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Stephenson says he's staying

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In what was supposed to be a rather mundane, mid-week players availability session today, freshman Lance Stephenson caused a little stir when he said he thinks he'll forgo a chance at the NBA next season and will return to UC for his sophomore season.

 

This decision, he implied, wasn't for certain, and at least one person who's close to the national recruiting scene texted me that we shouldn't write Stephenson's name into next year's starting lineup just yet. But Stephenson said he still has work to accomplish before taking the next step of his career.

 

"I don't think I've had an NBA season this year," he said. "The best choice for me is to stay."

 

By that, Stephenson meant that he didn't dominate as much as he should have and he didn't lead his team to the victories that a surefire NBA prospect would have. Although his preseason hype has helped muffle the fact that Stephenson is having a pretty good - but not a great - freshman season, he, on Tuesday at least, seemed to realize what many others have been saying lately: he's not a one-and-done type player.

 

"I don't think I've struggled," said Stephenson, who's averaging 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor (19.1 percent from the 3). "It hasn't been hard. I think I just have to keep going in the gym and working on my stuff. I expected when I was coming to Cincinnati that it was going to be tough each game. I'd have to come focused. Sometimes you're going to have a bad game. Every game, you're not going to play good. Some of the games I had, I wasn't expecting it. But I think it's going to come to me."

 

I asked him if he thought, before the season, whether he was the type of player that could spend just one season in college basketball before setting sail on his pro career.

 

"Nah, I just wanted to play hard and get better every day and whatever happens, happens," Stephenson said. "I wasn't like, 'Oh, after this year, I know I'm going to leave.' I just said I had to play hard and not worry about that."

 

While you might be skeptical that Stephenson really is leaning toward staying in Clifton for another year, it's clear he still needs plenty of work. And he seems to understand that as well.

 

"Lance's big thing is maturity and not trying to score on a guy because he just scored on him on the previous play, not breaking the offense and going 1 on 5," Mick Cronin said. "The basketball term you would hear most people say is he has to learn how to let the game come to him. But that's tough when people just handed him the ball and got out of the way. I'm trying to teach him to be more efficient with less dribbles, getting him the ball in areas where he can be a more efficient offensive player."

 

Stephenson hasn't been a problem child this year, either. Cronin says he hasn't pouted after a game or practice in which he's struggled. Instead, he's always eager to show up the next day to work harder. But as for the NBA?

 

"It's tough to say," Cronin said. "Obviously, I'd love to be able to get him to a point where he's ready to be a successful NBA player. For any player, there's going to the NBA and then there's going to the NBA and playing well and having a career. That will be a decision he and his family where we'll all sit down. They've been great to deal with. When the season is over, we'll worry about that. I can tell you, he definitely wants to play better, and I want to help him play better."

Is the NCAA tourney a remote possibility?

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Local heartthrob and TV/radio sensation Ken Broo asked me that question on his Sunday morning sports talk show on Valentine's Day, and after thinking about it for a second - knowing UC had to play at USF, vs. Marquette, vs. DePaul, at West Virginia, vs. Villanova and at Georgetown - I said no.

 

I thought they could struggle at USF. I thought they would beat Marquette and DePaul at 5/3. I thought they might have a chance to pull an upset against one of the final three squads on the schedule. I thought UC could still make the NCAA tournament. I just didn't think the Bearcats would.

 

Now, after losing at South Florida and after falling to Marquette on Sunday - two absolute must-win games that did not end as such - what are UC's chances today? The answer: they're on life support.

 

And it's not just the fact the Bearcats have lost that has their fans upset. It's the way they've lost. The fact that South Florida pounded them - after which Mick Cronin said the Bulls had needed the win more than his team. The fact their offense, for the most part, continues to be invisible. The fact they can't make free throws at the end of games. The fact that Yancy Gates didn't play the final 12 minutes of the Marquette game and was then seen giggling on the bench. The fact that Lance Stephenson has been less than impressive and played less than a quarter of Sunday's game.

 

So, where to now?

 

Right now, UC is 15-11 and 6-8 in the Big East. The Bearcats sit in a five-way tie for eighth place in the league. In those final four games, I see one win and three losses. I don't have to tell you that, at that point, the Bearcats might not get a call from the NIT.

 

But think about it this way: if UC can beat DePaul, can upset West Virginia in Morgantown (hey, it happened two years ago with a team not nearly as athletically-talented as the current one) and somehow knock off a Georgetown squad that's 3-4 in its past seven games (hey, the Bearcats swept the Hoyas last season), the Bearcats could have a shot at the NCAA tournament.

 

Assuming a loss to Villanova - I don't see UC winning that one - that would put the Bearcats 18-12, 9-9. A win or two in the Big East tournament, and you've got a pretty decent resume for inclusion.

 

Is my scenario a stretch? Yes, it is. Is it impossible? No, I don't think so. Like I said, the chances for an NCAA tournament berth are on life support. But that doesn't mean they're dead quite yet.

 

--Surprisingly - at least to my eyes - Joe Lunardi seems to think UC has a better shot of making the tournament than the vast majority of the US population. In his latest Bracketology, he has the Bearcats as one of "The First Four Out." That means, according to him, UC is still on the bubble.

 

I know Cronin oftentimes doesn't agree with Lunardi's prognostications. This probably isn't one of those times.

 

--So, I've been off the grid the past week or so for a number of personal reasons. I've got tons of e-mail and messages I need to answer, so if you sent me something, have a little bit of patience. I'm going to try to get back to you all in the next day or two.

