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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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MRI Provides Good News For Wright

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If you watched Oprah Winfrey's big interview with Lance Armstrong on Thursday night, it began with a series of yes/no questions in which Armstrong finally admitted using performance enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France wins.

At the exact same time as the Oprah/Lance interview aired on TV, I was asking Mick Cronin a few yes/no questions on his radio show about Cashmere Wright's knee injury and status for the Marquette game.

Question:  Will Cashmere play on Saturday night?

Coach Cronin:  He's day-to-day.  That's my status by the way.  That's the life of a coach - day-to-day.

Question:  Did Cashmere have an MRI on Wednesday?

Coach Cronin:  Yes.

Question:  Is there any structural damage?

Coach Cronin:  No.

The fact that there is no structural damage is the key piece of information.  Let's face it, when Wright was helped off the court in agony on Tuesday after scoring 20 points and dishing out 7 assists in just 22 minutes of playing time, it was impossible not to fear the worst.

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"He was headed for an easy 30 (points) and 10 assists which is complete domination of a game," said Cronin.  "You don't want to see him - or any player - go down, but especially him after what he's been through.  And then factor in that he's playing the best basketball of his career.  For him, (a serious injury) would be tragic, so it was great news that his MRI was negative."

Ironically, Wright's most recent injury was to his "good knee."  He's had three surgical procedures on his left knee after tearing his ACL as a freshman, but sprained his right knee against DePaul.  Fortunately, it didn't take long for Cashmere to realize that it wasn't as serious as his previous injuries.

"He went out at the 15:20 mark, and at the next time-out, I look up and he's standing in the huddle and he's giving me the eye like he wants to go back in the game," said Cronin.  "I would say that it scared him more than anything."

To make matters worse, Wright was not the only Bearcat to suffer an injury in the game.  In the first half, Justin Jackson was taken to the locker room with an injured wrist.  X-rays were negative and Jackson returned to action with his wrist heavily taped.

Wright and Jackson did not do much at practice on Thursday and Cronin says he'll be cautious in determining if either player will be allowed to take court the court on Saturday.

"It's a long year and we have a lot of games left," said Cronin.  "Hopefully, we'll have a lot of games in March, so I can tell you that I'm not going to take a risk now for no reason.

"(Cashmere) probably wouldn't have practiced much anyway to be honest with you.  From here on out with our major minute guys, we don't need to practice a whole lot.  Full-speed practice is not much more than an hour, the rest of it would be teaching points, scouting report, shooting, and individual work.  That's something that I believe in a lot, and obviously with Cashmere, he's had some injuries.

"It's a little bit different with Justin.  He's got a sprained wrist and he's stiff.  He's another veteran guy that doesn't need a lot of practice.  So we'll see how he feels.  It's his right wrist so that's an issue for free throws, not that he's shooting a lot of jump shots.  But again, you're not going to risk March for January."

Since Jackson was able to return to the court after his wrist injury on Tuesday, it seems logical to expect him to play against Marquette.

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As for Wright, Coach Cronin loves to quote the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II when Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) tries to comfort John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) before Stallone's character walks off into the distance as the credits roll.

Colonel Trautman:  How will you live John?

Rambo:  Day-by-day.

Cronin told reporters that he was "Bill Belichick-ing" them - or not saying much - on all injury-related questions on Thursday, but it appears that Wright's status is truly TBA for the upcoming games against Marquette and Syracuse.

"We'll see how he feels on Friday...and Saturday...and Sunday," said Cronin.  "Seriously, I'm not trying to be funny, he is day-to-day."

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Sanders Providing Scoring Boost Off Bench

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At the end of one of my basketball seasons as a kid, I was presented with a trophy that read as follows:  "Most Likely To Think It Was A Good Shot."

In other words, I wasn't shy about letting it fly - despite the fact that I was a mediocre (at best) shooter.

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UC sophomore Jermaine Sanders, on the other hand, has an excellent shooting stroke, but sometimes has to be pushed by his teammates to fire away.

"They always tell me to shoot," Jermaine told me.  "At the beginning of the season I wasn't really shooting that much and they would get on me and tell me that they needed me to shoot in order for us to win."

While the former Rice (NY) High School star hasn't exactly morphed into a gunner, Sanders is starting to provide a nice offensive lift off of the Bearcats bench.  In his last three games, Jermaine is averaging 6.3 points in roughly 16 minutes of playing time.  During that stretch, he's made 7-of-13 shots (54%), including 3-of-8 three-pointers.

"He's more comfortable on offense and you can see his confidence growing," said head coach Mick Cronin.  "He has the courage to take the open shot." 

"I'm becoming more confident in what I can do," said Sanders. 

Part of that confidence stems from a more athletic physique.  Under the direction of new strength and conditioning coach Mike Rehfeldt, Sanders dropped 11 pounds over the summer and increased his no-step vertical leap by 3.5 inches.

"It makes me feel great about my game," said Sanders.  "I can move quicker on defense, jump higher to get rebounds, and run the floor well.  And I can still knock down shots at the end of the game because I'm in great condition."

"He's in better shape and he's more competitive," said Coach Cronin.  "I think his intensity level is getting better each night out and that's allowing him to be more effective."

Before closing its doors due to financial difficulties in 2011, Rice H.S. in Harlem produced a "Who's Who" list of Big East basketball talent including Felipe Lopez (St. John's), Edgar Sosa (Louisville), Kemba Walker (UConn), and former Bearcat Kenny Satterfield.  Sanders was clearly well-coached there by Moe Hicks (now part of the St. John's staff) and displays a high basketball I.Q.  He's also one of the best passers on the Bearcat roster, ranking third on the team in assists-per-minute.     

"I've always been able to pass and see the floor well," said Sanders.  "Since I'm taller (6'5"), I can see over defenders and make a good pass.  That really comes naturally to me.  I'm really not that athletic, but I see the game better than most people." 

Over the last three games, Sanders has the same number of three-pointers as assists.  So, which of the two would he rather have?

"A '3'...but I like assists too," Jermaine said with a laugh.

This former gunner can identify.

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Cronin Deserves Credit For Rebuilding Bearcats

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Last year after the Bearcats' thrilling road win at Villanova, a woman stopped Mick Cronin on his way to the team bus.  It was the mother of one of the 'Nova players and she told Mick how much she appreciated his postgame comments after the Xavier brawl.

A few weeks later, a few of us were having dinner with Coach Cronin during the NCAA tournament when a similar thing happened.  This time it was a man who identified himself as a Musketeers fan and he praised Mick for the same thing.

I bring this up now because the Bearcats have dropped three of their last four games and I haven't received a single e-mail criticizing Coach Cronin.  It's my belief that the way he handled himself after last year's Xavier game caused many people to look at Mick in a different light and reconsider what he's accomplished as Cincinnati's head coach.

"I don't know because I'm not sure how people look at me," Mick said when I asked if he agreed.  "You know me really well, and I'm concerned with being a great father, a great friend, a good brother, and a good son, but most importantly a great father.  (My daughter) Sammy's opinion of me is the one that matters most."

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Of course, the key for any coach to win over fans is to win games.  Cincinnati has increased or equaled its win total in each of the last five seasons, made it to the Big East Tournament championship game for the first time last year, and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.

Simply put, Mick Cronin has successfully rebuilt Bearcat basketball.

"We had to rebuild a winning culture," said Cronin.  "Now the expectation of winning is there and the players are willing to listen, practice appropriately, and give the required effort - I don't like to say extra effort - the required effort that it takes to win games." 

After starting this season 12-0 and climbing into the Top 10 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Bearcats have stumbled over the last two weeks in home losses to New Mexico, St. John's, and Notre Dame.  Scoring was a problem in all three defeats as Cincinnati averaged 55.3 points. 

"Offensively, we're just leaving too much on the table," said Cronin.  "We had seven second half turnovers (against Notre Dame) and they were all unforced.  We shot over 50% in the second half, but we didn't get enough shots off.  We have to get 'tighter' on offense and the guy with the ball has to slow down so he can make a play.  Whether it's a simple ball reversal, making an assist, or putting the ball in the basket - when we slow down we're fine."

It would obviously help if Cincinnati had a reliable low post scorer.

"Would it be nice to have some guy down low that's a monster that we could throw it to?  Sure, but that's an easy excuse," Mick told me.  "We just have to do a better job of moving the basketball.  The key to making shots is taking easy ones.  I need to do a better job of coaching our guys so that our passing improves.  As our passing improves, we'll make plenty of shots."

Additionally, the Bearcats need to get more offense out of their defense.  Last year in a 71-55 win over Notre Dame, the 'Cats had 11 steals.  In Monday's 66-60 loss, UC only managed two steals and 21 deflections (UC's goal is 40).

"We're constructed to play in the passing lanes, run up and down, and stay on the attack," said Cronin.  "We need to be on the attack.  The key for us is to get into transition."

At one point last year, the Bearcats lost three straight Big East games to fall to 5-4 in league play.  After that, they did not lose back-to-back games for the rest of the season. 

There are at least 16 games remaining this season, and Cronin and the 'Cats will look to get back on the winning track on Saturday at Rutgers.    

"When you're coaching basketball, it's never as bad as it seems when your team is struggling and it's never as good as it seems when your team is winning - that's why you have to watch the film and evaluate," Mick told me.

"They don't give away wins in this league.  We have to take it as a learning experience and do what we have to do to get better."

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"We Will Survive And Thrive"

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While it's obviously not ideal to lose a football coach every three years, it is just as clear that it's not the end of the world for Bearcat football.

I am genuinely happy for Butch Jones.  I know that he and his family loved it here, and that it was difficult for him to leave administrators, boosters, fans, and friends that treated him well.  Most of all, it was hard for him to leave his players.  But having just played a road game at Tennessee last season, I can certainly understand why he took the job.  The football facilities are palatial and he'll have anything and everything he needs to try to win SEC championships (with the notable exception of imminent retirement plans for Nick Saban or Les Miles).

I hope that Butch is the third straight former UC coach to make us proud at his next stop.  Mark Dantonio is 50-28 at Michigan State and going to a bowl game for the sixth straight year.  Brian Kelly is about to play for a national championship at Notre Dame.  Cincinnati's oldest football rival claims the title of "The Cradle of Coaches," but in the last decade, UC deserves that nickname.

The last three coaches have all left the program better than they found it.  Mark Dantonio came in and laid infrastructure, methodically building a BCS-level program.  Brian Kelly energized the fan base like never before and taught us that anything - including competing for national titles - is possible at UC.  Butch Jones proved that the Kelly era wasn't a fluke, and devoted every ounce of his energy toward making the school as appealing as possible to recruits.

They deserve kudos for Cincinnati's success over the last nine years, but you know what?  UC deserves a ton of credit for their success too.  It's a program located in a high school football hotbed that can go to major bowl games by winning conference titles.  It also comes with a salary of more than a million dollars a year in a great place to live.  I know of several impressive candidates that have already expressed interest in the job (and no, I am not at liberty to share names).      

"Anytime that you make a hire of this magnitude it's pretty darn important, but we're not intimidated by it," said athletic director Whit Babcock.  "We have a heck of a job, a heck of a track record, and a state that's tremendous to recruit in.  We have proven success in winning titles, we have a plan for facilities, and my goodness, if you look at the last three coaches - there's a little pressure to produce on that level - but we'll get a good coach.  We've already received a lot of interest and we've been prepared for it.

"I wouldn't be doing my job as an AD if we weren't prepared.  Since August, a small number of us have been working on potential coach replacements.  We've added people to the list, we've taken some off, and we've followed their progression throughout the season. We are prepared, and we will get a great coach."

I thought that Whit's performance at Friday's news conference was the best I've ever seen under similar circumstances and I hope that Bearcat fans share my confidence that he and President Santa Ono are doing what is necessary to put the Cincinnati athletic department in the best possible position to thrive in the future.

"I'm disappointed today because Butch Jones was a good friend and we lost a good coach," said prominent UC supporter Larry Sheakley.  "But if I can make a statement as a booster, I'm confident that this University and the athletic director did everything in their power to keep him.  Everything.  And they're doing everything that they can to get us where we need to be."

One of those things was briefly mentioned in the news conference - a plan of action for improving Nippert Stadium that will be announced in the near future.

"You'll have to wait," said Babcock.  "I would rather that (announcement) be a celebration than what today is about.  I think it's an exciting vision."

Whit ended his news conference with a call to action for Bearcat fans.  If you want to see this program continue to grow, you can make a difference by supporting the 11th-ranked basketball team and by traveling to the Belk Bowl on December 27th in Charlotte.

"Quite frankly, if every fan that had e-mailed me, texted me, called me, and Tweeted at me about Butch or the next head coach had bought a ticket, we would have sold our allotment out two times over," said Babcock.

If you can't make the trip, you can show your support for as little as $50 by purchasing and donating Belk Bowl tickets here.

"We have a promotion called 'One Team, One Ticket ' and that's for people that cannot go to a bowl game but want to buy a ticket - at least one - and donate them back to us," said Babcock.  "We'll put them to good use.  If you want to step up to the plate today and make a statement to the nation that we're about more than a coach, that is a great action step to take."

The search for a new coach has started, but the momentum generated by the last three isn't about to stop.

"Hiring good coaches is absolutely critical to our success, but we're bigger than any one individual," said Babcock.  "We'll survive and we'll thrive."

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My Take On The Big East And Butch Jones

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Last Wednesday, there was a headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer that read "UC Still Stuck In Big East."

As a friend of mine pointed out, "Can you imagine how ridiculous that would have sounded a few years ago?"

For the past week, I've listened to talk show hosts and fans moan and groan about the state of UC athletics.  Whether it's conference realignment or the possibility of losing Butch Jones, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom.

I don't share that pessimism.

Let's start with the conference situation.  I haven't heard a single so-called expert express the opinion that this high-stakes game of musical chairs is finished.

"Conference realignment is not over," said Mick Cronin.  "It's far from over."

If and when the next shift occurs, UConn and Cincinnati appear to be on the top of the list to move to the ACC if any current members follow Maryland's lead and bolt for more money elsewhere.  Until then, UC will continue to polish its "resume" in athletics and academics.       

"We're very fortunate to have two individuals in President Ono and Whit Babcock leading our university and our athletic department," said Coach Jones.  "They've been extremely proactive.  They have set us up to be very successful whether it's now or in the future and they continue to work on it.  I know that they are working to make the University of Cincinnati the best place possible and I can tell you this - we are in great hands with their leadership."

In the meantime, is the Big East really that bad in the short term?

Assuming that Louisville and Rutgers remain in the league for another year, the Big East next season will lose Syracuse and Pitt but add Boise State, Central Florida (and others) in football.  The winner of the league will get a BCS Bowl bid in the final year of the current system and Cincinnati should be among the favorites to win it.

If Cincinnati is in the Big East in 2014, it will still have the opportunity to claim a spot in one of the six major bowls since the new system guarantees a bid to at least one team outside of the so-called "Power Five" conferences.  You could make the argument that the Bearcats will have a better chance to go to one of those bowls than the schools that have left the Big East because of the competition that UC will face.  Do you see Rutgers winning the Big Ten anytime soon?

Yes, Big East football will have a strong Conference USA flavor at that point, but with a major difference from when UC was in C-USA.  Back then, the grand prize for a conference championship was a trip to the Liberty Bowl.  The Big East champ will not face the same limitation. 

In basketball, the Big East would still have Cincinnati, UConn, Georgetown, Marquette, Memphis, Temple, Villanova (and others).  It would no longer be the deepest conference in the country, but it would still be one of the best. 

"Cincinnati basketball is big time - it always has been and always will be," said Coach Cronin.  "We're going to end up in a great league whether it is the Big East with the remaining teams that are tradition-rich basketball schools or somewhere else.  It's not something that I really worry about too much.  I'm more worried about things that we can control here at Cincinnati with our own University such as our support, budget, and facilities."

As for Butch Jones, I think he is a great coach and a better person and I hope that he stays at Cincinnati.  I think he has devoted every ounce of energy that he has toward building a great future for Bearcat football.  If he leaves he'll be sorely missed, but the program will be much stronger than the one he inherited.

If Whit Babcock has to hire a new coach, there will be no shortage of qualified candidates.  When Cincinnati hired Brian Kelly, the other people that interviewed for the job included John Harbaugh, Hue Jackson, and Bo Pelini.  I hope that it isn't necessary, but I have no doubt that Cincinnati can find another outstanding coach.

Our basketball team is currently ranked 11th in the country.  Our football team just won a share of its fourth conference title in five years and is headed to a great bowl game (that I hope you will attend).

The glass is half full.

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Bearcats Add Talented Trio In Early Signing Period

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After back-to-back 26 win seasons, an appearance in the Big East Tournament final, and a trip to the Sweet 16, is recruiting getting easier for UC head coach Mick Cronin?

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"It never gets easier to recruit," said Cronin.  "You do become more popular the more you win and you get on TV more.  So I have better name recognition because that's the guy they see on TV and our program is winning.  It definitely has an effect, but at the same time, it's still hard.  Recruiting is the toughest thing we do.  It's the hardest part of the job for any coach - there's no question about it."

Today the hard work paid off for Coach Cronin and his staff as three high school standouts faxed in letters of intent to the University of Cincinnati on the first day of the early signing period.

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Troy Caupain, a 6'3" guard from Cosby High School in Midlothian, VA verbally committed to UC in June after averaging 26 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 8 assists as a junior last year.

"Troy is a huge recruit for us," said Cronin.  "He's a 6'3" point guard and he's 16-year-old on signing day.  He's going to turn 17 in a couple of weeks.  He's got something that you can't teach - the gift of vision.  He finds the open man and has great leadership skill.  He's a true quarterback and it's natural for him to talk on the floor - I won't have to coach that with him.  And he can beat his man.  More importantly, when he beats his man off of the dribble, he finds the open man and he's a willing passer.  He's a big-time recruit for us."

This year's class also includes a local recruit in Summit Country Day's Kevin Johnson.

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"I usually don't mention that he's local because I don't want people to think that we recruited Kevin Johnson only because he is from Cincinnati," said Cronin.  "That would be patently false.  We've passed on some guys that are from Cincinnati because maybe they weren't the right fit for us and Kevin is the right fit.  He grew up within miles of our campus, he is a great kid, and we are fortunate to have him."

Johnson is a 6'1" guard who averaged 14.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists last year in helping the Silver Knights capture the Division III state title.   

"He's a guard that can do everything," said Cronin.  "He can score, he can handle the ball, and he can pass.  He's also a winner which goes a long way with me as he led his team to the state championship.  And he's very unselfish - he could shoot a lot more for Summit Country Day than he did last year, but he played within their system and their team was extremely well-coached.  And he's got great upside.  Kevin is a 17-year-old senior and won't turn 18 until next summer.  He's a long guard and can do a lot of things."

Cincinnati added a post player in Jamaree Strickland who hails from Oakland, California.

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"Even though he's from California, he grew up a Bearcat fan," said Cronin.  "That worked in our favor.  We didn't know that until we contacted him and his father couldn't have been more excited.  You would have thought we were the hometown school."

Strickland was one of the top-rated big men in California when he suffered a knee injury in 10th grade that required surgery and wiped out his junior year.  A second surgical procedure caused him to miss all but two games of his senior year.

But Jamaree is no longer wearing a knee brace and is spending this season playing for Queen City Prep in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

"Jamaree didn't start playing without his knee brace until the fall, and everybody that saw him offered him a scholarship," said Cronin.  "He's left-handed; he's 6'9 ½" or 6'10" and has great hands and a soft touch.  He can score.  Most big guys can do one of two things - they are either a shot blocker or they can score.  Jamaree can score and is a very comfortable offensive player.  He has range on his jump shot, and has a nice jump hook and a soft touch.  We're going to have to get his body together because he's been out, but he's lost weight and that's why he's come on so much after he got his knee brace off.  Once we get him in shape, he has a chance to be a great player for us."

Cincinnati still has one scholarship available.

"That's by design," Mick told me.  "When you get your program on solid footing you're not desperate so you don't have to just take guys and hope for the best because you need bodies.  When you're in a good position you can confidently say, 'We have 11 or 12 players and that's enough.'  Then you have a scholarship available when things happen.  For instance, we have one available now.  So second semester, if a very good player wanted to transfer here over the Christmas break, we could take him.  If that doesn't happen, then Alex Eppensteiner will get to use it in the second semester.  I would definitely rather have a scholarship than take a chance on a guy that you're not really sure about."

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Kay Savors Win After Long Wait

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Before Saturday's 34-10 win at Temple, the last time that quarterback Brendon Kay started a game was November 24, 2007 when he led Marine City (MI) High School to a state title at Ford Field in Detroit.

That's a Rip Van Winkle-like 1,813 days between starts.

So was the fifth-year senior able to sleep the night before his first start as a Bearcat?

"Not really," Brendon told me with a laugh.  "I'll be honest with you - I didn't."

Imagine what he'll do with a good night's rest.

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After coming off the bench last week to help rally the Bearcats to a win over Syracuse, Kay left no doubt who the starting quarterback will be next week against Rutgers, completing 13-of-21 passes for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns, while running for an additional 71 yards on 7 carries.  He even caught one of his own passes for a five yard gain when it ricocheted off of a Temple defender.

"It was awesome to be out there," said Kay.  "You prepare all week like you're the starter, but when you hear that you are, your mentality changes a little bit.  When you get the opportunity you have to take advantage of it." 

"I'm proud of him," said wide receiver Anthony McClung.  "This is what everybody dreams of.  He's been the backup all season and now that he got his opportunity, he came through for us.  I told him, 'It's not like you've never done this before.'"

Kay was especially impressive throwing the deep ball as he tossed a 75-yard TD pass to Kenbrell Thompkins and a 65-yard TD to Chris Moore.

"That pass to me was right on the money," said Moore.  "All I had to was put my hands out and it was right there."

Kay's college career has been slowed by a series of knee injuries that have required him to undergo three surgeries.  That were times where it appeared that his Bearcat career was over.

"That's what makes this even better," Brendon told me.  "All of the people who say 'You can't do it.'  All of the doctors who say, 'I don't think you can come back from this'  When you come out and do it, it's that much more rewarding.

"I'm alright now.  I've put in the time and I feel good."

Due to his multiple knee injuries, Kay hopes to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

"Right now, all indications are that it's very favorable," said head coach Butch Jones.  "That's something that we'll work on once the season is concluded."

"It's not in my hands so I can't really worry about it," said Kay.  "I'm going to approach these last few games like they're my last."

While there wasn't much of a crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, the spectators did include several members of Kay's family.

"My mom, my grandma, my girlfriend, my dad, and my stepmom were all here," Brendon told me.  "It was awesome to see them out there.  It was pretty emotional.  I saw my dad after the game and he came down and gave me a hug."

After going nearly five years between starts, was it worth the wait?

"Honestly, looking back on it, it goes by quickly," said Kay/  "But it was a long process, so it was definitely rewarding.  I'm going to celebrate for the rest of the day.  Tomorrow I'm going to get to work and start watching film."

After all, he only has seven days to get ready for start number two.

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