I'm not about to suggest that he pours in jumpers
like Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, but with God as my witness, Titus Rubles
makes a good percentage of his outside shots at UC basketball practices.Unfortunately, that has rarely carried over
to the games in his two years with the Bearcats.
"I don't know why - I wish I had the answer," said
UC assistant coach Darren Savino."I
know in the drills that he doesn't hesitate and he makes a high
percentage.In the games it seems that
he's hesitant and that's a tough thing to get over."
"When you're missing shots you're like, 'Dang, I
make these all day in practice,'" Rubles told me."But what I keep telling myself is that my
day is going to come.I'm just going to
Despite his shooting woes, Rubles has been a major
reason why the Bearcats are 46-17 in his two seasons and headed to the NCAA
Tournament for the second consecutive year.
"Titus Rubles is our heart and soul," said head
coach Mick Cronin."He gives everybody
on the team confidence because he's afraid of nothing.What he may lack in skill level in terms of
shooting the basketball, he definitely makes up for it with fortitude,
toughness, and in being a fearless competitor."
"He's one of those intangible guys," said Sean
Kilpatrick."He sets screens that allow
me to get open, he rebounds, he dives on the floor - there are a lot of things
that he does that don't show up on the stat sheet."
"Titus Rubles gives you everything that coaches talk
about that fans really don't understand sometimes," said Cronin."They say, 'Coach is always talking about
toughness when they need to get some scorers.'Let me tell you something.Titus
Rubles' toughness is a big reason why we're sitting here at 24-5."
That trait caught Coach Savino's eye from the very
"The first time that I saw Titus play was at a JUCO
jamboree," said Savino."I was watching
random games and trying to find guys that we didn't know about and instantly he
stood out with his toughness and aggressiveness. He had what I call, 'The look
of a Bearcat.'I watched him the rest of
the weekend and he did a lot of things that fit what we do and I thought Coach
Cronin would like him and his style of play."
"We will sorely, sorely miss him next year when he
is gone because that is stuff that comes from within," said Cronin."You can't go into the gym and work on having
a fearless attitude every day.That
means wins, although it doesn't show in the box score.I can't imagine where we would be without
And while Rubles is only averaging 7.0 points a
game, he probably scored Cincinnati's most important basket of the year so far -
the game-winning bucket with four seconds left to beat Pitt in the Jimmy V
Classic at Madison Square Garden.
"It is, and the place that it happened made it a highlight
too," said Rubles."I still have the
headband that I was wearing when I hit the shot.I'll probably never wash it."
"The tougher the game, the bigger the moment, the
tougher the environment; the more physical he plays and the more he gets done,"
On senior night vs. Memphis, the loudest cheers will
undoubtedly be reserved for Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson, but Rubles deserves
a lengthy ovation as well.
"Titus has made as much of an impact as any two-year
player here in a long, long time," said Cronin.
"I feel like I made a really good decision coming
here," Rubles told me."I've been on two
teams that have been in the Top 10 and that doesn't happen for a lot of JUCO
guys.I really like the city of
Cincinnati and this has been a really good experience for me.It's crazy that it's coming to an end.It seems like it's gone by so fast."
"To win a war you've got to have some soldiers, and
he's a soldier," said Cronin.
I haven't posted a photo of the handsome lad lately. On Senior Night it seems appropriate to include this picture of Sam wearing one of his favorite Christmas gifts this year.
The UC Bearcats will have a new starting quarterback
in the fall.
On both sides of the ball.
In addition to losing QB Brendon Kay, two-time
all-conference middle linebacker Greg Blair - who helped call signals on
defense - also exhausted his eligibility last season.
When spring football opened last week, the new man
in the middle of the Bearcats defense was Jeff Luc who started at outside
linebacker last year.
"Right now Jeff Luc is starting in the middle and
we'll see what he's got," said head coach Tommy Tuberville."He's a senior, he knows how to play
football, he understands it, and he just has to put it all together."
"I adapted better than I thought I would for the
first day," Luc told me."It felt like
it was my natural position.I'm not just
saying that.The calls went well, I was
getting the fronts right, and I feel comfortable.I feel like everybody on the defense was working
with me and when you have amazing athletes around you, everything is a lot
"We're looking at everybody right now and he's a guy
that has some physical tools," said defensive coordinator Hank Hughes."We'll see how everybody progresses in terms
of learning their assignments and techniques.He's a guy that we're looking forward to being a good player for us."
"I think we've got good speed at linebacker," said
Tuberville."I think the whole key for
us is to get the right guys in the right spots in spring practice."
