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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. 

I want to hear from you! Send me any comments, questions or suggestions you may have to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

Bearcats Defense Is DVD-Worthy

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The stats show that Cincinnati is one of the best defensive teams in college basketball this year.  Through 25 games, the Bearcats rank 5th in the country in points allowed (57.6) and are holding foes to 39% shooting.

"That's who we are," said Justin Jackson.  "That's Bearcat basketball."

But it's not just this season.  Cincinnati has earned the reputation for being one of the best defensive programs in the nation and soon there will be a DVD to help explain why.

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Championship Productions is known for its instructional sports videos, as coaching legends like Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, and Pat Summit share their expertise.  Beginning this spring, coaches and fans will have the opportunity to study Mick Cronin's defensive principals.

"They came in and filmed practice because they had so many requests from high school coaches around the country for our practice drills and defensive drills," Cronin told me.  "They do it for money so they had to have a lot of requests from people who are trying to figure out what we do defensively around the country from guys that are coaching basketball."

"That's an honor," said Jackson.  "We take pride in what we do and that shows that we've been successful."

"I thought it would be something neat to do - I've never been a part of something like that," said Cronin.  "If it can help other coaches that would be great, and since it's going to be distributed nationally it really helps the status of the program.  I'll do anything I can do to elevate the status of our program, help recruiting, help create interest in the Bearcats, and help create positive energy toward what we're trying to accomplish here which is hopefully trying to build a national power year in and year out."

The Bearcats have been strong on defense throughout Coach Cronin's tenure and this is likely to be the third time in the last four years that Cincinnati has allowed fewer than 60 points a game.  It obviously helps to have one of the nation's leading shot-blockers in Jackson, but that alone does not explain why this year's team is so difficult to score on.

"This team is able to switch everything for the most part," explained assistant coach Darren Savino.  "What happens is, a lot of teams run their offense and try to use screens to get advantages, and they can't do it on us as much because we can switch.  And then it becomes 'mano y mano' ... me vs. you and it's not that easy.  Yeah, they're going to score some, but not as much as if our defense was constantly helping.  We try to eliminate that by doing a lot of switching and then keep people in front of us.  We're not perfect obviously - nobody is - but I think that's really helped our defense."

"Interchangeable parts are a big part of it," said Cronin.  "Enough depth to never have to play anybody tired - because when you're tired you're going to have slippage.  And obviously a shot blocker.  Usually if you have a shot blocker, he's a weakness in the pick and roll, but Justin is not.  He can move his feet on the perimeter and he can also block shots around the rim."

Jackson leads the Bearcats in blocks and steals and will be a strong candidate for American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.  But Savino says, another UC senior is just as important to Cincinnati's defensive prowess.    

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"Titus Rubles is one of the best defense players in the country," Darren told me.  "The guy can guard anybody from the center to the point guard." 

"Titus doesn't block the shots that Justin does, but he allows us to be extremely versatile with what we do with our coverages and confuse our opponents," said Cronin.  "His ability to guard every position is vital to what we do.  Things that don't show up in the box score make him just as valuable as Justin - he won't win any awards because he doesn't have the individual stats to prove it, but his statistic is our field goal percentage defense and our points allowed per game.  A lot of that is because of Titus."

None of that information is a secret to Cincinnati's opponents.  But what about the upcoming video - will Coach Cronin be divulging any secrets that could help teams dissect the Bearcats' defense?

"I have editing right of refusal at the end, and we're very scouting report-specific." Mick told me.  "The video will show our core principals and how we teach things.  That's really the basis of it, but I will also make sure that everybody knows that we do adjust game-to-game and year-to-year based on the personnel."

I look forward to seeing Cincinnati's "D" on DVD.

********

I received a question on Twitter asking for tiebreaking procedures for seeding the conference tournament in The American.  I couldn't squeeze them into 140 characters, so I've posted the official league rules below.

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SEEDING & TIE-BREAKING PROCEDURES

 

Note: these procedures apply to the 2013-14 season only. New procedures will be

developed for 2014-15 due to the addition of new membership.

 

Overall Conference record, at the conclusion of the regular season, is used to seed teams

numbering 1 through 10. If an institution is ineligible for tournament competition, all

tiebreaking procedures will be followed, then the ineligible team will be removed from the

tournament field and seeds will be adjusted accordingly in an upward manner.

The following procedures are set up to establish seeding for the championship and to break

ties. Follow the appropriate steps in order.

 

TWO-TEAM TIE

 

1. Regular season head-to-head results.

If the tied teams split their two games, then proceed to Step 2 below.

