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.
The headlines surrounding these Bearcats may be Sean Kilpatrick and defense, but the determining factor in their success will be the emergence of everyone else. That process enjoyed a promising step forward Saturday.
CINCINNATI -- The first 3-pointer clanged off the rim. An easy jumper slipped out. Even a layup couldn't find the net.
Sean Kilpatrick was having one of those days.
In the recent history of UC basketball, that meant the Bearcats would be having one of those days. Points either flowed through No. 23 or possessions died.
Yet, on this day, with Kilpatrick missing every shot that didn't come from the free throw line the Bearcats offense thrived against an 8-3 team from the Big 10.
This was supposed be the year of Kilpatrick. In so many ways as he ascends up the ranks of the program's all-time leading scorers it will be. But the true potential of the 2013-14 Bearcats will be discovered when Kilpatrick doesn't hit shots more than when he does.
That's why in the big picture of judging the potential of this team, Saturday's 74-59 win against Nebraska may be the most promising of any this season.
"I like our chances if we score 70," Mick Cronin said. "SK is not getting 50. We got guys with talent we just have to keep telling them we have confidence in them."
All the secondary pieces received a confidence injection Saturday. And just in time for conference play.
As Kilpatrick hit just 2 of 13 shots from the floor, instead using 17 of 18 shooting from the free throw line to manufacture offense, the rest of the team shot 50 percent from the field.
Stats are just numbers. They can be twisted to fit nearly any narrative. The definitive signs of encouragement came from the timing and method in which those contributions came.
As Nebraska hung around in the first half, freshman Kevin Johnson picked up the offensive slack posting a career high of 11 points before halftime. He hit a 3, he drove to the bucket, he pulled up for a jumper, he ran the floor.
Johnson played like he was back at Summit Country Day.
"We know what he can do," Kilpatrick said. "He's a prolific defender. He can actually shoot. When he is going like that, that's a huge lift. I am happy when he scores. That is something we need the most."
Once Nebraska began dropping 3-pointers -- they would finish 9 of 20 from deep -- UC felt the game pressure. Each time it was matched. More importantly, each time by a different player.
The ball made its way into the post on three consecutive possessions at the beginning of the second half and each time Justin Jackson used a post move to deliver.
Spins, follow rebounds, lefty lay-ins. There was no sign of the Mean Face, it was instead replaced with a look of confidence that can only come from three consecutive double doubles.
Where did this come from? The change into a bruising, center in the Eric Hicks mold created a post player the Bearcats can confidently throw the ball in to. They did on this day to the tune of 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"He loves the fact he's part of the offense now," Cronin said. "His hands are on the ball, he's a willing passer, he loves to pass the ball out of the low post. He's taking his time a lot more."
Once Nebraska chipped the lead to three points with under 10 minutes remaining the pressure again returned. Only then came the moment for freshman Jermaine Lawrence to make an impact. He answered with a putback and jumper on back-to-back possessions to stretch the lead back seven. The lead would never be closer.
Involving all the pieces was freshman point guard Troy Caupain. Without him the 31 bench points wouldn't exist. During the Christmas break he's turned a corner along with the other freshman. The game takes on a different feel now with him at the helm. After a steal in the lane or rebound he instantly pushes the pace.
Caupain played 24 minutes providing five points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and zero turnovers.
He's uninterested in facilitating, he's interested in creating. Now, he's learning how to do so.
"He's got his head up," Cronin said. "That's the first thing we noticed during the recruiting process, when I went to see him as soon as he get the ball his first dribble his head goes up. He does not panic during pressure and his head is always up."
Pushing the pace and involving others will be a key for this team that needs to limit its half court possessions and live in constant search of transition points.
This defense will always be there. Cronin will assure as much. Their goal is to rank first in the nation in defensive and offensive rebounding. The former isn't far-fetched. They've now gone 20 consecutive games holding opponents under 70 points. The largest active streak in the country.
Turning this season into a swan song to remember for Kilpatrick won't be about his 19 points per game or even the top-ranked defense in the country.
It will be about everyone else. On Saturday, everyone else offered the most definitive reason to believe yet.
"There's more than two options now," Kilpatrick said. "Instead of all teams looking at me and Jack, they are looking at everyone now because everyone is more aggressive. That's something we have really been implementing in practice Everyone has to be more aggressive and be able to show their game. You can't be timid because now it's about to be conference play and we need as many scorers as we can have."
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Anybody questioning what the Bearcats have to play for in the Belk Bowl Sunday only need to peruse the archives of the last three-plus decades in college football to understand.
Living in the revitalization era of University of Cincinnati football enjoying 10-win seasons becomes as normal as pre-game parachuters at Nippert Stadium.
Saturday in the Belk Bowl the Bearcats will aim for a sixth 10-win season in seven years.
Along the way, the trio of coaches and hundreds of players who assisted in this run at times made the feat look as easy as dropping onto the X at midfield. As any parachuter will tell you, it's not quite so easy.
The same can be said for the winding path that brings UC to Charlotte chasing the latest No. 10. Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and now Tommy Tuberville can build on a run only currently enjoyed by four other programs in all Division I: Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Boise State (does not count vacated seasons).
An impressive stat that would join current college football royalty.
This attempt won't come in a BCS bowl or as part of a conference championship like the Bearcats hoped, but chasing down No. 10 should be put in even greater perspective than joining the group of four.
Breaking out the research train unearthed the larger achievement at stake.
I took a look at college football since 1980 (incredibly subjectively since that is the year I was born) and found only 15 teams in the last 33 years have completed the achievement of six 10-win seasons in seven years.
That includes all levels of Division I.
The group is Florida, Ohio State, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas State, Oklahoma, USC, TCU, Boise State, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska and Texas.
Consider the hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to college football programs over the last three decades. Consider how many illustrious programs never touched this level of consistent excellence.
Hearing arguments about advantageous conferences don't hold water here -- this includes all conferences inside and outside the BCS.
Just 15 programs. That's all.
A win Saturday would also mean the Bearcats hit a second run of three straight 10-win seasons. That feat hasn't been as difficult to pull off during my lifetime but also worth discussing the company.
These are the teams who've achieved it with the consecutive 10-win seasons in parenthesis: Florida State (14), Miami (10), Texas (9), Virginia Tech (8), Boise State (7), Alabama (6), Oregon (6), Florida (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (5), Ohio State (5), SMU (4), BYU (4), TCU (4), Tennessee (4), Stanford (4), Kansas State (4), Georgia (4), Texas A&M (4), Northern Illinois (4), Clemson (4).
All these schools topped out at three consecutive 10-win seasons: Marshall, South Carolina, West Virginia, LSU, Michigan, Colorado, USC, Utah, Washington State, Iowa, Wisconsin.
No need to take time analyzing the list, it's 32 total programs. Still, that's only 25 percent of the current FBS. The Bearcats can join that group twice and trim royalty by more than half.
When did any UC fan think they would join the top 12 percent of college football in a category based in length of success over the last three decades? Nobody.
Outsiders might view this as a game where the Bearcats have little to play for. In the short view, sure, that point could be argued. But seeing the historical context of this current run so much more is at stake.
Brendon Kay, Greg Blair and Ralph David Abernathy will be playing for guys like Tony Pike, Derek Wolfe and Dominik Goodman. Around the halls of the Lindner Center and locker room below Nippert Stadium, that means more than any bowl trophy or national exposure.
What does chasing a 10-win season mean? Quite a bit.
By Cincinnati Athletics on December 25, 2013 2:02 PM
If you see a huge group of UC No. 95's in Charlotte in and
around the Belk Bowl, it could be because junior defensive lineman Terrell
Hartsfield has a huge contingent of fans. Hartsfield's from Raleigh, about 140 miles away and is
excited about play North Carolina (who also recruited him) Dec. 28.The lanky defensive lineman is looking
forward to introducing some Tar Heels to the turf to finish out the 2013 campaign.