After starring at Treasure Coast HS in Florida, Luc
was rated as the nation's top middle linebacker prospect by multiple recruiting
services and originally enrolled at Florida State.Although he transferred to Cincinnati after
two seasons, Jeff was excited when his former FSU teammates won the national championship
"I've been keeping up with them since I left," said
Luc."I still have a lot of boys there
and in my mind they're still like my brothers.That's who I came out of high school with, I was there for two years,
and I still speak to those guys like three days a week.They're still a big part of me and that friendship
and brotherhood is not going to change."
in one of his first acts as head coach, hosted a group of top recruits on
official visits. One of them was Jeff Luc, a Bunyanesque linebacker from Port
St. Lucie, Fla. Fellow recruits in the class of 2010 treated Luc like a rock
star. They delighted in his slobberknocker-heavy highlight video and shared it
on social media. They marveled at his 6'1", 240-pound physique, which
resembled that of a five-year NFL veteran's. Fisher wanted a grown-ass man, and
Luc fit the bill. When he committed to the Seminoles while in Tallahassee on
Dec. 5, the other recruits noticed.
"I'm not going to say that it was just because of
me," said Luc."Lamarcus Joyner and I
sat down and said that we should go to school together and see if we could
bring some more boys in.I guess he
wanted me to make my move first, so when I committed to Florida State he
committed and it started rolling.It was
a whole bunch of great athletes coming together and wanting to play on the same
Luc was a leader of that highly-touted recruiting
class and is expected to be one of Cincinnati's primary team leaders in 2014.
"I just feel like I have a different role," Luc told
me."Usually people say that they lead
by example, but I think it's time for me to be more vocal and I'm working on
And in addition to his new role, Jeff has a new
number switching from 48 to 1.
"I just wanted something different," said Luc."It's a new year, I'm at a new position, and
it's a new beginning.
"It's a whole different point of view for me because
I'm in the middle of everything and that's where I want to be."
I will never forget the first time I saw Sean Kilpatrick in
It was Sunday, January 18, 2009 and Sean had already signed
to play for UC the next fall.The
Bearcats were scheduled to play at Providence the following night and Sean's
prep school team took part in a showcase event in Boston that afternoon.I was living there at the time and Mick and
Hep Cronin planned to drive up from Providence to meet me at the game.
Unfortunately, a massive snowstorm made it impossible for
the Cronins to make the one-hour drive and I was one of maybe two dozen people
who showed up at Chelsea High School for the event.
My timing was as lousy as the road conditions.The night before, Kilpatrick scored 28 points
in a game played in New York City, but his entire team (including Sean's
roommate and future Syracuse standout James Southerland) appeared sluggish in
the loss I witnessed to Bridgton Academy.
"That was a long day," Sean recalled when I asked if he
remembered the game."The bus ride up
there was hectic because of the snowstorm.It was crazy.It was interesting
to see you there because I didn't think anybody was going to make it because of
that snowstorm.You weathered the storm.You've been following me since I was in prep
school and that is something that I've always appreciated from you."
And while I didn't see him have a good game, Kilpatrick's
coach assured me I would not be disappointed when he got to Cincinnati.
"You didn't see much of a performance today, but Sean's
basketball ability is not a concern," Notre Dame Prep head coach Ryan Hurd told
me at the time."The kid performs.We've played 19 games now and this is maybe
the second time he didn't play well.I
have no doubt that he's going to go to Cincinnati
next year and put up really solid numbers."
Not a bad call huh?
In Saturday's loss to Louisville, Kilpatrick joined Oscar
Robertson as the only players in school history to score more than 2000 points.Sean finished the game with 28, making it the
16th time this year and 33rd time in his career that the
fifth-year senior has scored 20-or-more in a game.In Cincinnati's last eight games, he's
averaging 25.3 points.
"We often talk about his leadership and what kind of person
he is, but there's not enough talk about his raw ability and what kind of
basketball player he is," said Cronin."He
has evolved into a big-time player.I've
been around some guys that were drafted in the Top 20 and dominated college
basketball, but he's as good a guard right now as I've ever coached in my 18
"Coach Cronin's had my back for the five years since I've
been here," said Kilpatrick."He's never
let me down and I've tried my hardest to never let him down."
Kilpatrick's individual brilliance and the team's
unanticipated climb into the Top 10 has led to talk in recent weeks - especially
from my WLW colleagues Mo Egger and Lance McAlister - that the University of
Cincinnati should retire his uniform number.
