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Minding mental state as important as strategy for Bearcats

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Nearly important as breaking down film at this point in the season is breaking down the exterior pressures building on college athletes grinding out spots in the NCAA tournament. For few teams right now is this more important than the Cincinnati Bearcats. 


CINCINNATI -- This time of year, as bracketologists construct the hopes and dreams of 20-year-olds on a weekly basis and plaster successes and failures on the Internet for a thirsty public to judge, coaches and players search for any means necessary to rise above the noise. 

At Minnesota, Tubby Smith called in a sports psychologist as they spiraled from No. 8 in the country to losing eight of the next 11. At Illinois, John Groce banned Twitter attempting cut off detractors while losing six of seven. At Kentucky, where John Calipari's latest collection of future NBA All-Stars cascaded from defending champs to outside The Dance, Cal called for a game of dodgeball to lighten the mood. 

Mick Cronin desired to keep the atmosphere light and the pressure lighter this week on a Bearcats team attempting to regain form prior to losing five of six. Although, he didn't bring in a sports psychologist or dial up a game of dodgeball. Self-promoting gimmicks don't fall in his wheelhouse. 

"I've never seen either one of those," Cronin said. "I think people believe in different things ... I have the job that I want in my career, so, I don't feel a need to promote myself. It's just really not the way I operate to brag about 'look at this genius thing I came up with to do in practice.' So, we kind of do what we do and keep it quiet."

Maybe he's never been around a coach whose broken out those unorthodox motivational ploys -- not saying he doesn't wonder how they might have unfolded.

"I'd have liked to seen dodgeball in '97 with Danny Fortson with a chance to throw the ball at Huggs, that would have been interesting," Cronin said of his former boss Bob Huggins. "I'd have made sure that I was on Fortson's team."

Dodgeball and shrinks were dismissed for intermixed games and laughter this week. It's that time of year for all teams in college basketball where the focus on mental begins to outweigh strategy -- for no team more right now than the struggling Bearcats. Cronin uses a mixture of analysis and prep, while attempting to insulate his players as much as possible from negativity that creeps up during a rough stretch in the rugged Big East. 

In the end, however, the players must be the ones to keep their minds straight and play free. Playing with the weight of an NCAA tournament bid blanketing the body doesn't make hitting a jump shot any easier. Actually, it makes it nearly impossible. Even the fans play a significant role in molding the mental state of a team chasing a sweat-free Selection Sunday. When offensive shooting and struggles come at a premium, any backlash from the home base only exacerbates the fragile mental state of a team already dealing with dozens of exterior pressures. 

"If you are coming Saturday, please help me," Cronin said, pleading. "We have to make sure our guys are worried about one thing, that's defense. We can't control whether shots go in. Most teams make one out of two, on a bad night you make one out of three, but you can control your effort and your energy and your hustle. That's what we have to make sure that we do and we don't need to have a nervous breakdown or the crowd have a nervous breakdown any time we miss a shot."
 
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If ever calm nerves and leadership fall onto seniors Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker, now is the moment. 

"Us, as the core, we are kind of old," Wright said. "We really don't, the pressure, we just got to stay mentally together. Everybody got to realize that and be on the same page and get back on the page of playing for each other like we was at the beginning of the year."

Nobody understands the effect of an altered mental state more than Wright, whose averaging only eight points per game in the nine contests since his knee injury against DePaul. He believes his health has finally turned the corner. The key to becoming the dominant player he was prior to the Chicago trip is believing in the recovery process. He feels closer now than ever before. 

"I'm getting better, I'm getting way better, physically, now it's the mental part," said said. "I realize [the difference between] thinking that you are OK and knowing everything will be all right once you move."

The quest to refuel confidence resumes Saturday at 2 p.m. at Fifth Third Arena against UConn, a team that delivered a brutal overtime blow to the psyche only nine days prior. Cronin said his team was devastated in the locker room following the loss. As whispers begin to grow regarding tournament standing, the devastation with each passing defeat becomes more and more difficult to brush under the rug. 

Cronin preaches an important message to his players this week, whether this team won five of six or lost five of six, none of those results matter on the first day of the NCAA Tournament. Continue grinding out a way to get into The Big Dance and nobody will remember this valley in retrospect of the season in the same vein nobody remembers the regular-season peak of No. 2 seed Missouri who was upset by Norfolk State in the first round. 

"A lot of it is staying mentally fresh, not doubt about it," Cronin said. "At the end of the day you got to get to March. You don't get to carry wins with you when you do get there ... It's an interesting world, college basketball."

We want to hear from you. Send me any comments, questions or your obscure motivational tactics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

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