2. Each team's record vs. the team or tied teams occupying the highest position in the

standings. If an advantage is not determined, proceed to the next team or group of tied

teams in the standings for comparison. Continue down through the standings until one

team gains an advantage.

3. Coin Flip

 

If any ties still exist after implementing all of the above tie-breaking procedures, a coin

flip is required. The procedure takes place at The American Athletic Conference office

immediately following the conclusion of the last regular season conference game.

Commissioner Mike Aresco or his designee will administer this procedure. This session

is open to the media and to athletic department representatives of the tied teams.

 

MULTIPLE-TEAM TIE (3 or more teams)

 

1. Teams are viewed as a "mini-conference" when comparing head-to-head results.

The team with the best record vs. the other teams in the mini-conference gains the

advantage. The team with the worst record vs. the other teams in the mini-conference is

seeded the lowest.

a. If only two teams have the same best winning percentage in the mini-conference,

the higher seed goes to the team winning the head-to-head series.

b. If the two teams split their two games, then proceed to Step 2 under Two-Team ties.

To seed the remaining team(s) in this mini-conference, proceed to (e) below.

c. If three or more (but not all) teams have the same best winning percentage in the

original mini-conference, then those tied teams create a new mini-conference and

follow this same procedure beginning of Step 1 (Multiple Team Tie).

d. If all teams in the mini-conference have the same mini-conference record, proceed

to Step 2 below.

e. After the top or bottom teams in a mini-conference are determined, the remaining

teams are ranked by their record in the original mini-conference.

i. If there are any remaining teams tied by their record in the mini-conference,

then head-to-head results will determine the higher seed.

ii. If the teams split two games, then proceed back to the two-way tie breaking

procedure.

iii. If there are at least three teams remaining tied by their record in the mini-conference,

they would then form a new mini-conference and follow the

procedure again at the beginning of Step 1 (Multiple-Team Tie).

2. Compare each team's record vs. the team or group of tied teams occupying the highest

position in the standings. If an advantage is not determined, proceed to the next team or

group of tied teams in the standings for comparison. Continue down through the

standings until one or more teams gain an advantage. If two teams have the exact same

advantage (i.e., having the same and better record against a compared team relative to

their mini-conference), they are separated at that point by the two-way tiebreaker

procedure. The next step would take you back to Step 1 (e) (Multiple-Team Tie).

3. Coin Flip

If any ties still exist after implementing all of the above tie-breaking procedures, a coin

flip is required. The procedure takes place at The American Athletic Conference office

immediately following the conclusion of the last regular season conference game.

Commissioner Mike Aresco or his designee will administer this procedure. This session

is open to the media and to athletic department representatives of the tied teams.

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Sean Kilpatrick appeared in line for a great senior year that would make the fan base appreciate his UC career, instead, his ascension of late grabbed the attention of a college basketball world appreciating his seizure of the national stage. 

CINCINNATI -- The Sean Kilpatrick story already played out like the feel-good movie of the season around UC athletics. The grinding senior expected to push his way to elite territory in school record books and enjoy a swan song in reward for returning to school as a 24-year-old. 

Fans would applaud. Teammates would brohug. Mick Cronin would probably well up. 

Only, of late, the feel-good story of Kilpatrick executed a plot twist that would make Steven Spielberg set his Oscar down. 

Suddenly, the work-hard scorer enjoying a fun senior season for local diehards to appreciate has tossed this team on his back and made the entire nation take notice. An enjoyable ride morphed into an unprecedented adventure, one Kilpatrick masterpiece at a time. 

The last four games with victories against two ranked teams and twice on the road, he's averaged 25.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists. His leadership calmed tornadic storms, his free throws buried desperate hopes, his confidence lifted all boats. 

Now the Bearcats are 22-2, 11-0 in conference, winners of 15 straight and ranked No. 7 in the country. He's the clear front-runner for American Player of the Year, but now elicits realistic mentions as a first-team All-American. 

During his finest work of art yet, racking up 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in topping No. 22 Connecticut Thursday, students chanted "M-V-P!" as he stood at the free throw line in the final seconds. That award doesn't exactly exist in college basketball, but no matter. The reverence nonetheless deserved and understood. 

The last four games, an already great individual season turned special. 

"No doubt about it," Cronin said. "Mark of great players is they rise to the occasion. He has the ability to rise to the occasion."

The rising of the numbers stand impressive enough. He's hit 43 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep over the four-game stretch. Knocked down 28 of 32 free throws, most in defining moments. He's notched 12 games of at least 20-plus points this year. Nobody else in the conference managed more than eight. 

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Kilpatrick rose for one-handed dunks that sparked season-altering runs. He silenced crowds and ignited them. 