"I've never thought about that and I don't really know the
criteria," said Cronin."That's pretty
strong because there have been a lot of great players here, but obviously I'm
on SK's side at all times."
"I'll leave that up to the President of the school and Coach
Cronin if he has anything to do with that," said Kilpatrick."At the end of the day, I'm just somebody
that goes to school here and tries to help the program.It's an accomplishment to hear talk like that
because I never knew that I would be in this position, but it's something that
I'll leave up to them."
Oscar Robertson, Kenyon Martin, and Jack Twyman are the only
Bearcats to have their numbers retired, but there's a Wall of Honor in the
practice gym featuring seven former All-Americans that seems certain to
eventually include Kilpatrick.
"Looking up at that wall and seeing the greats that have
played here is something that inspired me every day to come in and keep
working," said Kilpatrick.
More than his scoring total or helping UC make four
straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, Kilpatrick's legacy should focus on his
work ethic and dramatic improvement over his college career.
"You're talking about a guy that if he took two dribbles as
a freshman he lost the ball," said Cronin."He literally got it stolen every time.I asked him if he was trying to make a run for best bakery instead of Servatii's because of his
turnovers.It was unreal.That's how far he's come.Through hard work, will, and determination,
the guy is one of the best players to ever play here."
"I've worked my tail off for this," said Kilpatrick."This hasn't been given to me - I've earned
"We came in together and I've seen Sean grow from a boy to a
man," said Justin Jackson."And from a
good player to a phenomenal player.He's
a great guy, a leader on and off the court - he's a leader when he's not even
trying to be a leader."
"He accepts the responsibility of showing up every night,"
said Cronin."That's why he's an
All-American.That's why he's going to
play in the NBA.And that's why he's the
Player of the Year in this conference.He shows up every night.He has tremendous
work ethic and character."
I certainly didn't know I was watching one of Cincinnati's
all-time greats in a mostly-empty high school gym on that Sunday afternoon more
than five years ago.
"I came in here not highly recruited and who knew that I was
going to end up being this way?" said Kilpatrick.
"He's the most underrated great player that has ever played
here," said Cronin."You had better
enjoy him while you can."
Ge'Lawn Guyn's initial instinct was to blame it on
the stat crew.
After a home win over Temple on January 14th, the
junior point guard was called into Coach Cronin's office for a one-one-one
meeting where it was pointed out that Guyn only had four steals in the Bearcats'
first 18 games.
"I was like, 'There's no way!'" said Guyn.
"We looked at the stats in a staff meeting and said,
'This guy only has four steals - this can't be right,'" said assistant coach
Darren Savino."So we sat down with
Ge'Lawn and went over it with him and he couldn't believe it either."
In truth, the conversation with Coach Cronin wasn't
quite as calm, cool, and collected as pointing out a number on the stat sheet.
"I can't tell you what he really said, but Coach got
after me and told me that I was too athletic, too quick, and too smart not to
be getting any steals," said Guyn.
"I said, 'You're the lowest steal guy on the team
and you're the guy around the ball the most.You're supposed to be our defensive point guard,' said Cronin."I give him credit.He's taken it to heart and tried to be more
aggressive in the passing lanes and getting to loose balls."
Since that conversation, Guyn has had 13 steals in
eight games - that's 1.6 per game in an average of 23 minutes of playing time.That average (for an entire season) would put
him in the Top 10 in the AAC.
"Now that I'm actually looking to get steals it's
made a big difference," said Guyn."Coach
always says, 'Read the play or read the guy's eyes.'It's all about anticipating.I'm quick enough to get the steal, I just
have to ready and be alert."
Guyn's contribution hasn't been limited to the
defensive end of the court.In the same
eight-game stretch, he's been one of the Bearcats' most accurate 3-point
shooters by knocking down 11-of-28 treys (39%).Toss out an 0-for-3 night at SMU, and it rises to 44%.
"It's a great feeling to finally see the hard work
paying off," Guyn told me."I shoot well
in practice and in drills and I haven't been able to transfer it to the
games.Now I'm finally doing that so
it's a blessing.
"I try to take as many shots as I can until my arm
In Saturday's win over Houston, Guyn turned a
3-point nail-biter into a comfortable 9-point Cincinnati lead with less than
2:00 to go, by drilling back-to-back threes off assists from Sean Kilpatrick.
"Every time that one of us passes him the ball we
yell at him to shoot because we know that he's a guy that can really knock down
threes and open the gap for us," said Kilpatrick."Especially when teams are collapsing on the
guards that are penetrating - they're going to leave him dead open."
