcome had been decided.
"You could see him getting frustrated," said Dixon. "He just put his head down and started barreling to the basket because he wasn't getting open shots. That's a young guy - he's going to be a great player."
"He can't make the shot if he doesn't get the attempt," said Cronin. "In their previous two games, he was something like 12-for-19 from the 3-point line, and that's with everybody trying to find him. He's making shots from behind the NBA line, and he has an extremely quick release. Their other guys do not shoot the ball well from beyond the 3-point line - their next-best 3-point shooter is Moe Harkless at 23%, so we said, 'Don't let Harrison shoot - make the other guys shoot.' So it was easy to find him at practice - he was the guy running around waving a white t-shirt over his head when we were going through St. John's offense."
It was an exceptional defensive performance by the 'Cats against a team that had averaged 77 points in its previous five games against Villanova, West Virginia, Duke, DePaul, and Syracuse. St. John's only managed 54 points against the Bearcats, and shot 28% from the floor in the first half and 33% for the game.
"We know what they're capable of," said Cronin. "They scored 57 in the second half of their game last week at DePaul, which was devastating to watch. The talent is there, and when you prepare for a team, you prepare for their best effort.
"You have to give the kids credit - they were locked in and focused. We had a team meeting on Tuesday about mental state and how committed we were on defense when we only had eight scholarship players and no big guys. If we can have that attitude, focus, and commitment, we have a chance to make a run down the stretch."
After improving to 17-7 overall and 7-4 in the Big East, the Bearcats have two days to prepare for a difficult road test at 18th-ranked Marquette (20-5, 9-3). I suspect the white t-shirt will come in handy as Cincinnati studies how to defend Darius Johnson-Odom.
Did we finally see the real Cheikh Mbodj?
After averaging a modest 2.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in his first 14 games, the 6'10" JUCO transfer had his best Big East game on Wednesday, finishing with 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots in 16 minutes of playing time. All five blocks came in the second half.
"In the first half, I asked Cheikh if somebody stole his dog," said Coach Cronin. "I said, 'Did somebody take your puppy, because I don't know where your mind is.' He has practiced so well in the last two weeks and it just hasn't translated until the second half (last night). He finally got comfortable on both ends of the floor. I just think he's nervous to be honest with you.
"His shot blocking has been off-the-charts in practice. We were playing zone, and when you have a guy in there patrolling the middle and blocking shots, it matters."
Just ask Syracuse. The 'Cuse is undefeated when 7-footer Fab Melo has been eligible.
Did you think that the officials did a good job in
the St. John's game?
Perhaps it was because my man Machock spent half of the pre-game show chatting with his buddy Ed Hightower.
All kidding aside, I think Wednesday's crew of Hightower, Pat Driscoll, and Brian O'Connell is among the strongest in the Big East.
I had little doubt that Chuck's streak of consecutive games without being ejected would reach 287.
On Wednesday, the Big East officially announced the addition of Memphis for all sports beginning in the fall of 2013.
"It's good to see something done for basketball," Coach Cronin told me. "There's no doubt that Memphis with their fan base and the FedEx Forum - basketball has always been the lead-dog so to speak. We're losing Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia in the coming years, so it's good to add a basketball power to the Big East. Now that we're at 17, there is going to be speculation that there's another team coming to get to 18, but I don't know who that would be. I think this is a positive for Cincinnati, and anything that's positive for the Big East is a positive for Cincinnati."
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And speaking of Sam, enjoy this week's photo taken after a recent swimming lesson.