Yet, the more impactful element of his special play has been the method behind his madness. He's not seeking points or prestige, averages or awards. 

He cares about wins and being a leader of his team. That's it. 

"I am just doing my job. I'm not the MVP, my whole team is the MVP," Kilpatrick told us, crediting his teammates for all the success. Fairly unprecedented stuff in a college sport stuffed with players seeking SportsCenter moments and enough shine to impress NBA scouts. 

Outdueling Shabazz Napier, as he did resoundingly Thursday, didn't enter his conversation before, during or after one of his greatest games. The only reality clearer than Kilpatrick's skill was his humility and maturity. 

"I'm playing to win," Kilpatrick said. "I am just playing to win. I don't care about points. I don't care about any of that. To help my team win and put them in the best situation that's something leaders do. Leaders don't go out there and try to compete against the other best players and try their hardest to outscore them. The only score that matters is the final score. Your points don't matter at all." 

As it was his 26 points came on an ultra-efficient 15 shots. The most significant difference in Kilpatrick's offensive rating ballooning from 108.5 last season to 121.4 has been a lesson in shot selection and trust in teammates. That offensive rating ranks fourth in the country among those used on at least 28 percent of their teams possessions. 

He plays smarter basketball. He plays winning basketball. Consequently, the Bearcats do, too. 

As the game went on Oscar Robertson, from his standard court side seat, would motion for Kilpatrick to keep shooting. Nobody at UC can touch Oscar's unprecedented aura, but Kilpatrick couldn't help even letting the Big O know what everyone in the nation is now understanding.  

"He kept giving me the signals to shoot," Kilpatrick said with a laugh before reverently referring to Robertson a legend. "I told him just relax, we got it." 

He was right, leaving Oscar able to sit back, smile and wonder along with the other 12,432 at Fifth Third Arena what the next exciting chapter will be in this coming-of-age tale. The final stanza has begun to be written. 

I want to hear from you! Send me any comments, questions or suggestions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 


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Mike Bohn noticed the moment he walked to the podium at the eighth floor of the Lindner Center the energy and momentum driving University of Cincinnati athletics. 

With the pep band playing the fight song and cast of faculty, staff and coaches coating the back wall only hours before a critical home basketball game against UConn, Bohn couldn't help acknowledge it. 

With a bombastic and energetic tone he's been known for since jumping into the athletics game 30 years ago, he heaped praise toward the band, cheerleaders and jumped into speaking about the passion he's noticed around town. 

"The sense of team came through loud and clear," Bohn said. "That's impressive to me. That's attractive to me." 

The word momentum would flow out of his mouth dozens of times in the next 30 minutes as blew through the local media car wash. 

Momentum created here under Whit Babcock caught his eye. An ability to create momentum sold President Santa Ono. 

Everywhere Ono seeks a leader and the Bearcats to advance on the college athletics landscape Bohn offers experience times over. 

Need to raise money? He oversaw several multi-million dollar capital projects and facility upgrades at Colorado, as well as secured the largest corporate sponsorship in school history.  

Need to spend effectively? In 2013 his athletic department was name the most economically efficient in the country.

Need to invigorate the fan base? Ono can relay that answer: "He is a communication and marketing genius."

Perhaps most importantly to those familiar with the economics of college ahteltics, if you need an athletic director familiar with navigating the water of conference realignment, Bohn would be your man. 

He was the first to hop into the Pac-12 and secure Colorado's spot at the table. As an AD at Idaho he even found a way to temporarily keep the football program afloat once the Big West conference stopped sponsoring football. It wasn't the best fit moving the Sun Belt, but kept the program alive. 

He knows how to align a program to take advantage of whatever opportunity that arrives. It's why he's here. 

"It's imperative to have your trustees, your president, your athletic department, your community all in alignment," he said. "That's why I talk about synergy and teamwork. And that's why it's inspiring to be here because that is in place. Other institutions, that is what they are looking for, a commitment and great sense of foundation from all those key players." 

His connections across college athletics wowed Ono. As did Bohn's personality. While Babcock's search lasted 10 weeks, this lasted 12 days. Bohn left Ono with no doubts. 

"He's a seasoned leader, proven innovator, trusted partner and community builder," Ono said. "He's somebody deeply connected to the community, alumni and fans. He has a tremendous amount of energy and passion." 

I want to hear from you! If you have any comments, questions or suggestions about UC athletics send them to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 


Bearcats Add Speed Despite Travel Slowdowns

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In more than 32 years of college coaching, Tommy Tuberville has never run into weather-related travel nightmares like he did over the last month.

