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Mick's Perfect Day

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At 7 o'clock tonight, Mick Cronin will sit down next to his father Hep in the front row of the team bus to head from the InterContinental Barclay Hotel to Madison Square Garden to play in the Big East Championship game against Louisville.

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The trip is roughly 20 blocks, but it represents the light years that the program has traveled since Mick signed on in March of 2006 to rebuild the Bearcats.

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"I'm happy for the kids," Mick told me.  "We've been through a lot and our togetherness has been tremendous.  I know they're excited and I'm like a proud parent.  We know we're in the NCAA Tournament and the real running begins next week, but there's nothing like a Big East Championship.  My kids have worked really hard to get into this position.  I'm hoping for them that they play well individually because it would be great for their careers.  It's stuff they would never forget and boost their stock as individuals because they've done so much to elevate our program."

After Friday's stunning 71-68 win over Syracuse, I couldn't help but think of my first in-depth interview with Mick after he took the job six years ago.  Here was my final question:

Describe the perfect day?

 

"I wake up in a hotel in New York City and prepare to play in the Big East Tournament championship game. Win the game and have dinner afterwards at some great restaurant in New York with friends and family. That would be...that's going to be a great day."

 

That day is here.

"The Big East is the granddaddy of all conference tournaments," Mick told me last night.  "The electricity at Madison Square Garden is second to none.  You turn on some of the other tournaments and nobody is even at the games.  It's going to be the experience of a lifetime."

**********

Now time for another Big East Tournament Top 10 List:

1...Yancy Gates. 

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The big guy has been phenomenal in New York, scoring 23 points in the double-overtime win over Georgetown and 18 (15 in the second half) in Friday's victory over Syracuse.

In his first Big East Tournament in 2009, Yancy went 3-11 from the floor in a stunning loss to a DePaul team that did not win a regular season league game.  Now he's one win away from a tourney title and possibly being named the MVP.

"I've been through a lot of different things over my four years and this is an unbelievable feeling - to know that I will be playing in the Big East Championship," said Gates.

There's no way the Bearcats would have rallied to beat Georgetown in the quarterfinals if Gates didn't score 10 straight points in the last five minutes of regulation.  Coach Cronin called it the best game of Yancy's Cincinnati career.

"He put his team on his back and made them win," said Coach Cronin.  "That's the mark of a great player.  There have been times in the past where Bearcat greats have done that - Steve Logan, Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin - I think that's something that everybody has wanted Yancy to do and he maybe wasn't ready to do it.  It shows his evolution as a player.  He's still growing as a player and his best basketball is ahead of him."

2.  New York Newspapers.

I was up at 6:00 this morning to see what the local papers would have to say about the shocker over Syracuse.  Here are two of the headlines.

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I was disappointed that none of the papers took my suggestion from Friday night's postgame show.  At the time of the year where we often hear the phrase "one and done," I thought a great headline (in reference to Syracuse's record) would be "31-and-1-and-Done"

3.  Bulletin Board Material.

When the Bearcats got to their locker room after beating the 'Cuse, freshman Jermaine Sanders picked up a marker and wrote "1 More" on a dry erase board.

"That's our mindset," said Gates.  "We came here to try to win the Big East Tournament and tonight we get that opportunity.  Everybody is happy that we beat Syracuse, but not because of their record or ranking.  We're happy because we beat them to get to the championship.  Winning tonight would be even bigger than beating Syracuse for us."

4.  Fatigue Factor.

After a double-overtime game on Thursday, Coach Cronin stayed with his starters for most of the game against Syracuse.  Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon played 37 minutes apiece, and Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick logged 38 apiece.

Of course, Louisville had to play three games to get to the championship, but Gates doubts that either team will feel sluggish tonight.

"Honestly?  I couldn't believe how fresh my legs felt when I walked into the gym last night," said Gates.  "Bob Mangine is a great trainer and we'll all get together with him to make sure that we feel the same way tonight."

5.  The Call.

I received several requests on Twitter for the radio call at the end of the Syracuse game.  Here is a link to the audio, courtesy of WLW radio.

6.  Record Breakers.

With one steal against Syracuse, Cashmere Wright is now Cincinnati's single-season record holder with 67 steals, breaking the mark shared by Puffy Kennedy (1979) and Brian Williams (1977).

Dion Dixon played in his 133rd career game and needs two more to tie the all-time Cincinnati record held by Steve Logan.

7.  Bagel Heaven.

Kudos to Bearcat superfan Greg Miller for turning me on to Ess-A-Bagel on Third Avenue.  It's about three blocks from the team hotel and people line up out the door for their wide variety of fresh (and gigantic) bagels.

If people are lining up for a bagel in New York City (where there is a bagel shop on every block), you know they have to be good.

8.  Prime Time Exposure.

The Bearcats are likely to add a couple of recruits in the spring signing period, and tonight's prime time ESPN telecast certainly can't hurt.    

"It's a huge recruiting tool and our players tell the recruits all of the time that there's nothing like playing in the Big East Tournament," Coach Cronin told me.  "It's the 'neatest' thing that you'll do as a college basketball player." 

9.  The Freight Elevator.

One of the unusual things about Madison Square Garden is that the court is actually a couple of stories about ground level.  It's always somewhat amusing to arrive with the team because everybody piles into a gigantic freight elevator to go up to the court level.

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I guess it an elevator is big enough to lift the elephants in the Big Apple Circus, it can handle a basketball team.

