A huge night for Bearcats basketball boils down to three seniors leading the nation in toughness and showing the type of fortitude that wins games in March.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Smith pulled up from 25 feet with the game tied and time running down on the shot clock to remind everyone why he earned the name Russdiculous.
Suddenly, 22,264 who spent the first 35 minutes berating the officials erupted in the latest attempt to blow the exclamation point off the KFC Yum! Center.
The defending national champions in their own house, the worldwide leader allowing the entire nation to watch, all momentum carrying them like a tidal wave from down 17 to up three in the same half. No. 12 Louisville took the floor with a deafening crowd, college basketball's seventh-ranked defense and both hands square around the throat of their biggest rivals.
Average teams don't recover for weeks. Good teams don't score again.
Even great teams mostly tip their cap and learn from the film. Few moments of that intimidation level exist across college basketball.
Yet, this Bearcats team, followed during every step of their 12-game win streak by "yeah, but," wheeled out three seniors and a toughness impossible to gauge in recruiting stars or highlight videos.
They accomplished the improbable. They found a way.
How did they do it? Sounds complicated, but for Mick Cronin, is explained simply.
"I made sure Justin, SK and Titus were in the game," he said.
Such resiliency in leadership speaks more than a single win against a rival, 20-2 record or two-game advantage in The American standings. It speaks to a team capable of facing any opponent, any obstacle, any atmosphere and making the plays the other side isn't willing or able to convert.
It speaks to a team built for March.
"I got the best three senior leaders in the country. Period," Mick Cronin said. "They may not be the best three players -- Kansas, Kentucky have three lottery picks each -- but I wouldn't trade my guys for the world.
"You can't understand the fortitude of Titus, Jack and SK," Cronin said. "That's why we have the record we have."
After Thursday, the college basketball universe may be starting to get the point.
Time and again, the Bearcats accepted brutal punches by the Cardinals and steadied the ship. The first came after a 7-0 Louisville run to close the first half placed pressure on UC coming out of the break.
Kilpatrick hit a 3 to start a run of 16 points in the first six possessions of the half.
When Louisville broke out the Montrezl Harrell dunk parade a 14-0 run saw the Bearcats unravel like has happened many times before against Louisville. Last year UC committed 21 turnovers, lost composure and it buried them into a blowout.
Instead, Kilpatrick entered and immediately sent a message to his team:
"I said, you know what, everybody has to calm down because if you come into this type of environment and try to speed up with them then everything goes out of hand."
His message backed up with two free threes and a collection of backdoor cuts and drives to keep pace as the Cardinals heated up from deep.
Then Russdiculous happened.
And Justin Jackson, who spent much of the night quietly affecting the game with defense offered three game-defining plays. He forced in for an acrobatic putback of a missed layup, altered a Smith layup on the other end then when Harrell backed him into the post, Jackson reached around for a strip and turnover that allowed Kilpatrick back to the line.
Kilpatrick set the tone with a one-handed tomahawk jam in the opening minutes slammed with an emphatic message that these Bearcats would dictate the terms. Then he finished them off with finesse burying free throw 11 of 11 on the game -- one might have hit the rim.
Those are winning plays made by winning players. Those projecting the possibility of these Bearcats need to push the ceiling a little higher after witnessing what was accomplished Thursday night.
Cronin would say his team expected to win Thursday. Knowing their confidence level, he's not lying. But this win could only be considered special. The same descriptor belongs on this team. After Cincinnati 69, Louisville 66, we should discuss the possibility special could also describe their March run.
"I have been saying it this season," he said. "Those guys play hard, they're tough, they care about winning. I am just enjoying the ride with those guys."
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When Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino face off in a Top 15 matchup Thursday, it will be the latest head-to-head meeting between two coaches who share a special friendship in the middle of a heated rivalry.
CINCINNATI -- Rivalries are supposed to bitter, ugly, filled with hate.
You know, poisoned oak trees, That Team Up North, fractured friendships, relationship deal-breakers.
