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The changing shape of UC basketball: Leaner, stronger Bearcats built for speed

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In order to create a new style of play at Cincinnati, Mick Cronin needed to shape a new style of player this offseason.

CINCINNATI -- When discussing the University of Cincinnati basketball program over the past two decades, the prevailing image more resembled MMA than NBA. Any victories against the Bearcats weren't won, they were survived.

Opponents staggered to the bus bruised and battered. Next stop: Cold tub.

The bodies of Bearcats basketball featured intimidating frames like Eric Hicks and Jason Maxiell, or the absurdity of Curtis Bostic. When numbers were low, football players crossed from Nippert Stadium to the Shoemaker Center and fit in perfectly.

The Mick Cronin Reboot ushered in a new era of UC basketball. Year by year, recruit by recruit, the pounding of powerful paint players faded to the buzzing of speedy athletes.

This offseason, the official transformation of Bearcats basketball became complete. Cronin officially ditched a traditional style of play for the four guards out, transition-based, fly-the-floor motto for his program. Injecting a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball caters to all parties - players, recruits, the fans.

Points, assists and steals will be on the rise at Fifth Third Arena. In theory, so will opponents' timeouts and gasps for air.

In order to change the shape of UC basketball, Mick Cronin needed to change the shape of his team.

Under the direction of basketball's new Strength Coach Mike Rehfeldt, the offseason program molded the new breed of Bearcats, a team built for speed.

The focus didn't fall solely on dropping weight. This transformation was about more than that. Nobody wanted 15 skinny sprinters. These body changes were about leaner and stronger, not skinnier and lighter.

In many cases, weight dropped. Cheikh Mbodj played at 265 pounds last season with a bum ankle never truly healing as the season progressed. He arrived for practice at a nearly unrecognizable 233. Sophomore Jermaine Sanders added bulk last season to handle the rigors of college basketball but missed his quickness. He's down more than 10 pounds.

Most importantly, body fat percentages are dropping like 3-pointers against Syracuse. Meanwhile, vertical leaps and bench press reps are rising.

In only the 95 days of Rehfeldt's program, he saw body fat drop three percent for Jeremiah Davis III and JuCo transfer Titus Rubles. Sean Kilpatrick trimmed nearly two percent. Across the board every player attempting to cut body fat, did by at least a percentage point.

"For the most part they all got leaner and stronger," Rehfeldt said. "More horsepower, less weight."

From an insider or outside observer, the difference can't be missed.

"In practice you can tell everybody got a little faster, more athletic, everybody's jumping, blocking shots, getting in passing lanes faster," Sanders said. "We just make a way better team, deeper, everybody is in shape, athletic."

In order to play at Cronin's desired pace, the changes were necessary. With a team built to run two-deep at every position, he plans to attack in waves. Full-court press and filling it up will become the calling card. The goal of such a plan isn't necessarily to trap every spot on the court, though there will be plenty of that.

The goal will be to never let a second go by without placing additional stress and pressure on the opponent. This game features recovering and scrambling, not gambling. The end result becomes a gassed opponent battling itself in the game's decisive moments. That's when the Bearcats will have won.

"You always have to be bringing pressure and the cumulative effect of it is the key," Cronin said. "Not necessarily, 'I didn't steal the ball so I am not going to pressure him.' Pressure him to wear him down. The mistakes come when you wear your opponent down. Teams don't make mistakes until they get tired. Most teams can play at a certain pace; the question is how long can they play at a certain pace."

With injuries to Mbodj and JaQuon Parker, the size of Yancy Gates, along with the youth of six freshmen, adopting this style last season made little sense. When numbers were down following the suspensions, a smaller version of it was unveiled. But not anywhere near the truest sense UC plans to unleash this year.

Teams must be built for this style. And thanks to the changing shape of the team, the Bearcats are prepared.

Cheikh.jpgThat began with Mbodj. He played at this weight at Grayson County Junior College, but focused on adding bulk during his injury-riddled first year with UC. The quick rise and burst associated with his game all but disappeared, partly because of injury and partly because of weight.

Now, he's able to run the floor and block shots with ease. Beyond that, he went from benching 185 pounds nine times to benching 185 pounds 17 times. No, he won't be a 20-point scorer, but he won't be a sluggish caboose on the transition train, either.

"I feel a lot different," said Mbodj, slated to play many more than the 9.7 minutes he averaged last season. "I don't feel pain in my ankle anymore, besides people are telling me you have changed, you've changed."

It's impossible not to notice.  

"Cheikh got skinny overnight," Sanders said.

The same could be said about Sanders. Coming out of Rice HS in Far Rockaway, NY, the style that made him the NY Post's All-Manhattan Player of the Year gave way to a thicker, heavier body type that consequently curtailed his minutes.

"My style is more smooth, make good passes, slashing to the hole a lot," said Sanders, who not only dropped weight, but gained about four pounds of muscle to complete the explosive transformation. "I feel I was limited at that last year because of the weight. I just feel faster. I don't get tired as quicker. I just feel better."

The only player who didn't drop weight was 6-7 Shaq Thomas, who came to UC at a twiggish 174 pounds, but added 17 over the offseason on his way to 191. Yes, he's bigger, but nobody will mistake him for Shaq O'Neal.

Flipping through the before and after pictures of every player on the team with Rehfeldt, many players might have a difficult time recognizing themselves from the 95-day overhaul. Six-packs are defined, muscles pop, frames are leaner.

Another noticeable difference could be seen looking at the after pictures. They all also featured wide smiles. Those weren't poses for the camera, but they've been obvious to Rehfeldt for some time now.

"I didn't tell them to smile," he said of the after pictures. "You can tell they are just loving it. You are seeing the confidence built."

You are seeing the new shape of the Bearcats built, as well. That's what offseasons are for. Across the country stories about players adding and losing weight will circulate the Internet. In Cincinnati, this means more. This reflects an entire team's changing shape and dedication to a new philosophy. The results indicate the transformation is complete.

All that's left is to watch those changes in body shape funnel into changes in final scores.

"What I try to keep telling my team every day, (this style) is much harder," Cronin said. "It takes tremendous effort. It takes tremendous commitment. It's not about being in shape, it's not about playing hard, it's about being in the best shape of anybody we play against. It's about playing harder than anybody we play against.

"It's really about trying to make sure (opponents) have to deal with some form of pressure when playing against us at all times. Nothing is free, nothing is easy. We are trying to come at you as fast as we can at all times."

Send any comments, questions or anything else via email to Paul Dehner Jr. at pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit him up on Twitter at @pauldehnerjr.


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