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McClung Hopes Senior Season Is Big Hit

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When the Syracuse Post-Standard did a story in November about SU's hard-hitting safety Shamarko Thomas, they illustrated it with this photo of him leveling Bearcats wide receiver Anthony McClung.

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What wasn't mentioned in the caption is that McClung made the catch for a Cincinnati first down.

A week later, Temple's Vaughn Carraway hit McClung so hard that the school's media relations department immediately sent out the following Tweet:

Allow me to point out that McClung held on to the ball for a 29-yard gain with a 15-yard penalty tacked on.

I have no idea if UC's new head coach Tommy Tuberville has seen video of either of those receptions, but he's watched enough of McClung at practice to know that the Bearcats wide receiver doesn't have "alligator arms."

"He'll catch the ball across the middle," said Tuberville.  "That's what really separates a good receiver."  

"When the ball is in the air, I feel that it's mine," said McClung.  "I can't control what happens after that.  All I try to do is look the ball in and make the catch for my team."

Unlike Tuberville, McClung has definitely seen the video of his gutsy catches after some gruesome collisions.

"Sometimes you get goose bumps and say, 'Wow that really happened,' " McClung told me.  "But during the game, you have so much adrenaline going that you don't really feel it."

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After having 49 catches for 683 yards and 6 touchdowns as a sophomore, McClung battled a series of injuries last season and saw his numbers drop to 34 catches for 539 yards and 2 TDs.  To his credit, Anthony played with pain and appeared in 12 of 13 games.

"I pulled my quad, hurt my groin, my knee - there were a lot of different things," said McClung.  "But I'm a tough guy.  I always want to play for my team."

Now the senior-to-be is healthy again and it shows.  In Cincinnati's first scrimmage this spring, McClung finished with 4 catches for 151 yards and 3 touchdowns, and in Saturday's second scrimmage held at Paul Brown Stadium, Anthony led all receivers with 7 grabs for 92 yards.

"He's deceptive," said Tuberville.  "He's one of those guys that doesn't show up, doesn't show up, and then all of a sudden makes big plays. 

"I've been very impressed with him.  He works hard and never says anything."

McClung might not say much to his new head coach, but he's very talkative to the less-experienced receivers that Cincinnati will be counting on this season.

"He's been a great leader in the room," said receivers coach Blake Rolan.  "The kids listen to him and that makes my job easier.  They've been trained well in the past and won a lot of games and he understands what it takes." 

"They ask me a lot of questions," said McClung.  "When I was younger I used to look up to great receivers like Armon Binns, D.J. Woods, Vidal Hazelton, and Kenbrell Thompkins.  They were leaders to me and now I have to fill that role and be the leader to the younger guys." 

"He's a quick learner," said Rolan.  "He studies the game and it means a lot to him." 

Following the departures of Thompkins and tight end Travis Kelce, McClung appears likely to be Cincinnati's number one receiver in 2013.

"I trust him to get open, and he trusts me to get him the ball," said quarterback Brendon Kay.  "The more reps we get together, the better we'll be as a duo." 

"I have a great opportunity with two great quarterbacks," said McClung.  "Hopefully we'll win a lot of games.  But even if I'm not the number one guy, I want to play a role and make plays when my number is called.  The bottom line is that we want to win the league title outright this year."

Well-stated from a guy who will go over the middle to get to the top.

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Cronin Surprises 'Cats With Tourney Goal

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After grinding through hundreds of practices over the last several years, Cincinnati's veteran players figured that they had heard every motivational tactic that Mick Cronin had in his bag of tricks.  But he surprised them on Monday as they began preparing for Friday's NCAA opener against Creighton.

"I told our guys that we have two goals for this week:  Going 2-0 would be goal number two," Coach Cronin told me.  "And goal number one, which we can achieve regardless of outcome, is to have more fun that any other team in the tournament.  In practice, in our travel, and with each other.

"They need to have fun.  They've earned it.  I want them to enjoy their accomplishments.  It's an accomplishment to make the tournament and I'm structuring things this week so that they can enjoy it."

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"What's gotten into him?" said Sean Kilpatrick when I asked for his initial reaction to Coach Cronin's remarks to the team.  "We've never heard him say that.  It's good because it makes the players comfortable and reminds us that he's with us.  Not only does he want us to win, but he wants us to have fun."