"My confidence level is on a high," said Guyn."It's really a blessing and I just want to
thank God for being able to play this great game of basketball."
With his improved play in the last month, Ge'Lawn
can thank his coach for making good use of the stat sheet.
"I obviously should have brought it up to him a lot
earlier," said Cronin with a laugh.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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
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,"
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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
When Whit Babcock introduced Tommy Tuberville as
Cincinnati's new head coach at a quickly-arranged news conference last
December, he brought up the time they spent together at Auburn and said that he
was impressed with Tuberville's leadership style, family-centered values, and
how he treated people.
"I was also impressed with his knack for winning the
big games," said Babcock.
I thought that might be worth bringing up before the
Bearcats host Louisville a week from Thursday in one of the biggest games in
Nippert Stadium history.
Tuberville has a 7-3 record in bowl games, went 7-3
vs. archrival Alabama during his years at Auburn, and has gone 6-3 in his
career when facing teams ranked in the Top 5.
So what's his secret?
"I was fortunate to grow up as an assistant coach in
a lot of big games and rivalry games with coaches like Dennis Erickson, Jimmy
Johnson, and R.C. Slocum and the one thing that I took from all of those guys was
to let the players win the game," Tuberville told me."Don't try to outcoach the other team.If you try to do too much and throw too much
on the wall and players are confused, you always end up with problems.So we'll prepare them and get them ready to
go, but it's going to happen between the whistles and between the lines at
Nippert Stadium.Just get out of the way
and let 'em play.There's no secret to
it.Get 'em ready to go and turn 'em
Cincinnati is clearly playing its best football of
the year going into the showdown against the 10-1 Cardinals.After beating Houston on Saturday for their
sixth straight win, the 9-2 Bearcats have climbed into the Top 25 for the first
time this season.That seemed hard to
imagine in early October when the Bearcats walked off the field after a loss at
USF with a 3-2 record.
"We were just trying to find out if we could score
points, much less win football games because we were struggling on offense,"
said Tuberville."About midseason we
were flopping around just trying to find an identity and we started getting a
little bit better and better and guys started to make plays.We haven't done anything different - our guys
are just kind of absorbing everything that we've put in over the past year and
it takes a while to do that.I'm proud
of all of the players.The seniors have
done a great job of keeping this team focused and the leadership has just been
No senior has played a more important role than quarterback
Brendon Kay.During the Bearcats'
six-game winning streak, Kay has averaged 330 passing yards and thrown 15 TD
passes while completing 72% of his throws.
"It's remarkable - 60% is good," said
Tuberville."You've got to give some
credit to the receivers like Mekale McKay, Chris Moore, and the two little guys
inside (Shaq Washington and Anthony McClung) catching everything that he
throws.But still, you've got to find
the open man and get the ball there.And
people forget, he's been about 70 to 80 percent healthy for the last few games
because he's been beat up.I'm really
proud of Brendon.He came in and he was
the back-up quarterback before Munchie got hurt and he struggled for a couple
of games, but he's just been gangbusters for the last few weeks.
"He's the most accurate guy that I've been around,
and I've been around some Heisman Trophy winners at Miami (Vinny Testaverde and
Gino Torretta).But none were as
accurate as Brendon for such a long period of time.He's been on target for the last five or six
weeks.He's throwing the deep ball, the
short ball, the screen passes - all of those things are on target."
While the offense has made huge strides since the
USF loss, the defense has been solid in every game this season but the week two
loss at Illinois.Cincinnati is ranked fifth in the nation in rushing defense, ninth in yards allowed, and tied for ninth in points allowed.
"We're not overpowering," said Tuberville."We don't do anything fancy.We've got two or three guys that are good
senior leaders.We've got a lot of
first-time players, but those guys are 11 games into the season and they've
gotten much better.I think it's the
overall scheme of Art Kaufman and all of his coaches pulling the trigger and
saying, 'Listen.Let's do what we do and
don't do anything special and let 'em play.'It's worked out pretty well for us."
The Bearcats are one win from reaching 10 victories
for the sixth time in the last seven seasons and still have a chance to win
their fifth conference title in the last six years.Additionally, if Cincinnati beats Louisville
and UCF loses one of its final two games to either USF or SMU, the Bearcats
could earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
If only Bearcats had not have dropped their
conference opener at USF...
"We'll take 9-and-2 after the start we had," said
Tuberville."You can always look back
and say, 'Man, what if?'But you don't
want to do that.You want to look at
where you are today and what you have in front of you."
