Everyone will point to the miraculous Cashmere Wright rainbow over 7-foot Moussa Gueye as the reason UC beat Alabama on Saturday. And make no mistake, Mick Cronin will be among those taking credit for it, too. Coaches take the fall too many times for player mistakes for him not to cash in credit on one that fell his way.
But Cronin knows better. His team avoided defeat because the Bearcats pushed the offensive pace just enough to allow Wright the opportunity to post the No. 2 play of the day on SportsCenter.
Those shots won't always fall. In fact, they rarely will. So, as Cronin and his 11th-ranked Bearcats hit practice and a run of lesser opponents this week in Arkansas-Little Rock and Maryland-Eastern Shore, the attention turns to perfecting a pace he believes will push this team to the next level.
Against quality defensive teams like Alabama, speed will need to be the difference-maker. On Saturday, Cronin learned his team doesn't yet know how to take full advantage.
"Got to be a 40-minute style of play, staying on the attack," he said. "That's why we won the game; the last two minutes we got two fast breaks, a layup and an and-one."
Those opportunities came few and far between. The Bearcats entered averaging 87 points a game, but Alabama slowed the Bearcats pace dramatically in holding them to 58.
Anthony Grant after the game called UC the best defensive team in the country, and he's not far off. They stand fourth in the country in Effective field goal percentage (38.4 percent). Much of the success stems from spending the majority of practice time working on defense. Cronin plans to change that.
"Right now our defense is way ahead of our offense," he said. "We have to find a way to play at our pace for 40 minutes. My theory is, no matter who you are or what you have on the front of your jersey, if you can't get to 70, you are going to be life and death against good teams."
Cronin installed The Blitz this offseason as team changed body shape to handle the uptempo change. Thus far, the possessions per game increased dramatically. Last year, UC averaged 64.2 possessions per 40 minutes. Thus far this season, they've averaged 74.2. A positive side effect has been UC increasing it's free throw 30 percent last year to 40 percent this year. Translation, the increased tempo helped forced a higher number of opponent fouls rather than giving up easy baskets.
Alabama, however, found a way to slow them down well below the season average pace.
The game morphed into a halfcourt grinder not conducive to the Bearcats strengths. Hence the drop to 29 points below the season average.
"The best thing to do when it's times like that is to get easy chipping plays like backdoors and just trying to beat them with our speed," Sean Kilpatrick said. "We can get the ball out as fast as anybody in the nation. Then just get up the court and get layups because we have those type of players. If we're able to do that every game, then it's going to be very hard to stop us."
The key over the next month will be figuring out how to do that despite teams attempting to slow down. The art of pushing tempo can be difficult to replicate in practice. Only inserting the theory into game pressure and mindset can measure how much better the team's performing and pushing the ball up the court. And that's about much more than dribbling ahead and forcing shots in traffic during the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.
The early details produce results.
"You have to dictate that with a couple of things -- your defensive pressure, but us our defensive rebounding," Cronin said. "You can't run without the ball. With us we are getting too many rebounds where it's getting knocked out of our hands, (then we've) got to take it out of bounds. Or when the game got close agaisnt Alabama and we started, 'Oh we blew a lead.' To have our style of play the scoreboard has to be irrelevant. You just got to continue to attack and push the pace. You can't say, 'Oh well we are in a close game.'"
The Bearcats don't figure to be in close games the next three days, but Cronin will be judging pace from the sideline. If a more efficient offense executing with speed can join an already suffocating defense, the Bearcats find themselves in the conversation with the best in the country.
As Cronin always says, this time of year is about molding the group for conference play. Perfecting pace is the final step.
"We have to get to that point by the time we get to January to play at the pace we want against whoever we are playing," Cronin said. "We can't let them dictate a tempo against us."
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