In many ways, Cincinnati-Louisville owns those traits. Yet, this rivalry always rooted in respect more than resentment. Look no further than the relationship between Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino to gain a deeper understanding.
The story falls far from breaking news around Clifton circles. Cronin came up under Bob Huggins and eventually spent two years as an associate head coach under Pitino in 2002 and 2003 with Louisville. Pitino played as large a role as any in scoring Cronin his position restoring the University of Cincinnati basketball program.
During those two years Cronin became the latest branch on the Pitino coaching tree. To be fair, the tree looks more like a Toomer's Oaks at full strength these days. When Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame in September, Cronin couldn't help but look around at the six row of disciples filling the crowd in Springfield, Mass.
They were a whose who of the coaching world.
There was 76ers coach Brett Brown, Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Billy Donovan (Florida), Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) and Jeff Van Gundy (Former NBA coach, NBA Analyst). Jim O'Brien (Emerson) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). Travis Ford (Oklahoma State), Scott Davenport (Bellarmine) and Melvin Menzies (New Mexico State). Stu Jackson (Executive VP NBA), Kevin Williard (Seton Hall) and Reggie Theus (Cal State Northridge).
In the middle of all those coaches was Cronin, feeling proud, lucky.
"He treats me like his little brother," Cronin said. "It's a luxury for me. It's been one of the great things to happen in my life that he opened his world up to me."
Most conversations between the two stray away from the basketball court these days. Instead, Cronin jabs Pitino for dodging him on the golf course. Or they discuss the latest horses running at Churchill. When Mick and his father, Hep, head down to the races, Pitino opens up his suite to them.
Cronin holds close relationships with Pitino's son Richard, now the coach at Minnesota, along with many in the host of basketball coaches to come through Louisville during his two years there. When career opportunities floated his way, Cronin could lean on the advice of the Hall of Famer whose lived and learned bouncing around the coaching map.
Now eight years into Cronin's head coaching career and developing a program ascending to the level of the Cardinals -- he's beat Pitino three of the last five meetings -- the relationship doesn't change for Mick. He's never felt like the younger brother eager to prove he belongs on the same court.
"Having worked with him I never felt that need. At all," he said. "I think that for me with him it's like an older brother. When you know somebody you can talk to that is going to give you advice solely based on what's in your best interest it's a luxury. And he happens to be a Hall of Fame coach. For he and I don't really talk about basketball much unless its my future with job situations."
The job Thursday will be finding the latest way for younger brother to knock older brother down a notch. Current possession of first place in The American will be on the line. Afterward, respect will be exchanged, likely along with Cronin's latest low score on the golf course.
Pitino expressed the constant pride derived from helping assistant coaches advance to fulfill their career dreams under his watch during his Hall of Fame speech in September. Cronin, sitting among those in the six rows owing part of their success to him, held a similar pride in sitting on the other end. This fraternity matters almost as much to those apart of it as it does to the founder.
"It's just nice to be a part of something and a network that has become a real special thing in college basketball when you think about it," Cronin said.
Of course, the predictable, competitive conclusion to the glowing conversation about their relationship followed soon after.
"Hopefully I can give him a little pain Thursday," Cronin said.
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Following the first interview I did with Whit Babcock upon his hiring, I hung up the phone and shook my head in near disbelief.
Making a living in the media we are trained to smell dishonesty. We swim to and from the office in a pool of half PR spin, half blatant lies. So, upon talking about his first job as an athletic direction and the challenging decisions confronted with at the University of Cincinnati the gut reaction on Babcock stuck with me for days.
This guy is different. He's honest. He's transparent. More specifically, he's genuine.
Through 27 months of toeing the line of reporting about and working alongside Babcock that genuine demeanor and commitment to honesty, the power of positivity and belief people make all the difference never eroded from me.
In every instance, on and off the record, Babcock lived in humility, quest for truth and empowering others around him.
One walk around the Lindner Center shows how that filtered from personal philosophy to athletic department culture.
One Team began showing up everywhere. Attitudes of employees perked up. A department often treading water in hopes of establishing its visions walked with purpose and direction. Accomplishment followed.
Marketing broke new ground. Basketball grew. Accountability reigned.
Boosters believed in the vision and suddenly the Nippert Expansion fast-tracked with millions of dollars to cover it already in the pocket.
Daily life felt and looked different.
UC athletics excelled and accomplished before Babcock. Claiming otherwise would be preposterous. What Babcock developed and instituted into every aspect of Bearcats sports was a reinvigoration of pride, optimism and honesty. The restoration of being genuine. This resonated with everyone connected to the program, by paycheck or diploma, ticket or jersey.
The great news for fans as Babcock moves on to a well-deserved return home as AD at Virginia Tech is the culture he created in Clifton so embedded itself into every day, undoing that momentum would be difficult to envision.
Differing strategically with how daily events are handled can be debated. Success rates can be achieved many different ways. And quickly.
However, there is no easy way to fix a defeating culture. The person who comes sits in the chair after Babcock and interim AD Desiree Reed-Francois won't need to worry about such problems. Reed-Francois enters the fray as a dedicated professional in the same mold of her former boss. The ship sails forward, route unchanged.
In the days following Babcock's departure I was shocked to hear from fans frustration and even a few ugly words directed at his leaving. Seemed almost mind-boggling to me. Doesn't everyone see what happened here the last few years? Well, the answer to my own question was not really.
Perhaps anyone without a view of the program from the inside out can't truly appreciate the enormity of what he accomplished.
They can't truly appreciate how much easier this job will now be for his successor.
Changing leadership can be done seamlessly. Just ask Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and Tommy Tuberville. Changing culture takes years, sometimes decades.
Babcock leaves that legacy behind. His time at UC was shorter than anybody in the building would have liked, but the residue of his work will cake the program for years to come.
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Leave it to a guy who has become famous for his "mean
face" to coin an expression for how close-knit the Bearcat basketball team is
"We're a love village," said Justin Jackson with a
That gave Mick Cronin a big laugh when I passed
along Jackson's comment, but there's no doubt he would agree.Cronin says he's never been closer to his
players in 11 years as a college head coach.
"I respect them so much, and they know it, because of
how hard they play," said Cronin."That's
what we try to be all about - control what we can control and don't let other
people define us.They've really bought
in to that part of what I try to instill in our program more than any guys that
But at the age of 42, with more than a decade of head
coaching experience under his belt, Cronin has changed too.
"Only a fool would not try to become a better coach
every year," Mick told me."With
experience hopefully comes a tad bit of wisdom, and also maybe a tad bit of
patience.You understand that the game
is not all about you, it's about the players.I think the more you make it about them, the harder they're going to
play, the more they're going to play to win, and the more coachable they're
going to be.At the end of the day, that's
really what this is all about - their education and helping young people grow
up.Obviously you have to win games and
we're all competitors, but I really think that's the way to win."
"He wants the best out of everybody," said
Jackson."That's the reason why I came
here.You can tell that he wants the
best for you - not just in basketball but in being a better person and a better
man.That's what I wanted to be."
One thing I've found interesting about this team is
how the players react to criticism.Our
broadcasting location is frequently close to the Bearcats bench and even in those
situations where Coach Cronin is reading players the riot act, they rarely seem
to get upset.
"We all know that it's his love for the game," said
Sean Kilpatrick."For that five seconds
that he blows you up, you shouldn't take it like he's going to take you out of
the game for a long time - he's trying to teach you.At the end of the day, he still loves you and
he's going to get his message across."
"He's a winner and that just shows how much he wants
to win," said Jackson."Every coach has
a different way of expressing that.Some
coaches are quiet and some coaches are loud."
And while TV cameras are drawn to sideline
flare-ups, Cronin makes sure to provide plenty of praise as well.
"If somebody makes a bad play, he's quick to say,
'Why are great players making bad plays?'" said Kilpatrick."If he didn't believe in us to be great
players and take their game to the next level, then he wouldn't say nothing at
"Everyone is happy to come to practice and everyone
is willing to play hard.If you have a
coach that's on you 24/7, you're probably going to say, 'Come on, cut me some
slack.'He wants what's best for you and
that's something that helps us a lot."