10.  In Bed In The City That Never Sleeps.

Under normal circumstances, I would have loved celebrating at a pub near Madison Square Garden with Bearcat fans after the last two games, but I have been under the weather and have gone straight to bed.  Brutal!  I think I am the first person in history to travel to New York City on an expense account that hasn't gone out to dinner for two days (you're welcome WLW).  I am hoping that if the 'Cats win tonight; I will be able to join the festivities.

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Wright Feels Alright...And A Top 10 List From NYC

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When Cashmere Wright is finished playing college basketball next year, he hopes to move on to a pro career.  After that, he should probably get into broadcasting.

But not sports broadcasting.

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Wright jokes that he could have a future as a TV meteorologist.  The junior guard says that he knows that rain is coming when his surgically-repaired knee starts to hurt.

"Before I go to sleep, I start to feel a little aching in my legs and when I wake up and see rain I go, 'Yep.  I knew it,'" Wright told me.  "When it rains it feels horrible.  Even walking hurts.  Sometimes it's kind of hard to get out of bed.  But once I get out and get stretched, it feels a little better."

The Bearcats chances of making lengthy runs in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments will depend in large part on Wright's knees.  He's had three surgical procedures on his left knee after tearing his ACL as a freshman, and Cashmere recently hurt his right knee.

"That's the sad part," said Wright.  "In the Louisville game, I did something to it.  But after taking a few days off, they feel much better.  It must be the new tights that I have.  I love these new tights."

Cashmere has started wearing full-length compression tights under his shorts to control the swelling in his knees.  Head coach Mick Cronin is also limiting his reps at practice and had Wright come off the bench against Villanova in hopes of limiting him to 25 minutes of playing time in the final game of the regular season (he played 27)

"He is a guy that needs rest - especially late in the season," said Cronin.  "He knows what he's doing and he proved at Villanova - despite being hurt and despite me not starting him and trying to get him more rest - his stats were off the charts."

Wright finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 7 steals, and no turnovers against 'Nova and the Bearcats outscored the Wildcats by 21 points while he was in the game.  The 22-year-old from Georgia says he understands the importance of resting his knees as much as possible.

"You have to realize that you're getting older and your body is getting older and if you want to have a career in basketball, you have to realize that your body is your future," said Wright.  "You can't be out here going hard in every second of every drill.  Sometimes you have to take some time off."

The break ends on Thursday afternoon at 2:00.

"Everything is one-and-done from now on," said Wright.  "It's all about winning now.  It's time to play."

**********

Since Late Night with David Letterman is doing re-runs this week, there's no chance of getting Dave to do another Chuck Machock spoof, but I will continue my Letterman-like tradition of doing a daily Top 10 list from the Big East Tournament.

1.  Final score from Wednesday afternoon:  Georgetown 64 Pittsburgh 52.  So it's the Bearcats against the Hoyas on Thursday at 2:00.

"They are a very hard team to defend so that's a problem," said Cronin.  "We all know that the offense that they run is very complicated.  But this year, their defense has really been the staple for them because of their size.  I really think for us to have success up here, we're going to have to shoot the ball well."

2.  One of fun things about the Big East Tournament is that you never know who you are going to see in the arena.  Two years ago when UC faced West Virginia, former President Bill Clinton and actor Denzel Washington were in the stands.

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"I didn't see them until we got home and I watched the highlights," said Cashmere Wright.  "We had no clue that they were there.  I was like, 'Whoa!  We had a President at our game.'  That had to be one of the coolest things ever.  To actually have Denzel Washington and a former President watching."

Will Wright be scanning the crowd for celebs before any UC games in the Big East Tourney this week?

"I think that would throw off my game," said Wright.  "You have to go out there and focus and not worry about who is in the crowd."

I suspect Coach Cronin will be very happy to hear that.

3.  The Bearcats played zone defense for nearly all of their last two games and it was highly effective in wins over Marquette and Villanova.  But that might not be the best strategy against Georgetown since the key to beating the Hoyas in their first meeting was forcing 17 turnovers.

"We practice man-to-man every day," said Coach Cronin.  "We work on our defensive principles and I think that helps our zone because you see us matching up at times.  If we're going to lose, we're going to pick how we are going to lose.  We're not going to let certain things beat us.  Going into a game, you have to assess the other team's strengths and what gives us the best chance to win.  Right now, I feel good about our defense because we are just as good in man-to-man as we are in zone."

4.  My favorite broadcasting crew in any sport is the ESPN trio of Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas, and Bill Raftery and I always look forward to hearing their calls in the Big East Tourney.  I also really enjoyed this story that Bilas recently wrote about the late, great Skip Prosser. 

5.  The Louisville press notes include a reference to Rick Pitino being "the only coach to take three different schools to the NCAA Final Four (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville)."  I didn't realize it until reading this interview in The Sporting News, but that is a not-so-subtle dig at UK coach John Calipari who has also taken three schools to the Final Four (UMass, Memphis, Kentucky).  Louisville can technically use the line about Pitino since two of Calipari's Final Four trips were vacated due to NCAA rules violations.

6.  Today's amusing New York City room service "deal" is the Big Apple breakfast at the Intercontinental Barclay. 

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Two eggs, meat, potatoes, bagel, fruit, juice, and coffee...for a mere $42.  Needless to say, I won't be ordering.

7.  Last year, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey took his team to see the musical "Jersey Boys" before playing their first game in the Big East Tourney.  There are no Broadway shows on the itinerary for the Bearcats, but Mick Cronin is giving the players some time to enjoy themselves in New York. 

"I'm a big believer that these kids work hard and you have to let them have fun," Coach Cronin told me.  "Obviously, my job is to get them focused on playing basketball, but they put in a lot of hard work and it's a long season.  The worst thing you can do is make it all business all of the time."

8.  For the second straight year, Tom Gelehrter has joined us in the Big Apple to provide video content on GoBearcats.com.  Look for daily pre- and post-game reports as long as the 'Cats are alive in the tourney. 

9.  I am six years late on this (and it has nothing to do with the Big East Tournament), but my wife and I are watching Season 5 of The Shield on DVD and Forest Whitaker's performance as Lieutenant Kavanaugh might be the greatest acting job in TV history.  He is unbelievably creepy.  I am obsessed and felt the need to share.

10.  There are 12 colleges that use "Bearcats" for their team nickname (13 if you include the Sam Houston State Bearkats).  Ironically, Cincinnati practiced at one of the other 11 schools on Wednesday. 

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In addition to Baruch College in Manhattan, the other "Bearcats" are Brescia University, Lander University, McKendree College, NW Missouri State University, Rust College, Southwest Baptist University, St. Vincent College, Binghamton University, UC Blue Ash (formerly Raymond Walters College), and Willamette University.

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So Who Is Next Year's JaQuon Parker?

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Last week, JaQuon Parker scored 39 points in wins over Marquette and Villanova.  Last year, Parker scored 35.

All year.

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JaQuon is one of several players on this year's team who has made huge strides during his UC career. 

"That's player development," head coach Mick Cronin told me.  "JaQuon is an interesting guy because he only played three years of high school.  Then we brought him in and played him at the point out of necessity with Cashmere's injury.  He did it because he's such a team guy.  It doesn't surprise me now that he's on the wing and attacking the basket that his game is developing.  The more minutes he gets the more success he is going to have.  His early-season injury is the only reason why you didn't see this earlier.  When a player has a groin injury, you have to completely shut him down.  He wasn't even practicing during that injury.   Playing at this level is so much harder than a lot of people realize, and it takes guys time to develop.  For Park, it's taken him some time, but now you are seeing it."

Parker was named to the Big East weekly honor roll for his outstanding performances last week and is averaging 9.2 points and 5 rebounds this season.  Of the six Bearcats who have attempted at least 30 three-point shots, Parker has the best 3-point percentage at 42.7.  Last year, he was a woeful 3-for-20 (15%) from beyond the arc.

So who is next year's JaQuon Parker?  In other words, the most likely candidate to make a quantum leap in offensive production. 

"The answer to that is whoever works the hardest," said Coach Cronin.  "You've seen different guys improve over their careers.  Dion Dixon is a great off-season guy...Sean Kilpatrick is a great practice player...JaQuon had a really good off-season.  I like all of our young guys and I think they are all going to get better.  I think the key for all of our freshman - including Shaq Thomas and Octavius Ellis who are redshirting - the time that they put in is going to be the most important thing.  That's going to be the key for us as a staff.  We are a player development program - that's really what we are.  One-year guys are an aberration for us.  The truth for us is to get four-year guys and develop them into really good players.  We have to make sure we're on top of them in the off-season."

Watching JaQuon Parker play a key role on an NCAA tournament team should provide plenty of motivation for his younger teammates.

**********

Kudos to my fellow GoBearcats.com blogger Paul Dehner Jr. for researching a question that I posed on Twitter after Saturday's win at Villanova.

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While broadcasting the game, it seemed like Cincinnati completely dominated the action while Cashmere Wright was on the floor.  In just 27 minutes of playing time, Wright had 9 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 7 steals and no turnovers.

So after the game, I sent out the following tweet:

"I'd like a plus/minus stat for Cashmere Wright today."

Thanks to Paul, I now have one.

The Bearcats outscored the Wildcats by 21 points while Wright was on the floor.  A performance that's even more impressive when you consider that the junior guard's knee has been acting up.

"People probably don't appreciate his level of toughness," said Cronin.  "I have the same issue of having no cartilage in my knee and there are days where you wake up and for no rhyme or reason you're just sore.  We have to manage that with Cash.  Some days when he feels fine, he doesn't need to go 110% at practice.  But that's easy for me to say when you have a young kid who is chasing a dream.  When he feels great he wants to play.   

"The double bye in the Big East Tournament will be huge.  Cash was playing on one leg (on Saturday).  He needs rest - there's no other way around it.  That's why not playing until Thursday helps us a lot.  It really helps us."

The Bearcats did not practice on Sunday and Wright was given most of Monday off as well.

********** 

One of the most positive developments in Cincinnati's strong regular season finish was the fan support in the 'Cats critical late-season home games.

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The Bearcats averaged 12,498 fans in their final three games at Fifth Third Arena, providing a significant home court advantage in badly-needed wins over Seton Hall, Louisville, and Marquette.

"Our home crowds carried us down the stretch," Coach Cronin told me.  "They gave us the lift that we needed to win six of our last eight.  It makes the guys feel like they are playing for the fans."

The big crowds could also pay future dividends.

"We had a recruit here for Louisville, and we had recruits here for Marquette and great crowds make a difference," said Cronin.  "You want us to recruit great players?  Then keep coming to the games because they pay attention.  And it affects winning.  When you have a guy like Rick Pitino saying that we had the best home court advantage that he has seen in a long time - that affects winning.  We sent that quote out to all of our recruits."

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Coombs Departs, But His Sales Pitch Remains

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Shortly after Urban Meyer was hired as the head coach at Ohio State, I ran into Kerry Coombs on an elevator at the Lindner Center.

"Has Urban called and offered you a job yet?" I asked.

The answer at that point was no, but I wasn't shocked when the news broke on Thursday that Meyer was trying to add Coombs to his coaching staff at OSU.  I'll admit to being mildly surprised when I heard that Kerry had accepted the job.

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Kerry Coombs loves the city of Cincinnati as much as anyone I know.  He turned down multiple opportunities (with significant salary increases) to join Brian Kelly's staff at Notre Dame and I'm sure he struggled with the decision of whether to leave this time around.

I wish him nothing but the best.

It's no secret that Kerry would like to be a college head coach and having Ohio State on the resume won't hurt.  While I doubt he made the decision for money, a bump in pay doesn't hurt either.  I thought UC head coach Butch Jones showed tremendous class with the comments that he made about Coomb's departure to Bill Koch in the Enquirer:

"I will always be indebted to him," Jones said.  "He helped me with the whole process of coming to Cincinnati.  He brought me along.  He introduced me to the right people, taught me different things about Cincinnati.  This isn't just a relationship that started when I came here.  I knew Kerry for years prior to coming here.  He made for the transition to be very smooth."  

Kerry will be missed as a coach, recruiter, and ambassador for the UC football program, but I have complete confidence that Butch Jones will find a capable replacement.  As for recruiting, the head coach sets the tone and Coach Jones wakes up thinking about recruiting as much as any coach that I know.  Cincinnati signed its highest-ranked class ever this year, and I expect that success to continue under the current staff because they have a great product to sell.   

I once asked Kerry to give me the sales pitch that he made to Cincinnati-area high school recruits.  I didn't write it down verbatim, but the basic spiel went as follows:  There are several schools where you can play for championships, maximize your ability, and get a great education.  But there's only one school where you can do all of that in your hometown in front of your friends and family.

That message hasn't changed, even though a spot on the coaching staff has.

**********

One aspect of Cincinnati's 72-61 win over Marquette that didn't get enough attention in my opinion (although my man Mike DeCourcy mentioned it in The Sporting News) was Mick Cronin's decision to play zone defense for the entire game.  It was the biggest change in strategy that the coaching staff made after a 95-78 loss at Marquette on February 11th.

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"I thought I made a calculated error in our first game against Marquette," Cronin said.  "We played zone in the first half and they made six three-pointers, but the reason why were down by 12 was they had 16 points off turnovers.  We went man-to-man in the second half and we never got our bearings.  They had 45 points in the second half on layups and free throws.  Marquette is the fastest team I've ever coached against and the zone makes them take their time - it forces them to run offense.  So we were going to stay in the zone no matter what.  If they made 10 three-pointers in a row, I was staying in a zone.  I told the guys, they can only win if we turn the ball over and let them run it down our throats."

UC only committed 7 turnovers and Marquette finished with 3 points off turnovers and 5 fast break points (total of 8 combined).  The Golden Eagles had 56 points when you added those two stats in game one.  As a result, the 'Cats won by double digits on a night where they were 4-for-24 (17%) from beyond the arc.

"That just shows you that defense is where you have to hang your hat," Coach Cronin said.  "You won't always make shots.  Your defense is your constant.  When you have a really good team and you make shots, you should win easily.

"When we are at our best, we take care of the ball and get shots.  That's who we are.  We don't shoot the highest percentage, but we get more shot attempts than nearly anybody in the Big East - I think we're ranked 1-2 with Louisville in field goal attempts.  Shooting percentage isn't as important for us as some other teams because we get so many attempts.  We don't turn the ball over and we're a pretty good rebounding team even though we're small.  We just get more possessions than our opponents."

The Bearcats attempted 9 more shots than Villanova in an 82-78 win on January 14th.  It's a stat to watch on Saturday afternoon in Philly.

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Yancy's Legacy

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What is Yancy Gates' legacy as a UC Bearcat?

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I suspect that topic is going to be debated quite a bit heading into Yancy's final home game on Wednesday night against Marquette.

Here are my thoughts.

I believe that Yancy has endured more scrutiny and criticism from fans and media than any other UC player in recent memory and I don't think it is because he is from Cincinnati.  It is largely because of what he is not.  He is not a First-Team All-American.  He is not Danny Fortson on offense, Kenyon Martin on defense, and doesn't have the relentless motor of Eric Hicks (few do).  He is not the NBA lottery pick that many people thought he might become at 6'9", 260.

Additionally, he bears responsibility for suspensions in his final two seasons - for a verbal altercation with an assistant coach as a junior and for punching an opponent as a senior.  Yancy did not make excuses in either case, admitted his mistakes, and publicly apologized.  I believe he was sincere and has learned from his mistakes.

So instead of fixating on what Yancy is not, let's take a look at what he is.

He is about to become the first player in school history to lead the team in rebounding for four straight years.

He will finish his career as one of the top 15 scorers in Bearcat history.

With 853 rebounds, he is on the verge of passing Martin (869), Fortson (873), and Hicks (888), and depending on how many games that Cincinnati plays in the post-season, Yancy could become one of 10 players in school history to reach 900 rebounds.

As a junior, he played a major role in getting the Bearcats back to the NCAA Tournament and finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds in their tourney win over Missouri.  As a senior, he's nearly averaging a double/double at 12 points and 9 rebounds, and is probably one win away from securing a return trip to March Madness.

He has been accessible and honest with the media and has never publicly complained about the criticism he's received on talk shows and message boards. 

Most importantly, Yancy was one of the most highly-touted recruits to come out of Cincinnati in the last 20 years and elected to play for UC even though the program was in shambles after a messy divorce with Bob Huggins.  Yancy brought massive credibility to Mick Cronin's rebuilding effort and was a starter from Day 1.

Oh yeah, and he stayed for four years.

I asked Coach Cronin on Sunday to discuss Yancy's legacy.  Here's his answer in its entirety.

He rebuilt the program. I think that's got to be the focus.  I believe in the positive and you have to understand that he came to us when it was not in vogue to come to Cincinnati.  He could have gone anywhere in America.  He had offers from everybody.  When I went in there to see him, I was sitting next to Billy Donovan, John Thompson, Rick Pitino, you name it.  They were sitting at Withrow High School, and he committed to the Bearcats after we finished 2-14 in the Big East.  He made his announcement right after that.  It allowed us to go out and recruit some other guys with some confidence.  The impact of him coming to our school was immense.

Secondly, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders for four years and I admire the fact that he and his family have shown an immense amount of class and character through tough times.  With this age of the internet and talk radio, he's taken a lot of shots.  He's a young kid - they're not professionals.  You know, he's had some bad days, but his family showed immense class and character though the whole thing as well as Yancy.  We wouldn't be where we are as a program if he wouldn't have been with us.

In this presidential election year, we are going to hear candidates from both sides ask the following question between now and November, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Nobody is asking that question about the UC basketball program and Yancy Gates is largely responsible.

Seems like a pretty good legacy to me.

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"The Inseparables" Look To Lead Bearcats Back To Tourney

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Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon have been UC Bearcats for the last 1,252 days.  Sometime in the next 41 days, their college careers will be finished.

"Time flies," said Dixon.  "I can remember my freshman year like it was yesterday." 

"We talk about how we came in together and everybody said we were 'The Inseparables' because we go to class together, practice together, everything," said Gates.  "Now we're about to be on our way out together - it's crazy."

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Their reasons for coming to Cincinnati were different.  In Dixon's case, the rebuilding Bearcats offered an opportunity to play right away in the nation's best conference.

"I felt like I could come here and play, and I felt like they needed me to play right away to help the team," said Dixon.  "I thought that I could come here and have a good career and it turned out well."

For Gates, the former Withrow High School star, it was the opportunity to help put UC basketball back on the map after the turmoil that resulted from the ouster of Bob Huggins.

"Rebuilding the program was the main thing for me," Gates told me.  "When Coach Cronin was recruiting me, that's all that we talked about.  I told him that I was willing to come in and do whatever I needed to do to help, whether it was hosting recruits when they came here, or playing my game.  That's been really big for me - especially being from here - helping to get the program in my home city back on track."  

Gates and Dixon helped the Bearcats return to the NCAA Tournament as juniors, and are determined to return to March Madness as seniors.  As much as they try to focus on the next game, it's hard to ignore the various bracketologists that have Cincinnati listed as a bubble team.

"I know for me, that it's kind of hard not to pay attention to it - especially as a senior," said Gates.  "You're constantly looking at where you stand and what you have to do to improve your status and try to make the tournament." 

"We don't know if we are in or not right now, so we feel like our backs are against the wall and we have to win out," said Dixon.

Their fate is in their own hands.  Cincinnati's next three games are against teams that are currently in the Top 50 of the RPI (Louisville-21, USF-50, Marquette-8), followed by a difficult road game at Villanova on Senior Day. 

"We're looking at these games as must-wins," said Dixon.  "We don't want to leave any doubt in anybody's minds."

"We feel we're capable of pulling these last four games out, so that's been our big focus," said Gates.

Realistically, the 'Cats probably need to win at least two of their last four games, and a win on Thursday night over 17th-ranked Louisville would be great for their tournament resume.

"Nine o'clock...ESPN...it's hard not to be excited about it," said Gates.  "And it's Louisville - college basketball at its best."

"Everything is on the line...identical records...this is what it's all about," said Dixon.  "You work all year for this."

By then, they will have worked for 1,254 days.

**********

Cincinnati's non-conference strength of schedule has been a major topic of conversation in recent weeks, and one thing that would have helped it considerably, was if Coach Cronin had gotten his wish in the Big East/SEC Challenge.  

"We were tabbed to be a road team and we were slated to play Georgia," said Cronin.  "I lobbied and requested to play Kentucky or Alabama - the two highest-rated SEC teams that were scheduled to play at home in that challenge.  But ESPN gets to pick that, and I was upset with the Big East because I didn't think that they fought hard enough.  They sent St. John's to the wolves at Kentucky, and I thought that was unfair to those kids because they have a team with no experience.  I thought our league should have been stronger and never let that happen.  Especially when you have a coach 75 miles from Lexington that's saying, 'I'll go down and play 'em win, lose, or draw.'"

One way to boost the non-conference RPI is to play tough opponents in early-season tournaments and the Bearcats are scheduled to do that next season.

"Next year at Thanksgiving, we'll be in Las Vegas playing Iowa State in our first game and then either Oregon or UNLV in the second game," said Coach Cronin.  "So we'll have a chance to get some decent wins early and establish our RPI."   

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I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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And I'm on Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad. 

Schaffer Looks To Prove Doubters Wrong...Again

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JK Schaffer spent the last four years proving people wrong.

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After not being heavily recruited out of LaSalle High School, Schaffer concluded his college career as a First-Team All-Big East linebacker - one of only four players in league history to have more than 100 tackles in three straight seasons. 

So as far as JK is concerned, not being invited to next week's NFL Scouting Combine is par for the course.

"I've always used that stuff for motivation," Schaffer told me.  "When I was in high school, people told me that I wouldn't play in Division I.  Now, it's not getting invited to the combine or people saying, 'He's too small, he's too whatever.'  I just take all of that stuff and think about it on that last run of conditioning drills when I'm struggling and don't want to do it anymore.  It's another reason to go out and prove people wrong.  I also look at it as giving me an extra week to train and get ready for Pro Day."

While fellow seniors Isaiah Pead, Derek Wolfe, and John Hughes will be in Indianapolis when the combine starts on Wednesday, Schaffer's opportunity to work out for NFL scouts will come on March 2nd when UC holds its annual Pro Day.

Schaffer, an excellent student who was recently named the Big East Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year, is now busy cramming for the tests he'll get from NFL scouts.

"It's all about Pro Day," said Schaffer.  "About 3 ½ weeks ago, I moved up to Barrington, Illinois which is a little northwest of Chicago and is where my agent is based.  I'm living and training with two guys from Northern Illinois University while taking 15 hours of online classes because I want to be able to graduate by June.  We work out three to four times a day and at the field house where we have the weight room and the field where we do all of our position drills and running.  We have basketball courts where we do different things and there's a pilates room which we use twice a week.  That's basically my life right now - training six days a week for most of the day and then coming back to the house and doing a little homework."

Schaffer, who was listed at 6'1, 227 this year, is trying to get bigger and stronger while shaving a fraction of a second off of his 40-yard dash and shuttle run times.

"I'm trying to put on a little bit of weight," JK told me.  "I've never really been above 230 in my life, so I'm trying to get to 235.  Obviously, I can't improve my height, although I would really like to.  You can't get that much faster, but what you can improve is your technique.  I know that I didn't understand technique, so we're working with a lot of guys who know what they're doing."

While Schaffer was not invited to the combine, he was selected for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl - an all-star game in California where he played for former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil.

"The whole week leading up to the game was great, but unfortunately, I played four seasons at Cincinnati and didn't miss a play due to injury, and pretty early-on in that All-Star Game, I took a helmet to the hip and got a hip pointer," said Schaffer.  "I couldn't even stand up, so I got taken out of the game.  That's why you didn't see much of me.  I'm fully recovered from that, so it's not a problem.  I was sore for a couple of weeks, but it was not a serious injury."

Wes Welker, Osi Umenyiora, and Jay Ratliff are among the current NFL players who have been to multiple Pro Bowls despite not being invited to the combine, and while UC head coach Butch Jones is not necessarily predicting Pro Bowl appearances in Schaffer's future, he has been singing JK's praises to NFL teams.

"The scouting process is not an exact science and they can't measure the intangibles," said Coach Jones.  "On Pro Day, everybody is looking at your athleticism - the way you run a 40-yard dash, your short shuttle time, your change of direction - but what you can't measure at Pro Day is heart, and that's what JK has.  The big thing that every coach looks for is consistency, and the great thing about JK is that you know what you are going to get each and every day.  He has great competitive spirit and coachability - couple that with his physical skills and, I am his biggest advocate to say the least."

Coach Jones says he expects Schaffer to get an opportunity in training camp to make a roster, but the senior linebacker takes it a step further by saying he expects to play in the NFL.

"There's no doubt," JK told me.  "I don't know what kind of competitor I would be if there was any doubt."

**********

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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How Mick Uses His Movie Memory To Make Points

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Do you have any friends that have an uncanny ability to remember famous lines from movies?

I do.  His name is Mick Cronin.

"My memory is probably my best trait," said the UC head coach.  "Whether it's a player from years ago or a play that the other team runs, I think that recall is one of my strengths.  Plus, I've watched certain movies multiple times."

Mick makes frequent use of his movie memory.  For example, when asked at a recent news conference about fighting through the Big East grind, Coach Cronin quoted 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.

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Coach Cronin doesn't only use movie references when dealing with reporters.  Frequently when trying to emphasize a point at practice, he'll quote a movie line in an effort to make it resonate with the players.

"You pick out spots," Mick told me.  "A good example would be, when a guy is trying to do too much with the basketball, I hit 'em with General McAlister from Lethal Weapon:  'There's no more heroes left in the world son.'  In other words, just play your role and take care of the ball.  During the suspensions when we only had eight guys and had to stick together, we brought out, 'Am I my brother's keeper,' which is a New Jack City reference."

"He has a lot of movie quotes and they are usually right on," said Yancy Gates.  "It's hard to remember them all because he has so many.  I can't remember the movie, but one line that he uses is, 'You're nothing but a lot of talk and a badge.'  That's one of his favorites after a loss."

