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Bearcats undefeated, but unsatisfied

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Life feels better when you're winning. The food tastes better, the sun shines brighter, the cold Cincinnati night doesn't feel --- actually, check that, it's still intolerably cold.  

Around the Bearcats basketball program these days, fat and happy could be an easy crutch for one of five remaining undefeated teams in the country following a 68-58 win against Wright State on Saturday.

Don't expect Mick Cronin to be painting rainbows and unicorns on the locker room walls anytime soon. Not with the inconsistency from the team's offense for three consecutive games.
 
Parker2.jpg"I've been coaching like we lost," Cronin said.

You don't believe him? Just ask JaQuon Parker what halftime was like as UC trailed 28-22 to the Raiders having shot 24 percent from the field and missed 9 of 11 3-point shots, mostly of the contested variety.

Parker could only laugh when prompted by the question. He shook his head and quickly uttered, "halftime was crazy."

No need to expound. Not without clearing it with the FCC.

The message worked. The first-half offense saw Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles fire off deep 3-pointers before either could break a sweat, lazily forced 15-foot jump shots hailed from every corner of the court. The Bearcats shot 3 of 19 on shots outside of the paint while 64 percent of their points came on offensive rebounds.

Cronin spent this week and the majority of halftime preaching "offensive toughness." When UC attacked the basket instead of settling for jumpers, the offense rode like a Ferrari fresh off the lot - Parker behind the wheel.

The senior ripped off 15 points in the first six minutes out of halftime and lingered in the "zone" great players talk about.

"He was the difference," Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. "Give him a lot of credit, he stepped up and won them a game."

When the offensive system works properly with attack trumping perimeter heaves, these Bearcats belong in the conversation with the elite teams in the country. Yet, over the last three games the first-half efficiency fell into the category of fat and happy.

In first halves of last three games UC scored 73 points. In second halves of last three games they've scored 127.  Against Marshall, Xavier and Wright State those lulls work, but as Cronin said following the Xavier win it will get them blown out as the schedule hardens. And it hardens immediately.

"Huge concern," said Cronin, who faces No. 16 New Mexico (12-1) and Pittsburgh (11-1) next week. "But what happens when you win and your players think, 'Well, we are winning anyway.' It falls on deaf ears because you are winning. Our second half was tremendous, what you do as a coach you show film, you show film. My leadership has got to realize that we have got to get better."

About 338 schools in the country would gladly switch Cronin positions right now, but his grinding mentality reflects a goal grander than 12-0. If this team wants to win the Big East understanding the difference between half one and half two stands in their way.

For the most part, in Cronin's mind, it boils down to shot selection and authority at the rim. When Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick make SportsCenter draining bombs from the Fifth Third logo, an easy tendency would be to fire at will. It's a fine line to consider muzzling electric playmakers, but the attitude can stretch too far and filter down throughout the team. Such has been the case when the offense falls into sluggish lapses as the last three games.

In the first half Saturday, UC took 19 shots outside the paint and 16 inside the paint - most off offensive rebounds. In the second half, UC took 19 shots in the paint and only 11 on the perimeter.

Advanced statistics aren't necessary to understand the difference.

Just power-dribbling to the lane wasn't necessarily how the offense healed. Nobody knows that better than Parker, who Cronin pointed out "finishes at the rim as well as anybody we've had here in a long time."  

"All of us, in the first half wasn't nobody attacking," Parker said. "Everybody was trying to stay back and shoot 3s. It was like we are just going to go there and play how we play, especially for me, I got to get to the rim. We got to pass the ball better in the first half. Second half we play ball, pass the ball more, get more open shots."

The key will be making that message sink in.

"We get in the habit of wanting things to be easy," Cronin said. "You can't attack if you take a bad shot. If you take a bad shot on the second or third pass, you never are going to break the defense down."

The 11th-ranked Bearcats will go to work in an enviable position one game away from sweeping their non-conference slate for the second time in three years. They will likely have earned a spot among the top 10 in the country. Practice won't sound much like it. Not if anybody places a mic on Mick Cronin.

Last year this team learned hard lessons early in the season. They are filed in the archives under Presbyterian, Marshall and Xavier. The Bearcats haven't suffered losses to teach tough lessons this season. And Cronin doesn't plan on using a defeat as a coaching point.

"I hope not, that would be a shame," Cronin said. "We shouldn't have to. We are too much of a veteran team for that."

I want to hear from you! Shoot me an email to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr with comments, questions or stories about the time you scored 15 points in six minutes.


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