"They give me great effort and they really care
about winning," said Cronin."It's
allowed us to play smart.When guys are
mentally focused and their mind is on winning, it allows you as a coach to make
adjustments and it actually makes you look like you know what you're doing at
times.That doesn't happen when their
minds are not on winning and they're tuning coaches out because all they care
about are individual statistics.With
this group, they want to win and they're willing to do whatever it takes to
win.They give me great effort - not just
physical effort but mental effort as well."
As a result, the Bearcats "Love Village" is 19-2 and
ranked 13th in the country heading into Thursday's showdown at
"We're not always pretty, but I think you have to
appreciate how much the kids want to win," said Cronin.
Let's keep things simple following the latest Bearcats beatdown and extension of the team's winning streak to 11 games. Another game, another night where Justin Jackson leaves fans, players and everyone inside Fifth Third Arena impressed.
This particular night included 12 points, 7 blocks, 4 steals, 3 assists. Those assists were almost as impressive as swatting Staphon Blair's dunk attempt like a volleyball. Almost ho-hum.
It begs the question I posed to Mick Cronin on Thursday -- can Justin Jackson play at the next level?
I found his answer intriguing and one worth marinating on for NBA general managers constantly seeking intangibles.
"When the season is over he continues to focus on gaining weight. Somebody gives him a chance, somebody that needs someone to do all the dirty work and be the junkyard dog -- Jerome Williams, Ben Wallace or (Kenneth) Faried or one of those guys. Help him gain 15 more pounds, turn him loose. Cause he will help you. He'll help you.
"And he'll do whatever the coach asks him to do. He could care less about ever getting the ball. That will help make him valuable because everybody in the pros doesn't have that. Lot of guys want the ball in the pros. He understands. Pay me, I'll never take a shot."
For the record, career averages for those guys mentioned:
Jerome Williams: 6.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 0.8 assists. He made $51 million.
Ben Wallace: 5.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks. He made $87.8 million in 16 seasons
Kenneth Faried: 10.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.0 blocks. In Year 3 in the league he's about to hit a jackpot soon.
Flash isn't always necessary to make NBA scouts take notice. Justin Jackson is undersized for an NBA power forward, but Jason Maxiell was undersized as well. He's 6-foot-7 and played center during most of his NBA career. He's currently with the Orlando Magic and popped into UC's locker room prior to their win against South Florida.
Players were amazed at how short he was for a player of his NBA credentials. Need reason to believe? There's another one. He's made $27.2 million and has $5 million more on the way over the next two seasons.
Will Jackson be those guys or anything close? Who knows? Maybe. Maybe not. What we've learned in his rise this season is he's got a chance.
What team couldn't use a player who contributes in the manner Jackson does? He affects every aspect of the game and provides energy for days. How many guys do you see like that in the NBA?
"You got to be great at what you can do," Cronin said. "He's embraced it and you see what's happened."
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The Bearcats are enjoying their best start under Mick Cronin and perch atop The American but the coach and his star player take the court with a chip on their shoulder.
CINCINNATI -- This week, finally, the gloves came off for Sean Kilpatrick, Mick Cronin and the Bearcats. They weren't politely pulled one finger at a time like two hipsters leaving the cold entering a posh OTR restaurant.
Kilpatrick and the Bearcats believe they've earned respect of the country with a 17-2 record, undefeated while leading a conference featuring powers Louisville, Memphis and UConn. Winners of 10 straight they've suffocated opponents allowing the second-fewest points per game in the country.
Sure, they've trickled their way up the polls to Nos. 15/16, but the rise came as slowly as it did quietly.
"Guys really bled and sweated UC and put things in perspective for the program," Kilpatrick said. "We beat teams that were ranked higher than us and played a huge role with going at teams like they predicted to be better than us. Now we are still not getting the same respect that we deserve so next question is what do we need to do in order to do that?"