For the record, that line comes from The Untouchables and is used to make the point that talk is cheap.  It's no surprise that Yancy Gates remembered the line but not the movie since the film came out two years before he was born.

"He usually talks about movies that we've never seen," said Dion Dixon with a laugh.  "They're either too old or they're movies that we don't watch."

"Unfortunately, if it's not a slapstick comedy, today's players have not seen the movie," said Coach Cronin.

Mick, on the other hand, prefers the classics.  What's at the top of his all-time list?

"The Godfather, which I brought with me on the last road trip," said Cronin.  "I have trouble sleeping, so I can always put on The Godfather 1 or 2.  I have to put those two near the top, along with Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction.  After that, there's another category where you go from the best movies of all-time to some really good movies that I enjoy."

Mick actually used a line from The Godfather when talking to his players about not sharing too much inside information about the team on their Twitter accounts.


The Bearcats most recent road trip to St. John's and Marquette even included a trip to the movies.  To break up the drudgery of going back-and-forth between practice gyms and hotel rooms, the team went to see the new Denzel Washington movie Safe House.


"We talked to Drew (Seidenberger, Director of Basketball Operations) about it," said Cashmere Wright.  "We said, 'We're going to be on the road for so long, we have to do something.'  He said, 'I'll talk to coach about it.'"

"That was the movie that everybody was talking about," said Gates.  "We were all planning to see it together when we got home, so when Drew told us we were going to go see it on the road trip, everybody was excited.  I thought it was great - another great Denzel movie.  I think he's the only bad guy that has everybody cheering for him."

While the Bearcats went to watch Denzel last week, the Academy Award-winning actor showed up at Madison Square Garden two years ago to watch them.  He was sitting near President Clinton when West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler beat the Bearcats with a last-second three point bank shot.


"Denzel is a big college basketball fan and his son Malcolm is a pretty good player," said Coach Cronin.  "We have mutual friends so I've met him before and he's a huge basketball fan.  He's one of the best actors of our time, so I thought the guys would like it and it got us out of the hotel."

There's a scene in Safe House (it's in the trailer so I'm not spoiling anything) where a young CIA employee played by Ryan Reynolds tells Denzel's character that "you're not getting into my head."

Denzel's character coolly responds that "I'm already in your head."

I wouldn't be shocked if that line is eventually used to make a point at a Bearcat practice.

**********

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

 

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

 

And I'm on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

White Shirt Helps Red and Black Beat St. John's

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I've seen hundreds of basketball practices over the years, but as the Bearcats prepared to face St. John's, they did something that I had never seen before.

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As UC studied the St. John's offense, whoever was pretending to be leading-scorer D'Angelo Harrison, ran through the Red Storm's plays either wearing or waving a white t-shirt.

"That helped us know where he was going to be at all times," said Dion Dixon.  "We were like, 'He's over here...now he's over there.'  I give all the credit to the coaches.  They did a great job of preparing us."

"In football they put the red jersey or the green jersey on the quarterback, so for the last couple of days, we had a white t-shirt on D'Angelo Harrison," said head coach Mick Cronin.  "Our guys were trained to find him.  We were not going to let him beat us."

Mission accomplished.

The St. John's freshman entered Wednesday's game averaging 16.7 points, including eight 20-point performances.  In his previous game, Harrison dropped 23 points on first-place Syracuse.

But after Cincinnati's "white shirt" practices, Harrison might as well have waved a white towel in the Bearcats' 76-54 win over St. John's.  D'Angelo nearly reached his scoring average with 15 points, but he shot 4-for-13 from the floor, and 10 of his 15 points came in the last 6:25 after the outcome had been decided.

"You could see him getting frustrated," said Dixon.  "He just put his head down and started barreling to the basket because he wasn't getting open shots.  That's a young guy - he's going to be a great player."

"He can't make the shot if he doesn't get the attempt," said Cronin.  "In their previous two games, he was something like 12-for-19 from the 3-point line, and that's with everybody trying to find him.  He's making shots from behind the NBA line, and he has an extremely quick release.  Their other guys do not shoot the ball well from beyond the 3-point line - their next-best 3-point shooter is Moe Harkless at 23%, so we said, 'Don't let Harrison shoot - make the other guys shoot.'  So it was easy to find him at practice - he was the guy running around waving a white t-shirt over his head when we were going through St. John's offense."

It was an exceptional defensive performance by the 'Cats against a team that had averaged 77 points in its previous five games against Villanova, West Virginia, Duke, DePaul, and Syracuse.  St. John's only managed 54 points against the Bearcats, and shot 28% from the floor in the first half and 33% for the game.

"We know what they're capable of," said Cronin.  "They scored 57 in the second half of their game last week at DePaul, which was devastating to watch.  The talent is there, and when you prepare for a team, you prepare for their best effort.

"You have to give the kids credit - they were locked in and focused.  We had a team meeting on Tuesday about mental state and how committed we were on defense when we only had eight scholarship players and no big guys.  If we can have that attitude, focus, and commitment, we have a chance to make a run down the stretch." 

After improving to 17-7 overall and 7-4 in the Big East, the Bearcats have two days to prepare for a difficult road test at 18th-ranked Marquette (20-5, 9-3).  I suspect the white t-shirt will come in handy as Cincinnati studies how to defend Darius Johnson-Odom.

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Did we finally see the real Cheikh Mbodj?

After averaging a modest 2.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in his first 14 games, the 6'10" JUCO transfer had his best Big East game on Wednesday, finishing with 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots in 16 minutes of playing time.  All five blocks came in the second half.

"In the first half, I asked Cheikh if somebody stole his dog," said Coach Cronin.  "I said, 'Did somebody take your puppy, because I don't know where your mind is.'  He has practiced so well in the last two weeks and it just hasn't translated until the second half (last night).  He finally got comfortable on both ends of the floor.  I just think he's nervous to be honest with you.

"His shot blocking has been off-the-charts in practice.  We were playing zone, and when you have a guy in there patrolling the middle and blocking shots, it matters."

Just ask Syracuse.  The 'Cuse is undefeated when 7-footer Fab Melo has been eligible.

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Did you think that the officials did a good job in the St. John's game?

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Perhaps it was because my man Machock spent half of the pre-game show chatting with his buddy Ed Hightower.

All kidding aside, I think Wednesday's crew of Hightower, Pat Driscoll, and Brian O'Connell is among the strongest in the Big East.

I had little doubt that Chuck's streak of consecutive games without being ejected would reach 287.

**********

On Wednesday, the Big East officially announced the addition of Memphis for all sports beginning in the fall of 2013.

"It's good to see something done for basketball," Coach Cronin told me.  "There's no doubt that Memphis with their fan base and the FedEx Forum - basketball has always been the lead-dog so to speak.  We're losing Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia in the coming years, so it's good to add a basketball power to the Big East.  Now that we're at 17, there is going to be speculation that there's another team coming to get to 18, but I don't know who that would be.  I think this is a positive for Cincinnati, and anything that's positive for the Big East is a positive for Cincinnati."

**********

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

 

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

 

And I'm on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

 

And speaking of Sam, enjoy this week's photo taken after a recent swimming lesson.

Sam swim lesson.jpg

Bearcats Get Wake-Up Call

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The text message from Mick Cronin to his players was sent on Monday night.  Instead of practicing the following afternoon at the usual time of 3 o'clock, everybody was required to be ready to go at 7:30 on Tuesday morning.

"When he sent us the text, everybody was like, 'Yo, this is not looking good,'" said Sean Kilpatrick.  "Usually when a coach wants you to come in at 7:30 in the morning it means you have to get your track shoes ready."

But Coach Cronin's objective was not punitive.

"We don't have class until 11 o'clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I was just trying to keep it fresh for the guys," Mick told me.  "It gives them more recovery time until the next day and changes the routine up - which I think is important this time of year.  Also, it allows the coaching staff to get on the phone and recruit and do the things that they need to do."

The twice-a-week early practices are expected to continue until the end of the academic quarter and while they are not meant to be punishment, the players have been doing plenty of running. 

"It has been 'get out the track shoes' to be honest with you," said Coach Cronin.  "I think that lately we've played too slow and as a coach, you always have to look in the mirror.  Coaching is not about telling guys what to do; it's about getting them to do it."

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In their last two games, the Bearcats scored 53 points in their loss to Syracuse, and 54 in their loss at Rutgers.  Coach Cronin disputes the notion that they've changed their offensive approach from the attack that helped them win five of their first six Big East games. 

"You have to get easy baskets," said Coach Cronin.  "When we were 5-1, we were averaging 11 steals a game.  The telling stats for easy baskets are 'points off turnovers' and 'second-chance points.'  If you have to rely on all of your baskets in a Big East game coming in the half-court, you're not going to win.  You have to get second and third shots, and more importantly, you have to get easy baskets in transition.  We've worked really hard at practice this week on getting back to being aggressive on what we're doing on the defensive end to get us some easier baskets on the offensive end.  We're trying to get back to running on every possession and trying to attack teams before they can set the defense."

Cincinnati is hardly the only team that has had low-scoring games in Big East play.  Connecticut scored 44 points in Wednesday's loss at Georgetown, the Hoyas were held to 49 points in a victory over Providence on December 31st, and Pittsburgh managed 39 points in a home game against Rutgers on January 11th.  It didn't mean that Jim Calhoun, John Thompson III, and Jamie Dixon forgot how to coach. 

"Fans are entitled to their opinion, but I don't think they realize how hard it is to score in the Big East," said Kilpatrick.  "Every day you face something different.  Teams have scouting reports and they adjust their defenses to the way that we play and the way that everybody else plays.  Lately, the teams in the Big East have been doing a great job of that."

"Look at Syracuse," said Coach Cronin.  "They are number one in the country in steals, but in their last three games, they scored 58 at Notre Dame, 60 at Cincinnati, and 63 against West Virginia.  Their scoring totals are coming down because teams are not giving them all of those fast break points."

So in an effort to get the Bearcats back to forcing turnovers and getting some easy hoops, Coach Cronin has been "cracking the whip" at the crack of dawn.

"No mistake has gone unchallenged or unpunished this week," Mick told me.  "But the guys' attitude has been great.  Winning will take of itself if your focus is on playing smart, having intensity, and staying together as a team."

"You never know what's going to happen with Coach Cronin," said Kilpatrick.  "I think it's been a good idea though.  We looked at the last couple of games that we played and it was embarrassing.  Everyone knows that and everybody's mindset has been different.  The past few days have been great."

**********

I'd love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

 

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

 

And I'm on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.


Speaking of Sam, enjoy this week's photo from a recent Taekwondo class.  


Sam Taekwondo.jpg