By Cincinnati Athletics on December 20, 2013 10:44 AM
Gunner Kiel has been working with the UC quarterbacks all
season long even though he's been unable to play as a transfer from Notre Dame. The luxury of a bowl game is extra practices for players
like Kiel who are eyeing spring practice as their time to shine in preparation
for 2014. Kiel and Bennie Coney have both been getting beneficial
extra reps during Belk Bowl practice.
By Cincinnati Athletics on December 17, 2013 11:13 AM
As part of the Belk Bowl festivities, the University of
Cincinnati football team will again visited the Lowe's Motor Speedway in
Charlotte. Not only is it a fun day for the Bearcats, it turns out their coach
has taken a spin or two around a celebrated oval and is a big stock car fan.
The Crosstown Classic teaches lessons every year. This 2013 edition has Mick Cronin hoping to find toughness in his team going forward.
CINCINNATI -- For 50 minutes following the final horn of Xavier 64, Cincinnati 47 of the Crosstown Classic, Mick Cronin disappeared into the locker room inside the hallways on court level of U.S. Bank Arena.
Four Musketeers players made their way to the media quarantine area discussing the 364 days anxiously awaiting a shot at revenge and dedicating themselves to the team concept.
Chris Mack followed soon after. He opened with the word "grit" and closed six minutes later explaining the pressure leading up to this game.
Then silence and anxious shifting set in. Cronin was nowhere to be seen, still buried in the post game catharsis with his team. It was time to ask the hard questions.
This game and the raucous 10,250 shaking the downtown arena of the city's game always offer a telling revelation. This game peels back the layers to expose what exists inside the core of these players. This game teaches who responds to adversity, who embraces pressure, who embodies toughness.
When eventually slipping through the curtains to the media podium following the locker room soul search, Cronin took a drink of water and allowed his stream of consciousness to tell the story of what he saw behind the layers Saturday night.
"We are not good enough right now," Cronin said. "We are not tough enough. That's just the facts of life."
Sunday morning analyst hats will be worn across the Christmas parties in West Chester and bars of Clifton. Trickling outside following mass at St. Saviour, UC alums will almost certainly discuss the struggle to find a second offensive weapon. Over chicken and waffles at Taste of Belgium two students are likely to breakdown the cons of this small lineup being beaten handily on the boards.
At Stones Lanes in Norwood Xavier fans will reflect in amazement at the repeated open looks as the Musketeers buried 11 of 16 from deep.
For Cronin and the players who looked at themselves in the mirror for 50 minutes following Saturday's loss, none of those strategic tactics will resonate.
The concern for the coach going forward isn't talent. This group holds as much or nearly the same amount of talent as many that have dominated this game and advanced in March. Those groups hung their hat on defense. They hung their hat on being tougher than their opponent.
"Right now defense is our problem," he said. "It's inexcusable. We are not tough enough on the defensive end. We are not tough enough on the backboard. We are not tough enough to get the ball to the open man. Really anything that involves toughness right now is a big problem for our team."
This game offers a glimpse into the state of a team like few others in the country.
"We walked into a street fight with a pink outfit on," Cronin said. "We got outplayed, outcoached in every facet of the game. There's not a whole lot to talk about the way I see it. It's pretty self-explanatory if you were here tonight."
The road doesn't become easier for the Bearcats. Their season has only just begun. If they thought the bright lights of the city were blinding, try those of the nation at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday.
Then a conference schedule featuring six games against teams currently ranked in the top 16. Those 50 minutes inside the locker room at US Bank Arena might be looked back on as a moment of truth, clarity. At least, that's his hope. Of course, the time may not amount to much more than a temporary postponement of a post game meal. Time will tell.
"We've been down this road before," Cronin said. "It's not my first time. We either toughen up, meet the challenge, become a team that is tough enough to win games, tough enough to get the job done."
Cronin paused for the concerning flip side.
"Or we won't."
For 50 minutes, that amounted to a lot of introspection critical to the long-term growth of this edition of the Bearcats. Time will tell how important those 50 minutes proved to be.
"We need to do a whole lot of soul searching about who we are and what we are going to be," he said.
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