The easy answer is simple: Win.
The more complicated answer requires a doctorate in the College Basketball Noticeability Theorem. Storylines, McDonald's All-Americans and primetime television slots grab the attention of the average voter and college basketball writer.
"People get caught up in 'We don't have talent,' yes we do," Cronin said. "There's a lot of skilled players that lose. Playing hard and playing to win is a talent, unfortunately, that talent is not accentuated by recruiting analysts. But it is a talent. It's a talent anybody looking to put a winning team together is looking for."
Polls serve as much of a true representation of college hoops achievement as looking at a resume predicts who would best fill a job. Voters and national pundits grazing box scores and headlines rarely view the relevancy of a team overachieving -- certainly not on Jan. 23.
The favorites will be exalted at every cost and risers struck down at the first possible moment. That's Cronin's message to his team this week regarding the current reality of UC basketball. Despite wins at Memphis and against Pittsburgh in New York City pairing with a perfect 6-0 record in conference, notoriety remains tenuous when colored red and black.
"It will all be gone quickly," Cronin said. "There's certain teams in college basketball that if they lose it would take them four losses in a row and they'd still be ranked. If we were to lose one game we will disappear. I make sure our guys understand that."
Those paying close attention know the difference between this Cincinnati team and one which stumbled down the stretch to close last season. Most notably, their biggest rival.
Rick Pitino thinks Cincinnati playing best basketball in AAC and that 5 teams from league will make NCAA Tournament.
Cronin doesn't concern himself with impressing anybody except his players and those he needs to beat. Luckily, in a sport which settles itself on the court, little else matters. He knows Rick Pitino wouldn't drop UC off his radar if one upset loss occurred.
"We wouldn't disappear from coach Pitino's mind because he is an educated basketball expert,' Cronin said. "From some AP voters or people that continue to write stories about teams that are 1-5 in their league on national sites. They couldn't wait to say, 'See, I told you they weren't very good.' People don't like to admit when they are wrong. When people say that team is not that good, that coach is not that good, that player is not that good they can't wait for that team to fail. That's just how it is."
Unfortunately, it often leads to injustice in the mind of Cronin and Kilpatrick. The Bearcats leader and leading scorer was left off the Wooden Award 25 Semi-Finalists list this week. Here's the list.
He can earn his way back into a top 15 cut which will happen March 8.
It didn't make the snub sting any less.
First, to The Twitters:
How is Sean Kilpatrick left off the Wooden list?? Very irresponsible by those involved. Look at his stats, his team, his impact. Disrespect!
"I come from the bottom... Come from nothing... And I'm not saying that there's not a lot of great players out in the world BUT just know I'm one of them. The more and more you don't respect my teammates and my game the more and more it puts more anger into the tank. I've worked my tail off all my life and Nationally some people still don't respect it? Some players been spoon fed all their lives when it comes to this"
Kilpatrick broke out the hashtag #NUMBERSDONTLIE and when looking at the guards ahead of him on the Wooden team the truth shows through. Of the 14 guards on the team, only four rank ahead of him in the KenPom.com offensive rating rooted in efficiency.
He's second on the list in points per game, trailing only Jordan Clarkson of Missouri by one-tenth of a point.
He's sixth in rebounds per game and three players have fewer assists per game.
Player (All Guards)
KenPom Off. Rating
Keith Appling, Mich. St.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Jordan Clarkson, Mizzou
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Nick Johnson, Arizona
DeAndre Kane, Iowa St.
Shabazz Napier, UConn
Marcus Smart, OK St.
Russ Smith, Louisville
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Chaz Williams, UMass
Joseph Young, Oregon
Obviously, other factors come into play. But anyone claiming Kilpatrick as a key part of the fourth-ranked defense in the country in terms of points per possession falls shy as an all-around player isn't watching.
Even more so for Cronin, anybody claiming a player accepted more leadership and responsibility in carrying a team emotionally, mentally and physically toward overachievement, they likely haven't followed Kilpatrick's rise through UC.