"He says a lot of stuff, so we were like, 'I wonder how he's going to act tomorrow,' said Cashmere Wright with a laugh.  "But it seems like he meant what he said and he's following through on it."

One way that Coach Cronin showed the players that he meant what he said was by opening Tuesday's practice to the public.  It virtually guaranteed a less stressful environment with no tirades from the head coach.

"We knew when the fans were here that practice wasn't going to be crazy," said JaQuon Parker.

"I've thought a lot about the whole event and I'm trying to make it the most memorable for our players," said Cronin.  "There's no secrets this time of year anyway with the film and the scouting -- everybody has everybody's play calls and there's nothing that's going to go on at practice that people don't already know about our team.

"We have to make sure that we're fresh on Friday, so you won't see World War III at practice."

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Of course, there's a method to his (March) madness.  Coach Cronin undoubtedly hopes that a relaxed team will perform well in Philadelphia.

"I think that's been our problem," said Parker.  "We've been too uptight around here.  Now in our last few practices, we've been loose and having fun.  It feels good."

"We're our best when we relax and nobody worries about making mistakes and we're just out there playing basketball," said Wright.

But don't get the mistaken impression that having fun and working hard are mutually exclusive.

"It will not detract from our preparation -- I can assure you that," said Cronin.  "Our guys understand how hard you have to play to win games.  We play in a league where if you don't play hard you don't even have a chance."

"He's telling you to go out there by any means necessary and get it done," said Parker.  "Just win and have fun doing it.  That means a lot to us."

"It's my last go-round and I'm just enjoying every day, every practice, and getting ready for the game," said Wright.

Of course, there are limits in the quest to have the most fun of any team in the field of 68.  For example, the players do not expect to have their nightly curfew lifted in Philadelphia.

"We've got to have curfew," said Kilpatrick with a grin.  "That's mandatory.  If you leave some of our guys with no curfew, they might not come back."

And while the players would undoubtedly be able to have fun if given free rein on the road, there's nothing more enjoyable in the NCAA Tournament than advancing.

"At the end of the day, if this is going to be our last hurrah, let's go all-out," said Kilpatrick.  "Especially for our seniors.  This is their last shot and they deserve to have fun, so we're going to try to make a run in this tournament."

"Once you're in you've got a chance," said Cronin.  "Now it's time to win games."

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Gran Looks To Help "The Best Man" Win

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So why would Eddie Gran - one of Florida State's top assistant coaches and one of the nation's best recruiters - leave such a storied program to join Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati?     

"He was the best man at my wedding," said Gran with a grin.

"I knew I had a chance to hire him because nobody knows him as well as I do," said Tuberville.

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The two coaches met in 1989 when Tuberville was a defensive coach at the University of Miami and Gran was a graduate assistant at East Carolina under defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano.

"We were at a coaching convention in San Francisco and Coach Tuberville was getting ready to go ski," Gran told me.  "They had just won the national championship at Miami and Coach Pagano introduced me to him.  I met him and shook his hand and he said, 'Be there on March the 10th.'  That was the beginning." 

"I raised Eddie from a pup," said Tuberville.  "I've seen him grow up from a young man that wanted to coach to becoming one of the better ones in the country.  I'm proud to be his friend."

When Tuberville got his first head coaching job at Ole Miss, he hired Gran to be his running backs coach.  After four years there, it was on to Auburn where they coached together for another 10 seasons.     

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"He taught me what work ethic was, he taught me that technique and fundamentals are the things that win games, and you have to get kids that are smart and willing to work hard," said Gran.  "If you get that combination and have a great work ethic you have a chance.  And he taught me to make sure that you treat people the way you want to be treated.  It's not that hard."

Now Tuberville is giving his long-time assistant his first opportunity to be an offensive coordinator. 

"To be a coordinator has always been a dream of mine," said Gran. 

"I've watched him grow and work at it and it's hard to become a coordinator when you're the running backs coach," Tuberville told me.  "I've always told him that you have to know more than just the running backs.  So over the last six or seven years, he's really made himself learn the quarterback position, the offensive line position, and all he needed was somebody to give him a chance.  I know what he can do."

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Tuberville's confidence in Gran's ability to make the step to coordinator was evident in the makeup of Cincinnati's offensive coaching staff.

"I let him hire his coaches," said Tuberville.  "I interviewed them too, but I said, 'You know these guys...you know what you want to do.  You pick 'em out and we'll sit down and interview as many as we can.'  He did a good job and they're working well together.  This is all new for him, but he's excited.

"I told him that the number one thing that he had to do was hire a good quarterback coach and you've got to lean on him.  Darin Hinshaw (former QB coach at Tennessee) is a good guy and he works well with Eddie and I think it's going to be a good relationship."

"He allowed me to hire a staff that I think is as good as any in the country," said Gran.  "It's a great unit and we're all on the same page."

In addition to coordinating Cincinnati's offense, Gran will continue to recruit in South Florida.

"I'm in my 28th season and I have not had another recruiting area - ever - at any school," said Gran.  "There are high school head coaches in South Florida now that I recruited when they were players.   

"The coaches here will all have a Cincinnati area - all nine of us will have 10 schools in this area.  Ohio is where we are going first.  But everybody will also go out into other areas, and for me, that will be South Florida."

"I made him stay in South Florida all of his life and he's developed a lot of relationships," said Tuberville.  "That goes a long way in recruiting.  Eddie has the personality where he can sell, and recruiting is nothing but selling yourself, your school, and your football team.  He's earned a lot of respect from high school coaches because when he takes a player, he takes care of them.  He makes sure they get an education number one, treats them fair, and those coaches in South Florida understand that.  It's made him one of the best recruiters that I've ever been around."

Gran is also a man of faith whose life was changed when the third of his four daughters was born in 1999.

"She had a rare brain disease and was given between two and four weeks to live, and she lived almost six years," said Gran.  "It made me a better father, it made me a better husband, and it made me a better coach.  I really understood where my priorities were.  She gave me and my family the greatest gift that a man could ever have:  We all know where we're going when this life ends.  We're very blessed for that."

"I remember getting that call from him three or four days after she was born," said Tuberville.  "He said, 'I don't know what's going on, but she's not responding.'  I tell you, he and his wife Rosemary were two tough troopers - It's awfully tough to lose a child.  All of the players there at Auburn rallied around him and I think the kids learned a lot from it."

Eddie and his wife started a charity called The Sydney Gran Foundation to support children's hospitals and other families whose children are facing serious illness.

"We would like to raise somewhere between 60 and 80 thousand dollars because that would get us up to $500,000 dollars and then it would be endowed forever," said Gran.  "Sometime here, I think we'll have another fundraiser to try to help out the foundation." 

But for now, Gran is busy getting to know his players...and happy to be reunited with his old boss.

"I was away from Coach Tuberville for four years, and to get back together with him is just fantastic," said Gran.

"He has a lot of enthusiasm and works well with kids," said Tuberville.  "He's going to make a great head coach.  He'll be a head coach in a few years and I think this is the next step.  He's interviewed for a lot of head coaching jobs, but he's been turned down because he's never made his own calls.  Well, now he gets that chance.  Let's see what he can do."

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Kay And 'Cats Learning The Language

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Brendon Kay has already earned a bachelor's degree in health education and is working toward a master's degree in business education.  But right now, the Bearcat quarterback is also studying a foreign language - as in the offense of new head coach Tommy Tuberville.

"We're teaching them a different language on offense and defense and when you do that, you have to start from ground zero and work up," said Tuberville. 

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"You've got to live it," Kay told me.  "You've got to be in the office and the film room.  Before you go to bed, you've got to study and get this terminology down because you're learning a new language."

But the changes on offense aren't strictly limited to terminology.

"The plays are a little bit different too," said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.  "We're more of a pro-style, multiple set - but there is a lot of carryover.  They have to learn the terminology and understand where we're coming from and where we're trying to go offensively."

"We've kept as much in common with the past offense as we could, but obviously there are a lot of different things," said Tuberville.  "So when you change just one or two things it throws everything into a spin." 

Tuberville said he was pleased with how the offense functioned at UC's first spring practice on Friday, and added that it is helpful to have experienced quarterbacks in Kay and Munchie Legaux.

"You couldn't ask for two better guys," said Tuberville.  "They come to my office and talk, and they ask about the quarterbacks that I've coached before and what they can learn from their experiences.