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"Awful," said Tuberville.  "I've never seen anything like the last few weeks but it was kind of fun at times.  I was in Tampa and I had to rent a car because I had to be in New Orleans that night.  I got to Tallahassee after five hours of driving and I pulled over at Cracker Barrel to get something to eat - my favorite is fried catfish and hushpuppies - and all of the state troopers were in there.  So I said, 'Man, you guys all take a break at the same time?'  Some of them recognized me and they said, 'No Coach, we're closing the interstate.'  So they gave me the back roads and I slid around, helped people out of ditches, and made some good friends. 

"Another night a policeman pulled me over and said, 'Hey sir, does it look funny out here?'  I said, 'What do you mean?'  He said, 'You're the only one driving.  Get off the road!'  So I got off and stopped at a Shoney's restaurant and he pulled in behind me and also recognized who I was.  He was an Alabama fan.  You always run into those dang Alabama fans."

Sometimes on the recruiting trail, you even run into Alabama's coach.

"I sat with Nick Saban at a luncheon in Macon, Georgia," said Tuberville.  "Nick's from Ohio and he said, 'How do you like my home state?'  I said, 'I like it pretty good.  Our weather up there is much better than it is down here.'  Which it has been.  It's been bad here but it's been worse in the south."

The travel woes continued right up to signing day.  On Tuesday, Tuberville and assistant coaches Jeff Koonz and Blake Rolen could not get a flight back to Cincinnati out of Georgia so they hopped in a car and started driving, making it as far Lexington before the roads became impassable.  They finally made it to campus on Wednesday morning as the National Letters of Intent were coming in on the fax machine.

In all, Cincinnati got 28 commitments (including preferred walk-ons) from 11 different states with an emphasis on speed.

"We recruited as much speed as anyone in the nation," said Tuberville.

That's been his number one priority in recruiting since working as an assistant under Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami.

 

"It all started there," Tuberville told me.  "Jimmy's basic instructions to you when you went out recruiting were, 'Don't bring a guy in here that can't run - at any position.'  They had to have good athletic ability and they had to be able to run.  

"If you were recruiting a big guy, he pretty much wouldn't give you the green light to recruit him if the kid didn't play basketball.  We had a couple of guys that we recruited this year under the same scenario.  A lot of people didn't offer them, but we went and saw them play basketball and these guys had more athletic ability that some of the guys that we were beating our heads against the wall about."

One of the fastest recruits in this year's class is JUCO wide receiver Casey Gladney from Copiah Lincoln CC. 

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"He's one of the best receivers that I've ever recruited," said Tuberville.  "He was going to sign with Alabama two years ago and they were over the limit so we signed him at Texas Tech and put him in a junior college.  He's an Anthony McClung-type that plays slot receiver and he can fly.  He'll play in the NFL.  We just have to figure out more ways to get him the ball.  Anthony caught about 70 passes this year so I foresee Casey having a great career here over the next couple of years."

On defense, Tuberville expects an immediate contribution from a defensive back from Fort Lauderdale, FL.

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"We got a young man named Carter Jacobs who will be all-conference here for several years and maybe all-American," Tommy told me.  "He's a safety from American Heritage High School and he's one of those guys that you can't get out of the weight room or the film room.  He loves football and he was offered by everybody.  We got him committed early and all the big schools from the SEC came in and made offers and he said, 'I'm going to be a Bearcat.'  He'll play next year.  He'll either be a starter or a backup because he's a football player."   

Cincinnati's class was ranked anywhere from 58th to 66th in the various recruiting websites, but Tuberville advises fans not to put too much stock in those numbers.

"I spent nearly 10 years at Miami and not one time was our recruiting class ranked in the Top 25, but we won three national championships" said Tuberville.  "The bottom line is, when you get to about a three star prospect they're all about the same.  You can't measure heart - if you could do that then you could really put a star on a kid.  But you can't tell how much determination and what kind of work ethic he'll have while he's with you.  If you could do that, you would never lose a game."

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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. 

Splash. 

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."

I want to hear from you! Send me any comments, questions or suggestions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 


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. 

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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. 

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"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. 

I want to hear from you! Send any comments, suggestions or questions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

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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. 

I want to hear from you! Send any comments, questions or suggestions about UC athletics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

The Love Village

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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 this year.

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"We're a love village," said Justin Jackson with a grin.

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 I've coached."

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."

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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 all.

"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."

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"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 #12 Louisville.

"We're not always pretty, but I think you have to appreciate how much the kids want to win," said Cronin.

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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."  

I want to hear from you! If you have any comments, questions or suggestions shoot them to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr.