The Bearcats defense terrorized again Thursday night, this time in a 34-point rout of Arkansas-Little Rock. The way this team rattles opponents and pounces on the spiral has become their calling card.
[Highlights of UC 87, UALR 53]
Sean Kilpatrick can see the look on the their faces. Tired, frustrated, helpless. Those expressions mean the goal of this defense has been accomplished. The opponents have officially been rattled. And the fun has just begun.
"Yeah, when we are pressing like that, it's go-time," Kilpatrick said. "That's what we are. We are a press team and that's what we are going to give every team that comes in here for 40 minutes."
On Thursday, that team was University of Arkansas-Little Rock. And not only will the Trojans not forget this night of unraveling into an 87-53 disaster, future generations of Bearcats wont' forget it, either.
Cincinnati (8-0) set a school single-game record with 23 steals and forced 32 turnovers. A number more inconcievable than either of those were the 70-plus Bearcats deflections. By far the most during Mick Cronin's seven-year tenure. The goal for every game is 40. They reached 39 by halftime.
"It dictated the tempo of the game and never let Little Rock get their bearings on offense," Cronin said. "Great effort by our team defensively tonight."
That's the thing, though. This wasn't just tonight. This wasn't just because an overmatched Trojans team on the road entering into a whirlwind of unfamiliar pressure. We've seen it shock opponents on repeat this year -- both known and unknown. Every team on UC's schedule experienced the brushback pitch the Bearcats throw to set the tone.
In seven of eight games this year UC owned a double-digit lead in the first half. The only other game was Iowa State and the Bearcats led by six midway through the opening stanza. It's a defensive ambush.
"You could tell when they are tired because we continue to keep subbing in fresh legs," said Kilpatrick, who finished with 18 points and two steals. "That's the strength with our team, we have so many guys that can play multiple positions. And we have a lot of depth on our team. When they are rattled like that it's better for us because they start turning the ball over and get buckets with layups."
Many of the passes look awful. And rest assured, they were. Crosscourt tosses fly into the front row like t-shirts from the cheerleaders.
Such would be easy to criticize UALR. These guys can't play, right? Another sad opponent comes to Fifth Third Arena would undoubtedly be the narrative as pockets of the 6,127 pass the Oscar Robertson statue en route to their cars.
Maybe. Or maybe these types of performances show what the Bearcats defense can do to a team ill-prepared for the pressure. The swarming traps and snapping rotations can't be simulated in practice.
"That's a big part of it," Cronin said. "Teams haven't seen it, it's really hard to simulate. It'd be like trying to simulate Syracuse's zone. You can talk about it until you see it. What I was most happy with today was it was pretty much for 40 minutes."
In games against Alabama, Iowa State and Oregon, those initial surges made the difference. The energy and effort expended climbing out of an early hole combined with the waves of UC's depth become a textbook example of mental and physical fatigue on the college athlete. Or even the college coach.
Just ask UALR coach Steve Shields who burned through four timeouts attempting to stop the hemorrhaging Thursday. Not enough gauze in the city on this night.
"Most importantly, it's the coach," Kilpatrick said of sensing a rattled team. "If you can look at the coach and he's frustrated. That's the last thing you want as a player if your coach to be frustrated at you. That carries on."
This group smells blood in the water on defense as well as any in the Cronin era --- and even dating back Bob Huggins bangers of the mid-90s. When another team flails on the ropes, the Bearcats not only throw the knockout punch, they bring in fresh legs and arms to deliver it.
"Two years ago we were a deep team and used our press a lot," Cronin said. "The difference with this team both of our pseudo 4-men --- they are really 3-men --- are athletic and can press where Ibrahima Thomas couldn't. We've worked so hard at instituting certain things with our style of play that we needed some practice time to work on our pressure. And doing a better job of dictating the tempo with it."
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