"I've had fun talking to both of them about life, and football, and leadership, and little things that can help them be better." 

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After starting the final five games last season and passing for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns to earn MVP honors in the Belk Bowl victory over Duke, Kay is the odd-on favorite to be the starting quarterback next season, although Legaux will be given the opportunity to win his old job back. 

"It feels good, but at the same time, I have to go out and compete every day," said Kay.  "The big thing about competition is that it keeps you on your toes.  You have to stay ready and can never relax.  That's going to help me and Munchie get better."

Kay didn't know that he would be on the team this year until December 17th when he was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering multiple injuries that limited his participation in 2008 and 2011.

"I got the news during our bowl prep," said Kay.  I talked to (trainer) Bob Mangine beforehand and he was pretty sure that I would get it.  Then (compliance director) Maggie McKinley came down and gave me the news.  I gave her a big hug, celebrated a little bit, and then told my family.  Everything happens for a reason, and God has a plan for everything."

"He's a sixth-year senior and he's a guy that has all of the leadership qualities," said Gran.  "I'm excited about how he comes in and wants to learn.  When we first started with him we had to say, 'Hold on, hold on...we still have to install.'  I'm excited about it because the guys at that position have bought in to what we're trying to do."

It's only a matter of time before they're speaking the same language.

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Kilpatrick and 'Cats Aim For Return To Form

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When Sean Kilpatrick watched footage of Sunday's lopsided loss at Notre Dame, he felt like he was watching the wrong guys in the Cincinnati uniforms.

"It didn't look like us at all," Sean told me.  "It didn't even feel right.  Honestly, it didn't even feel like I had a Bearcat jersey on - it just felt like I had a shirt on." 

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The Bearcats only scored 41 points - their lowest total in Mick Cronin's seven years as head coach - and JaQuon Parker was the only Cincinnati player to finish in double digits with 12.  Kilpatrick scored a season-low 6 points, and Cashmere Wright failed to score for only the second time in his last 113 games.

"We've really played one bad game this year," said Coach Cronin.  "Our three best players average 41 points a game and they got 18.  When that happens, you're going to be in trouble. 

"We need to get our main guys healthy and playing well because they're the answer.  I get a lot of questions about production from Cheikh Mbodj, or David Nyarsuk, or this guy or that guy - we have to make sure that we're getting Cash, JaQuon, and SK open and getting the ball where they can make plays for us.  That's the answer.  For every team in basketball - high school, college, or pro - your best players have to play well or you're not going to win.  So that's my focus.  I have to do everything that I can to help them play well."

Kilpatrick's scoring ability is especially vital to Cincinnati's success.  Sean is averaging 19.4 points in the Bearcats' wins this year, but only 13.6 in their losses.  The junior guard is fourth in the Big East in scoring at 17.6 per game, despite being the focal point of every opponent's defensive scouting report.

"It can be frustrating but then again, I like it," said Kilpatrick.  "It's making me a better player and it means that people respect me for what I do on the court.  But it's tough.  It's one of the hardest things that I've ever had to overcome because this is the highest level of basketball that I've ever played and to have two or three guys guarding you is really difficult."

Despite the constant defensive harassment, Kilpatrick has managed to deliver.  This week, Sean was named one of 30 candidates for the 2013 Naismith College Player of the Year award and ESPN's Jay Bilas selected Kilpatrick among his six "most clutch players" in college basketball.   

"That's a strong statement coming from someone like him," Sean told me.  "I thank my team for that because they put me in those types of situations where I have the ball at the end of games.  I just try to make the right plays and whatever is open is open." 

After dropping five of their last six games, the Bearcats are desperately in need of a win on Saturday vs. UConn to solidify their hold on a NCAA Tournament berth.  But Kilpatrick says he is not the least bit concerned with "bubble" talk.   

"All we can control is what happens in the next game and that's what we're focusing on," said Kilpatrick.  "We're not worrying about the tournament or anything like that.

"We know exactly what we're capable of.  When things aren't going right, a lot of people aren't going to be behind us, but we have each other and that's the best thing about this team."

Hopefully, we'll all recognize the guys in the Cincinnati uniforms on Saturday.

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Getting Cash Back

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Before hurting his right knee against DePaul on January 15th, Cashmere Wright was playing as well as any guard in the Big East.

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The senior from Savannah, Georgia had scored 20-or-more points in three of his previous four games and for the season was averaging 15.1 points on 47% shooting - including 44% from 3-point range.

Since returning from the injury, Wright has been mired in the worst shooting slump of his career, going 23-for-95 overall (24%) and 12-for-60 (20%) from 3-point range, while averaging 8.0 points in nine games.

In Sunday's loss at Notre Dame, Wright did not attempt a shot in the first half and finished the game 0-for-2 in 23 minutes.

"He's lost his confidence," said Mick Cronin on his weekly radio show on Monday.  "If you go five, six, seven games and shoot 20%, you would lose your confidence too. 

"It's a mental thing and I have to do a good job of making sure that his mind is in the right place.  Internal pressure that players put on themselves and external pressure that players feel from family, friends, and fans - some let it affect them more than others.  He's a sensitive kid and there's no doubt that he lost his confidence."

So how does Cronin plan to help Wright get it back?  By reminding Cashmere that he doesn't have to make every shot to help the Bearcats win.

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"I have to do a better job of making sure that his mind is on defense and leadership," said Cronin.  "He's got to lose himself in the game and give us everything that he can with his steals.  He's not the all-time leading scorer at Cincinnati.  Or the all-time assists leader.  But he is the all-time steals leader and he can give us that.  That's what he has to focus us because if he doesn't give us that we're in trouble. 

"My goal is to get him to realize that he did have a great game (after the injury).  He was 3-for-14 from the field in that game, but he had a great game.  It was the Villanova game.  He had 14 deflections and his energy and defense inspired his team to get 46 deflections and beat a NCAA Tournament team by 18 points." 

Over the next month, Wright is almost certain to set Cincinnati's all-time record for games played.  After watching his senior point guard play through knee and shoulder pain for much of his career, Cronin wants to see Cashmere relax and finish strong. 

"He's a conscientious kid who wants to play well," said Cronin.  "He's unlike me, because I am oblivious to other people's opinion.  If I have one gift, it's that I have tunnel vision on doing my job.  Whether your opinion of me is great or whether your opinion of me is poor, it doesn't really affect me.  Unfortunately, kids can be affected a lot more than you think this day and age.  He is a very conscientious kid who is putting a lot of pressure on himself. 

"He's trying as hard as he can to help his team and I just have to make sure that he does two things:  Worry about defense and stay aggressive.  You can't worry about making mistakes.  I have to get him in an aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor, and whatever mistakes he may make we have to live with.  But he has to be on the attack and he has to be aggressive or we're not going to be a very good team.

"I'd like to get us to where we're playing well, and helping Cash get his confidence back is probably the number one thing that I have get done as a coach."

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The Never-Ending Search For The Next Tim Duncan

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You probably know the basic details of the Tim Duncan story.

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Grows up a competitive swimmer in the Virgin Islands...eventually takes up basketball as a teenager...gets discovered by Wake Forest...becomes one of the greatest players in history.

But here's a nugget that you might not know:  The coach at Wake Forest that found Duncan was current UC assistant Larry Davis.

"We had a kid abruptly leave that was starting at center for us as a freshman," Davis recalled.  "He walked in one day and said that he was homesick and we couldn't talk him out of it.  Going into the spring, we had no guy on our roster that was bigger than 6'8".  So (head coach) Dave Odom called all of the assistants in and told us to turn over every rock because we had to find a center.  So I started making calls.  I had met a guy by the name of Holman Harley who was working for an agent at that time, and I called him and said, 'Do you know of any big guys anywhere?'  And he said, 'Yea, there's a 6'10" kid in the Virgin Islands.'  He gave me Tim's name so I tracked him down, got him on the phone, and asked who he was being recruited by and he said, 'I got some letters from Delaware State and one letter from Providence.'

"About the fourth time that I called Tim on the phone I asked him if he had ever been to the United States.  He said, 'Yes, I have a brother-in-law in Ohio and I went to Ohio State's basketball camp last summer.'  I said, 'Is Ohio State recruiting you?'  Tim said, 'No.'  I got off the phone and immediately called Holman Harley and said, 'Are you sure this kid can play?  He's 6'10", he was at Ohio State's basketball camp and they're not recruiting him.  How can that be?'  Holman said, 'Larry, I'm telling you - the kid can play.' 