Cronin and Kilpatrick can take to any form of social media or conversation with media types all they want. No louder message reverberates throughout the national landscape like winning and winning big games. With two against Louisville, two against UConn, a trip to SMU and home tilt with Memphis on the horizon, the opportunities will come.
After that, the ultimate proving ground of the NCAA Tournament will settle all debates. Finally.
"Can't wait," Kilpatrick said.
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Sean Kilpatrick picked the right time to bust out of his shooting slump, but it only reinforced the team attitude that has carried this team to 16-2 following Tuesday's win against Temple.
CINCINNATI --Grabbing and pulling a 3-pointer from the wing, Sean Kilpatrick fired off in rhythm. After it ripped the net for the latest of six three-pointers and the defining moment in the game's defining run, he turned around toward the Fifth Third Arena crowd behind him and let out a scream.
His Bearcats struggled Tuesday night. Mick Cronin called it the worst first half of the season and afterward referred to it as about the most unintelligent game they'd played all year.
Temple erased a double-digit deficit and led by two. That would be previously 5-9, 0-4 playing without their starting point guard and only seven scholarship players, Temple.
And here was Kilpatrick. Made only four of his last 33 shots from deep asking anyone on staff for an idea how to bust out of this slump, Kilpatrick.
A developing storyline during UC's ascension to No. 19 in the country had been winning games despite ugly shooting. Whispers began of regressing from the 40-plus percent shooting that marked the early season to the 30.6 percent that clouded a disappointing junior campaign.
Only, with each passing 3 that found the net, including two and an assist on another by Jermaine Sanders, Kilpatrick reminded everyone why he's a preseason Wooden and Naismith Top 50 selection. And reminded why he's climbing the charts to a likely spot as the second-leading scorer in Cincinnati history.
Kilpatrick saves the day. Not the first time, but after missing 29 of 33 shots, remembering the last time can be the challenge.
And in this moment, as he enjoyed the return of his shot with 9,864 of his closest friends Tuesday, he couldn't help but celebrate by letting out a cathartic yell and head nod.
"Yeah, it's funny because today in walk through I was actually shooting and it was actually falling. I told Ge'Lawn (Guyn), man, I feel like I'm back. He said, 'you never left, I don't know what you are talking about.' But it was good to hit some shots today to help my team win."
Justin Jackson followed up Kilpatrick's statement with a confused look. On a campus where half the student body owns a No. 23 jersey, No. 5 would be considered his biggest fan.
"He don't miss in walk through," Jackson said.
That's the thing about shooting slumps for the team's heart, soul, leader and leading scorer. Misses can tailspin without support. Through all the misses and frustrations, Jackson leads the charge reminding Kilpatrick to keep shooting.
Nobody challenges Jackson's relentlessness both on the court and in supporting his teammate. There will be no concerns about a slump.
"I'm not letting that happen," Jackson said.
For Kilpatrick, the man playing with the weight of this team's success on his shoulders, relief and confidence on the court makes all the difference in attempting to leave a slump behind.
"Out of everybody he is on me the hardest, like, man you got to keep shooting," Kilpatrick said. "He says it don't matter how it hits, where it goes, if you shoot it and miss it I am going to get the rebound and throw it back to you. That's something I am happy for when it comes down to him being able to give him that kind of confidence."
Nobody can assure the support of Jackson and his teammates greased the wheels to Kilpatrick's 23 points on 6 of 13 shooting from deep. Nobody can assure this wasn't just the law of averages swinging back in favor of a talented shooter. Nobody can assure this wasn't the product of shots suddenly opening up when Titus Rubles cracked Temple's frustrating zone from the high post.
All those would be speculation and theory.
What can be assured from anybody within earshot of Kilpatrick's emotional scream during Tuesday's victory was that, for Kilpatrick, breaking out of this shooting slump sure felt damn good.
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The Bearcats defense left another lasting impression on an opponent Saturday and has eyes on being the best defense in the country.
CINCINNATI --For the final 11:45 of Saturday's 71-51 win against Rutgers the Bearcats didn't allow a single field goal.
The Scarlet Knights scored three points, all on free throws. A game within striking distance spread to the latest reason to believe in the 2013-14 Bearcats.
Though, the reason sounds the same as it always has around Fifth Third Arena. Mick Cronin and the Bearcats will win games when their best shooter clangs nine of 10 3-pointers off the rim. When their second-leading scorer spends half the game locked to the bench in foul trouble. When they turn the ball over 14 times.
"The answer for us is defense," Cronin said. "Our goal is to be the best defensive team in the country."
More suffocations like the final 12 minutes Saturday make that goal more than motivational chatter.
Following Saturday's games they rank fourth in the country in adjusted defense (points allowed per possession). They rank in the top 10 in turnover percentage, 2-point shooting percentage defense, block percentage and steal percentage.
It's now been 24 consecutive games the Bearcats held a team under 70 points -- the longest streak in the nation.
Stats don't tell the defensive story. The frustration on the faces of players like Wally Judge and Myles Mack do.
"That's what this program is based upon," Sean Kilpatrick said. "For the five years I have been around it's been just about defense and you can't win games if your defense isn't on point. That's really our bread and butter. That's what we get our points off of and we turn people over."
The length and athleticism of press wears teams down and by the time they reach the last quarter of the game exhausted bodies make poor decisions. They take bad shots. Or in the case of Rutgers, they don't muster a single field goal.
Even on a day when the press wasn't working as Rutgers ran out to 12 fast break points in the first half, Cronin realized his mistake and backed off the press to keep the Knights in front of them after halftime. Rutgers shot 23.1 percent after the break.
This isn't the first time and won't be the last.
Repeatedly, UC has forced one of the worst offensive outputs from opponents. In fact, of the nine opponents from a major conference this season, all have been held to one of their three worst scoring outputs of the year.
Rutgers, Memphis and Pitt were held to their lowest. Here's the results.
The number test and eye test have UC believing this could be the top defense in the country and probably the best of the Mick Cronin Era. Around Cincinnati, where defense defines every practice, workout and game, that's saying something.
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Future Bearcat Gary Clark, a senior at Clayton High
School near Raleigh, North Carolina, had one on Friday night as he finished
with 22 points, 21 rebounds, 15 blocked shots, and 10 assists in his team's
"Gary Clark is dominating," UC head coach Mick
Cronin told me."From what everybody
tells us, he's probably on track to win Player of the Year in North Carolina -
and there are some McDonald's All-Americans in North Carolina."
Clark is from the heart of ACC country, and while he
reportedly had offers from NC State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Miami, Maryland, and
Pittsburgh, he verbally committed to Cincinnati after visiting campus in
September.The 6'7", 215 pound forward officially
committed to UC in the early signing period in November.
"I really loved the guys - they were just awesome,"
said Clark."And Coach Cronin is a great
guy.The whole coaching staff was really
hands on with me and talked with me every day.I talked to Coach Davis probably as much as I talked with my mom - I love
UC associate head coach Larry Davis worked in the
ACC for several years at Wake Forest where he famously signed a lightly-recruited
prospect that developed into a two-time NBA MVP - Tim Duncan.
"Larry Davis did an unbelievable job identifying
Gary early," said Coach Cronin."We put
a lot of belief in him early that he was going to be a great player.Every now and then you can sneak one in on
the recruiting guys where they don't have him ranked nearly as high as he
should be for whatever reason - he developed late...he hasn't been as exposed as
other people...whatever the case may be.
"Gary got recruited - NC State is 45 minutes up the
road and tried to get him and Pitt was waiting at the airport when he got home
from his visit here.So it's not like he
wasn't recruited.But Larry Davis did
the best job.He got in there first and
did a great job of developing his relationship with Gary."
"Gary's been a relationship guy from the beginning,"
said Clayton High coach Denny Medlin."I
thought that Cincinnati did a good job.They've been here for a couple of years now watching him play and they
didn't feed him a bunch of lines.In the
beginning, Coach Davis came down and said, 'Hey, you've got to play harder.'It kind of made Gary mad to begin with, but
at the same time I think Gary has always appreciated honesty.Gary got better and that helped me out
because Gary started playing harder.And
the harder he played, the better he got.Now he keeps playing harder and harder all of the time, and keeps
getting better and better all of the time."
For the season, Clark is averaging 24.5 points and
he recently had a game in which he scored 31 in less than a half in a blowout
victory.The 15 blocks on Friday night
tied a career high, while his personal best for rebounds is 24.
"He's a guy that was vastly underrated for different
reasons and probably learned to play a little harder the older he's got," said Coach
Cronin."Some guys develop later than
"He'll be a four-year guy there and by his junior
year in college, he's going to be really, really good I think," said Coach
By Cincinnati Athletics on January 9, 2014 8:38 AM
UC's Mick Cronin owns wins over several noteworthy
coaches, including Hall of Famers Rick Pitino and most recently Larry Brown of
SMU. At a recent practice, the Bearcats' head basketball coach spoke about how
he got there, his experiences, his supporters and his influences.
Justin Jackson played the best game of his career Wednesday night, but his polished consistency over the last month has changed the expectations of UC basketball this season.
CINCINNATI -- The evolution of Justin Jackson has been well-publicized. Through the early portion of the season his offensive game took strides. His energy funneled into useful mediums rather than wasteful moments. As a senior he'd grown into a steady complement to Sean Kilpatrick.
Despite all his improvements and discussion of reaching potential, few then could have envisioned what's happening to his game now.
He spins in the post with precision. He powers to the bucket and finishes. He passes better than any player on the Bearcats when in the low post.
The blocked shot, the dive into the stands and game defined by reckless abandon still exist. But not only is Jackson transforming from athlete to basketball player, he's turning into one that can carry the Bearcats.
He did so Wednesday.
Jackson finished with 17 points, six rebounds, five blocks, five steals and three assists. The 16 deflections charted by the UC coaching staff is the most Mick Cronin can remember during his tenure.
"Justin Jackson was as good as you can possibly be today," Cronin said. "Probably on every phase of the game. Almost impossible to have a better stat line than he had, but forth a better effort than he put forth. He's playing like one of the best big men in the country right now."
When Kilpatrick shoots 3 of 12 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3-point range against a quality opponent that refuses to give up layups, the Bearcats are supposed to lose.
Only, Jackson wouldn't let them. During a 10-0 run in the first half he affected every possession offensively and defensively. He blocked shots, he dished to Troy Caupain for a wide open 3-pointer, he grabbed boards, he made a steal and pushed the break.
He's twice been named AAC Player of the Week and by far played his best college basketball Wednesday.
Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown compared Jackson to Ben Wallace prior to the game and gave him credit for single-handedly willing the Bearcats to halftime lead after it.
Many questioned if Jackson could be a second option for Kilpatrick before the season, now this attack hums when the offense runs through him in the post.
Polished was never a word associated with Jackson the last three seasons, but now that it is his raw athleticism that left so many in awe is leaving opponents in shambles in the paint.
It all begins with his post moves. He's able to spin off to create easy layups. His explosive first step created an easy dunk against a center he gave up three inches to.
"He's got great quickness which he's always had," Cronin said of the growth of his post game. "The other thing is his added strength. His understanding, he's been extremely coachable and understanding where the help is to let us get the floor spaced and then attack and read whether he should pass it or finish. I'm Big believer added strength really helped his balance as a finisher, which has helped his confidence."
That confidence is altering the season expectations for UC basketball one game at a time.
"I saw it with Kenyon (Martin) his senior year, now it becomes a snowball effect," Cronin said. "Now he's so confident he believes nobody can guard him in the low post."
He's even delivered gold in the postgame press conference. When asked how tough the game was on his body on a night he had to leave once after knocking knees and repeatedly fell hard to the ground. He with a serious, straight face uttered a one-liner.
"I'm a machine," he said.
Indeed. And one that's powering UC basketball and himself into the national conversation.