The Bearcats have won most games this season due to their suffocating defense, but flipping the script to win offensively as they did in Saturday's 73-62 victory against Houston offered a glimpse of the possibilities as March approaches.
CINCINNATI -- Bearcats games this season -- and most since Bob Huggins ushered in the Clifton renaissance -- have been easy to describe.
Slugfest. Rock fight. Sumo bout.
Many seasons since the mid-90s also ended with the UC falling short of the aspired destination. More often than not, inability to produce consistently on offense took the blame.
This particular group should be viewed as the best defensively in the Mick Cronin era and would compete for the title with any under Huggins. They scrap, they steal, they block shots. Heck, they are 23-3 and 12-1 in the conference, you don't need me to reiterate how they are winning games. It's why you have fallen for this team like your college basketball's version of The Bachelor.
This defense can win games in March. Those facts are undisputed when you own the sixth most efficient defense in the nation and one that shifts another stratosphere in the closing minutes of tight games.
While defense may win games in March, that alone can't make runs in March. Teams need more.
"You got to be able to win a multitude of ways if you are going to try to win four to six in a row," Cronin said. "You are not going to shut everybody out. You have to answer and counterpunch when kids are making plays."
That's why the 73-62 win against Houston on Saturday stuck out among the lot of dozen conference wins and the latest against an opponent the Bearcats were favored to dominate.
No rocks were thrown. No sumo wrestlers diapered.
Asked to overcome a Houston team shredding the UC defense and making shot after shot, the Bearcats churned out their most efficient offensive effort of the season.
It wasn't close.
The Bearcats finished with 135.2 points per 100 possessions -- the definitive advanced statistical measure for efficiency on offense in basketball.
Their previous high on the season against non-cupcakes was 123.5 at Temple. In those 17 previous games, UC only crossed the 110 barrier five times.
Only four home team turnovers graced the box score. That's the fewest on the year, the previous low being seven against Nebraska. Place that number against 15 assists and the 3.75 assist to turnover ratio blows any previous game out of the water.
Houston's defense leaves plenty to be desired, but they are middle of the pack in conference play. This wasn't bad defense, though. This stemmed from a week-long directive.
Lacking enough numbers to practice 5-on-5 and enduring a busy first five weeks of conference play not enough practice time could be dedicated to ball movement and offensive passing habits.
That changed this week when Cronin focused his time on improving efficiency and passing. The numbers along with an eye test left an obvious assumption -- it worked.
"For the past week we have really been focusing on our offense and really swinging the ball," Sean Kilpatrick said. "A lot of games this year we kept the ball on one side of the floor. That's something that really wasn't helping our big men especially on the weak side for rebounding. Being able to swing the ball today and drive the big gaps and get in the middle and look for the open guy -- especially in the second half -- that was something that was huge for us."
Enjoying efficient offensive days can be easy when Sean Kilpatrick plays as he has the last month. The latest effort -- 28 points, six assists, five rebounds and only one turnover -- left Cronin rightfully asking what guard could possibly keep him off First Team All-America.
But, without Shaq Thomas attacking the basket early and converting using his trampoline feet and Inspector Gadget arms, 73 points never would have been possible.
If not for Ge'Lawn Guyn burying wide open back-to-back 3-pointers on game-changing assists from Kilpatrick, a win might not have been possible.
If not for Justin Jackson's spin moves leaving post defenders grasping at nothing, 51 percent shooting on the day never exists.
The headline above the Bearcats name on the NCAA Tournament bracket will start with the word defense and include the name Kilpatrick. But if they want a headline for the Elite Eight or beyond, efficient and offense must bully into the subhead.
This week of much-needed practices and Saturday's result served as a step in that direction. In the process, it began to belly the sumo wrestlers toward the edge of the ring.
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