"I went in to Coach Odom and told him that I might have found a kid and he said, 'Where is he at?'  I said, 'The Virgin Islands.'   It wasn't hard to talk him into making the trip.  So Dave went down to see him and I'll never forget - he calls me on the phone and said, 'You're not going to believe this guy.  He's 6'10", he can run like a deer, he's got great hands, and we're bringing him in.' Tim ended up visiting Providence and Wake Forest.  It was 45 degrees when he visited Providence and 80 degrees when he visited us.  That's when I knew that we were getting him."

And that's how Larry Davis helped sign perhaps the greatest under-the-radar recruit in college basketball history.

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While the former head coach at Oak Hill Academy (1983-85) and Furman University (1997-2006) hasn't landed the next Tim Duncan at Cincinnati - at least not yet - his relentless recruiting efforts have been instrumental in helping Mick Cronin rebuild the program.

"I've never been around a guy that loves recruiting, evaluating, and working like he does," said Cronin.  "Most guys his age become the resident veteran coach on the bench, but he loves recruiting like a 25-year-old.  He can't get enough of it.  He loves it."

"A lot of colleagues knock recruiting, but I like it," the 56-year-old Davis told me.  "I like meeting people, I like travel, and it's a challenge.  It's competition and I like competition - what can I say.

"It can drive you nuts because kids make decisions based on some of the craziest things that you could ever imagine, and there are always hidden land mines out there.  You have to figure out who is on your side and who is not on your side and sometimes, somebody that you don't even know is in the background either helping you or killing you.  So when you get a kid to commit and sign, it's a great feeling."  

Cronin became aware of his colleague's zest for recruiting nearly 20 years ago when Davis was an assistant coach at Ball State.

"We met when I was a high school coach at Woodward and he was trying to outwork people for Eric Johnson," said Cronin.  "He ended up at Louisville, but Eric would tell you to this day that the best job that was done in the recruiting process was by Larry Davis.  He loved Larry Davis, but it was hard to turn down Louisville for Ball State."

Observing Coach Davis's recruiting persistence made a strong impression on his future boss. 

"My dad taught me to be smart enough to listen to older guys and Larry helped to guide me in the business," said Cronin.  "I've tried to pattern myself after his effort in recruiting."

The key word in the last sentence is effort.

"Young assistant coaches in our business need to spend a week with him in July," said Cronin with a laugh.  "When you're out there in July, he's watching games from 8 am until midnight.  He's not a guy that will watch a few games, get a workout in, and go out to dinner.  He's in the gym when the first game starts and the last game ends.  He'll tell me who I need to see and I'll say, 'Where are you going?'  And he'll say, 'Well, I'm going to see a half of this game and a half of that game and then I'm going to go check on this kid.'  If he lays eyes on 10 kids he might find that guy that wasn't highly-rated - whether it's a Sean Kilpatrick or a JaQuon Parker."

While Davis has inked his share of big-name recruits over the years such as 11-year NBA veteran Bobby Jackson when Larry was an assistant at Minnesota, his ability to find lesser-known recruits has been invaluable at Cincinnati.  

"What I've learned is to be able to rate his tone of voice," said Cronin.  "He call and say, 'I think I've found one,' and I can tell by the way he says it how good that he thinks the guy is.  I can tell by his excitement level that we had better hurry before too many people see the kid." 

"Scouting services and ratings are great, but I've always been taught from the first day that I got into this that you should judge with your own eyes," said Davis.  "You try to see what a guy's potential is down the road.  Some of it, quite honestly, is a little bit of luck, but you have to have an eye for it too and know some of the characteristics that you're looking for.  I take pride in trying to do that and I work for a boss who could care less about the ratings.  Mick wants to know if the guy can play or not - that's the most important thing to him." 

"What Larry understands is that good players don't have to be highly-rated," said Cronin.  "He believes in out-working the opponent.  He doesn't just go to a city and see one practice.  He'll talk somebody into working out at six in the morning, so that he can see another kid practice at three, and another kid play at seven.  It's sheer numbers.  In sales, the more people that you get in front of, the more sales that you're going to have.  In recruiting, the more guys that you see means that you're eventually going to see somebody that can play.  That's how you find Hasheem Thabeet in a back gym when nobody else was recruiting him at the time."

The 7'3" Thabeet was a late signee in Coach Cronin's first year at Cincinnati who chose UConn over UC and ultimately became the 2nd overall pick in the NBA draft - unfortunately in recruiting, you don't always get the guy.  But Davis has won his share of battles and landed Troy Caupain and Jamaree Strickland in this year's early signing period.  According to Rivals.com, Caupain is a 3-star recruit while the 6'10" Strickland received 3 stars from 247sports.com.

But before you put too much stock into the scouting services, you should consider the Wake Forest class of 1993.

"When the recruiting rankings came out that year," said Davis, "we had signed three or four other guys so it listed their names and how many stars they received and ended with, 'and Tim Duncan.'  No comment, no rating, just 'and Tim Duncan.'  In the end, he was the number one guy in the country."

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Searching For A Few More Buckets

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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?

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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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The Coaching Life Takes A Toll

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As I watched an angry and frustrated Mick Cronin barely touch his postgame meal after Wednesday's loss at Providence, I was reminded of the advice he used to get from his mother.  As the wife of a long-time basketball coach, the late Peggy Cronin didn't necessarily want her son to follow in his father's footsteps.

"My sister has multiple degrees and is highly educated and my mom - God rest her soul - told me to do better in school," Mick told me recently.  "I should have gone to law school and then I would be able to eat and sleep at night."

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But as a huge fan of the Godfather movies (the theme song is the current ringtone on Mick's cell phone) he is also quick to quote the fictional mobster Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II by saying, "This is the business that we've chosen."

Business has mostly been good for Cronin and the 17th-ranked Bearcats, but they came up short against a Providence team that is no pushover.  The Friars are in the Top 100 of the RPI rankings and were coming off of a road win at Villanova on Sunday.

"People get the schedule at the beginning of the year and they go through it and say, 'There's a win,'" said Coach Cronin.  "My brother loves to do that.  I always tell him, 'I don't want to hear it, and I guarantee that it won't be close to what you think.'  You can't think about March right now and you can't think back to November and December.  You've got to try to get better each and every day and know that the minute you let up, you're going to lose in this league.

"That's how we clawed and scraped our way to rebuilding Cincinnati basketball.  It's not because we have five NBA draft picks running around.  We did it by staying focused on just winning the next game.  My job is to make sure that the guys are focused on that and nothing else because if you go into a game thinking you're supposed to win, you will lose."

The Bearcats scored a season-low 50 points in Wednesday's defeat and have averaged just 54 points in their five losses this season.  While UC has limitations on offense, ESPN's Jay Bilas says that the Bearcats are deserving of their national ranking. 

"I think that Cincinnati is one of the Top 20 teams in the country and they grade out that way from an efficiency standpoint," Bilas recently told Mo Egger on ESPN 1530.  "Defense is primarily carrying it for them.  Cincinnati is an excellent defensive team and a really good rebounding team.  Where the Bearcats can get into trouble is when they turn the ball over."

Bilas made those comments one day before the Providence loss and proved to be prophetic when Cincinnati committed 15 turnovers against the Friars. 

"That really hurts us in a lot of ways," said Coach Cronin.  "You can't score if you turn it over, and you might get an offensive rebound if you get a shot off.  The turnover also fuels the other team's fast break and eliminates our defense.  Just don't throw it to them and we might score.  We have some guys that can play."

"Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are their two best offensive players, but JaQuon Parker does a terrific job when he gets the ball in the right spots," Bilas told Egger.  "A lot of basketball comes down to ball movement and player movement.  We can sit and talk about running this play or that play but it's not plays - it's players.  I know that Mick Cronin tells his guys, 'Be a player, don't just run the play.'  The plays that he runs are all really well-designed."

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For the Bearcats to operate at peak efficiency on offense, they need Wright to play as well as he had before spraining his knee against DePaul.  In four games since the injury, the senior point guard is 9-for-41 overall (22%), 5-for-24 from three point range (21%), and has as many turnovers as assists (9-9). 

"He's been banged up and just can't catch a break," said Cronin.  "He may not look as tough as (former Bearcat) Bobby Brannen, but he's every bit as tough.  He's every bit as tough as any guy that I've ever been around as a coach.

"For him, it's just a matter of staying healthy and getting his rhythm back.  The more he practices and plays games; he'll get back to being his normal self.  If he can stay healthy, he's going to play well."   

Wright and his teammates certainly don't have time to rest and recover.  They begin a critical stretch of three tough home games in seven days on Saturday night against Pitt.

"The longer you're in this business - and this is my 10th year as a head coach - you come to realize that this is a game of survival," said Cronin. 

His mother tried to warn him.

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Wright Appreciates Cronin Using Caution

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How many times when you were a kid did an adult forbid you to do something before saying, "You'll thank me later."

Cashmere Wright is thanking Mick Cronin now.

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When the senior point guard sprained his right knee early in the second half of the DePaul game on January 15th, he wanted to return to the court minutes later.  Coach Cronin not only ruled that out since Wright could not have an MRI performed until the next day, but refused to let Cashmere play several days later against Marquette when he still felt some stiffness in his knee.

"If it was my choice, I would have played at the end of the DePaul game which would have probably made it worse," Wright told me.  "I tell him all the time that I appreciate him as a coach and like a father.  I feel like he's helped me grow up as a person and he showed me that it isn't all about basketball.  It's all about life after basketball and he wants what's best for me beyond being a Bearcat." 

Wright was able to play six days after the injury, but struggled in a 57-55 loss at Syracuse going 2-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-8 from three-point range. 

"He wasn't able to practice and his conditioning affected his game and his shooting - he wasn't himself," said Coach Cronin.  "But his leadership was tremendous as usual." 

The last minute of the game was especially difficult for Wright.  With the score tied at 55, the Bearcats grabbed an offensive rebound with 52 seconds remaining and could have worked the shot clock, but Cashmere drove toward the basket and committed a costly turnover.  Then after Syracuse scored to take a two-point lead, Wright missed a game-winning three-point attempt with eight seconds to go.

"He's a confident guy and I have no problem with his confidence and him shooting the basketball," said Cronin.

"The shot was the shot, but I feel like my turnover before that was the main reason why we lost," said Wright.  "I made a mental mistake basically, and like I texted my teammates when we got back to town, it will never happen again.  We felt like we had that game and I feel like I let them down as a leader.  I told them if you all just bear with me, we're going to do good things."

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While Wright did not have a good game against Syracuse, he's having an exceptional senior year, averaging 14.5 points while leading the team in assists, steals, and three-point shooting percentage.

"He has a calming effect on our team and there's a confidence level when he has the ball in his hands," said assistant coach Darren Savino.  "He knows what Coach wants him to do, he knows the other guys on the team and what they can and cannot do, and it's not an easy job.  Coach Cronin is demanding on that position, and for us to be good, Cashmere has to be really good.  He's accepted that and understands that he can't come in lackadaisical because it affects everybody - not just himself."

"I've come to realize that when we win, (Coach Cronin) still finds a reason to blame me for something," said Wright with a laugh.  "And when we lose it's definitely my fault.  But you know what else I've come to realize?  I wouldn't change it.  To get this opportunity where somebody looks at you and says, 'You are the difference maker.'  That's a big achievement for me and that's why I'm striving to get better every day." 

The daily grind is not easy for Wright.  He's had three surgical procedures on his left knee after tearing his ACL as a freshman, and has also had to battle recurring pain in his left shoulder.

"I can't complain," said Wright.  "I'm well enough to run around and do all of the other stuff so it's fine.  It always could be better, but I can't complain."

"Nobody is allowed to get hurt in our practices is what we say, because if Cashmere can practice after all of the surgeries that he's had - he might not even realize it but he really does inspire the other guys," said Coach Savino.  "Whether they get little nicks or their wrist or ankle hurts, they get through it because they see what Cash goes through on a daily basis.  It makes us a tougher team."

Now that his most recent injury is fully healed, Cashmere has a simple goal for the remainder of his senior season.

"I really want to get to Atlanta and end my career as a Bearcat in my home state," said Wright.

Atlanta is the sight of this year's Final Four, but even if Cashmere is not able to lead UC that far in the NCAA Tournament, he's already earned the admiration of Bearcat Nation.

"When you play in Cincinnati the fans just want you to play hard," said Wright.  "Every time that you're out there, as long as you're not hurt and can walk, they just want you to play hard and give everything that you've got."

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