It's become blatantly obvious to me that the Bearcats really miss one of the seniors from last year's team.
No, not Yancy Gates.
I'm talking about Dion Dixon.
You haven't thought about him in a while have you?
Oh sure, they miss Yancy too, but Cincinnati's recent offensive woes have made me appreciate how difficult it has been to replace Dixon's production.
Dion was UC's second-leading scorer last year at 13.0 points per game and got to the free throw line a team-high 166 times (Gates ranked 2nd with 106 FTA). Furthermore, Dion was a key barometer in Cincinnati's wins and losses as Dixon averaged 14.7 points in UC's 26 victories and only 9.0 points in the 'Cats 11 losses.
When the Bearcats thrived in a 4-guard "spread" offense last year, it was because all four guards could score. UC does not have a consistent fourth perimeter threat this year.
So what's the fix?
Obviously, an end to Cashmere Wright's shooting slump would be a godsend, but Mick Cronin knows his personnel better than anyone and that's why he keeps talking about defense when his team is struggling on offense.
"Obviously I'm concerned about putting the ball in the basket, but when you play great defense and have high deflection totals, you're going to create easy baskets in transition and you're going to score points off of turnovers," said Cronin.
Let's face it: Cheikh Mbodj and David Nyarsuk are not suddenly going to morph into dominant low-post scorers and Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson are not magically going to start burying three pointers. But they can block shots and help create turnovers.
Here is a look at Cincinnati's top five wins (by RPI rating) and how many points the Bearcats scored off of turnovers:
Marquette (#15 RPI) - 19 points
at Pitt (#32 RPI) - 8 points
Oregon (#38 RPI) - 24 points
Iowa St (#51) - 26 points
Villanova (#57) - 21 points
In those five quality wins, the 'Cats averaged 19.6 points off turnovers. In their seven losses this season, that number drops to 9.1.
"Our steals have to go up and our turnovers have to go down," said Cronin. "That was something that we were really good at last year - we were one of the best teams in America at getting more shots than our opponent. We have to get back to that."
That doesn't mean that Cronin is ignoring the Bearcats struggles on offense. He's trying to find a way to get a guard-oriented attack as many easy shots as possible.
"You want to get layups, free throws, and wide-open three point shots," said Cronin. "You don't want to take contested shots. I would also say that you have to get more shots. We need to get more steals and generate more offense from our defense. That's the number one thing that we're capable of and need to do a better job of."
Cronin also believes that focusing on aggressive defense will lead to stress-free shooting.
"When you have great hustle and intensity for loose balls, rebounds, and steals, it translates into offense," Mick told me. "You have to get lost in the game with your hustle. I tell the guys that they have to play so hard that they don't think about missing shots. Basketball is a marathon and you go through hot streaks and cold streaks. Your constants have to be togetherness, hustle, rebounding, and defense. Those are the things that will carry you through a season.
"We can't try any harder to make shots. When you try too hard - that's the problem. You have to be aggressive as an offensive player and you can't worry about missing. No good offensive player in the history of the game would argue that point."
All seven of Cincinnati's losses are to teams that are in the RPI Top 100 and four of the losses were by four-or-fewer points. All the Bearcats need are a few more baskets a game...who says they need to come from their half-court offense?
"Here's our defensive philosophy." said Cronin. "When they have the ball, we're trying to get it. Don't just try to be solid and make them shoot over us - get the ball. If a guy drives anywhere near you, take it from him."
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