What Tommy Tuberville has in front of him is his
biggest game so far at Cincinnati.
And if you're like me, it can't get here soon
Sean Kilpatrick's first roommate at Cincinnati is
now in his fourth year in the NBA.And
Lance Stephenson is off to a tremendous start averaging 14.3 points, 5.9
rebounds, and a team-leading 5.8 assists for the undefeated Indiana Pacers.
"We spoke the other night after the triple-double
game that he had," Kilpatrick told me."He's
been telling me how focused he's been on just winning.That's something that's he's been harping on.He's been trying to enhance his game by just putting
the team in the best position to win."
Sean is actually about eight months older than
Stephenson and seriously considered leaving school after his junior year in hopes
of joining Lance in the pro ranks.But
Kilpatrick ultimately decided to return to UC for his senior season.
"It was very tough, but when you have a coaching
staff like we do and you have great parents on top of that, that makes things a
whole lot easier," said Kilpatrick."It's
every kid's dream to try to go to the NBA and being able to fulfill your
dreams, but I really just focus on trying to get my degree now.That's something that will last forever - the
NBA won't.Coach has really talked to me
about putting things in perspective with my life.That's something that I really have to focus
on the most, and being able to come back here for my degree and being able to
accomplish what I want to accomplish with my teammates and coaches - that's
what means the most to me."
"Hopefully for him, he's going to have a tremendous
season, lead his team to victories, shoot a high percentage, and have an All
American-type season the way Steve Logan did his senior year," said head coach
Mick Cronin."That was probably the last
great season that was had by a guard here at UC, and that would be a tremendous
way to go out for him.I fully think
that he's capable of doing it."
In Cincinnati's first four games, including two
exhibitions, Kilpatrick has scored 20, 24, 22, and 21 points.But he isn't just scoring.After regular season wins over NC Central and
NC State, Sean leads the team in assists (7) and steals (5), and has drilled
16-of-17 free throws.He's getting to
the free throw line by relentlessly driving to the basket instead of settling
for three-point shots.
"That's been a goal," Kilpatrick told me."Coach has really been harping a lot on
trying to get to the foul line a lot because the hand-check foul is in play now.I'm so much bigger than the guards that are
going to be guarding me - they're going to have to foul me in some type of
way.Being able to get to that foul line
will put us in a better situation."
After playing for Team USA in the World University
Games in Russia last summer, Kilpatrick is looking to go to the NCAA Tournament
for the fourth straight year as a Bearcat.But he's going to need help from teammates like Titus Rubles who's
averaged 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in UC's first two games.
"It's funny because he is my roommate now," said
Kilpatrick with a laugh."He's worked so
hard.He's deserves everything that he's
getting right now.During the summer
when I came back from Team USA, he was walking to the gym at one or two o'clock
in the morning.I would ask where he was
going and he was like, 'I'm going to get some shots up.'He's worked extremely hard and that's
something that I'm proud of him for.He's
one of the guys on the team that always has a chip on his shoulder, and I can
compare myself to him because we look at things the exact same way."
The 'Cats are also counting on Justin Jackson to
provide some offense this year after averaging 3.8 points as a junior.
"He knows how bad we need him," Kilpatrick
said."The 20 pounds that he put on
helped us tremendously because now we're not afraid to throw the ball down to
him anymore.We know that he can score
at will because he's a lot faster and more athletic than the guys that are
going to be guarding him.Being able to
exploit that mismatch is something that helps us a lot."
If Kilpatrick scores as many points this year as he
did as a junior, he'll finish his career as the second-leading scorer in school
history behind Oscar Robertson.But his
impact on the program can't be measured on the stat sheet.
"I have like a Top 5 or Top 10 list of guys that I've
coached as an assistant that I have a relationship with," said assistant coach
Darren Savino."He's in that Top 10 in
my mind as far as relationship and dealing with a guy.But as far as a leader?There's not a better leader that I've ever
been around in all of my days as an assistant coach in 19 years of college
basketball.That's Felipe Lopez, Adrian
Griffin who played in the NBA for a long time, different guys from the
different schools that I've worked at.SK is all about winning and he's all about toughness.For Coach Cronin, that's the best thing that
you can have - a guy who is your best player but he's your hardest worker and
he buys in to everything that you tell him that the program and the team needs
and he's all for it.We're going to miss
his scoring and his basketball stuff, but we can always replace that.You can always get another player that can do
the basketball things, but as a person and a leader, that's going to be the
biggest thing that the program will miss when he's gone."
Fortunately for Bearcats fans, that day is still
more than four months away.