Mailbag Response Time!

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Got some great e-mail regarding my mailbag, and I thank everybody for taking the time to write and tell me their feelings. Most, not surprisingly, didn't necessarily agree with me and my thought that Mick Cronin deserved another year. And that's OK. I'm just happy to have the dialogue.

 

But let me take one e-mail from the pile, because it makes some interesting points. Bear with me because Craig spent some time on this bad boy and put together a fair amount of research for it. I, once again, edited parts of it for length but tried to stay true to the original intent of the e-mail.

 

From Craig:

 

Four years ago, when people were talking about a five-year rebuilding process for Mick Cronin at UC, I thought it was too conservative and I still think it is. For a traditional basketball program that has continued to have success in modern times (the past 10-15 years), more should be expected of Mick by this point in his tenure at UC. To help validate my argument, here are Mick's results compared to those of other coaches at traditional NCAA basketball programs that have had similar success to UC in modern times and have been on the job for a comparable amount of time as Mick. All of these coaches came in after losing seasons (with the exception of Tom Crean at Indiana) and without a stocked cupboard of talent, similar to Mick. In some cases, the program was facing NCAA violation issues that certainly could have affected recruiting and the rebuilding process.

 

Mick Cronin, University of Cincinnati

Previous team record in 2005-2006: 21-13, NIT

2006-2007: 11-19 (2-14 Big East)

2007-2008: 13-19 (8-10), CBI 1st Round

2008-2009: 18-14 (8-10)

2009-2010 (current): 14-9 (5-6)

 

John Beilein, University of Michigan

Previous team record in 2006-2007: 22-13      

2007-2008: 10-22 (5-13 Big Ten)

2008-2009: 21-14 (9-9), NCAA 2nd Round               

2009-2010 (current): 11-11 (4-6)

 

Thad Matta, Ohio State University

Previous team record in 2003-2004: 14-16 (6-10)

Previous coach, Jim O'Brien, fired over alleged NCAA violations. Matta was hired when team was potentially facing probation (and eventually was ineligible for post season his first year)

Coaching record:

2004-2005: 20-12 (8-8 Big Ten)

2005-2006: 26-6 (12-4), Big 10 Champs, NCAA 2nd Round

2006-2007: 35-4 (15-1), Big 10 Champs, Big 10 Tournament Champs, NCAA Runner-Up

2007-2008: 24-13 (10-8), NIT Champions

2009-2010 (current): 19-6 (9-3)

 

Matt Painter, Purdue University

Previous team record in 2004-2005: 7-21 (3-13)

Coaching record:

2005-2006: 9-19 (3-13 Big Ten)

2006-2007: 22-12 (9-7), NCAA 2nd Round

2007-2008: 25-9 (15-3), NCAA 2nd Round

2008-2009: 27-10 (11-7), Big 10 Tournament Champs, NCAA Sweet 16    

2009-2010 (current): 20-3 (8-3)

NOTE: Matt Painter was hired as the Associate Head Coach under Gene Keady for the 2004-2005 season to help with the coaching transition. If one would wanted to treat this as his "first" year when comparing to Mick, then consider his team's performance in 2007-2008 as his fourth year. The improvement in that time frame is still significantly better than Cronin's.

 

Bruce Pearl, University of Tennessee

Previous team record in 2004-2005: 14-17 (6-10)

Coaching record:

2005-2006: 22-8 (12-4 SEC), NCAA 2nd Round

2006-2007: 24-11 (10-6), NCAA Sweet 16

2007-2008: 31-5 (14-2), SEC Champs, NCAA Sweet 16

2008-2009: 21-13 (10-6) NCAA 1st Round

2009-2010 (current): 18-5 (6-3)

 

Tom Crean, Indiana University

Previous team record in 2007-2008: 25-8 (14-2), NCAA 1st Round

Kelvin Sampson was fired towards the end of the season due to NCAA violations. Interim Coach Dan Dakich coached final 7 games. Most of the team left following season.

2008-2009: 6-25 (1-17)

2009-2010 (current): 9-12 (3-6)

 

Not all of these coaches are Hall of Famers, but, excluding Tom Crean momentarily, they all got their teams to 20-win seasons and into the NCAA tournament in within their first 2 years of being a coach. All of the programs I did list, though, have a similar basketball tradition and success to that of the Bearcats, and the UC faithful would be much more satisfied, or at least look toward the future in a much more promising manner, if Mick were to turn in performances similar to any of these guys.

In short, mark me up for one that does not think Mick deserves year 5.

 

OK, so we're going to have to agree to disagree on the conservative estimate that it would take five years to rebuild. You say it shouldn't take that long; I say UC's predicament four years ago was similar to a program just reemerging from an NCAA-sanctioned death penalty. Although others in the national media said the same thing at the time - I think Mike DeCourcy said it would take about twice as long as I predicted - this is just argument that's not going to be settled. We'll leave it there.

 

I agree that the Tom Crean analogy is most similar to what Cronin went through. Of course - and this also goes for the arguments with Matta and Painter - you can't compare the competition in the Big East and the Big Ten. If UC played in the Big Ten, where there are like four legit teams this season, the Bearcats wouldn't be struggling nearly as hard to break the .500 mark in conference play. Not when you have the likes of Michigan (there's Beilein struggling), Indiana, Iowa and Penn State playing.

 

I think that's what lost most here. People forget that the Big East is the strongest conference in the history of college basketball. Trying to come back from the dead to play in a league like this is ridiculous. Even the teams that struggle the most in the league are still pretty good teams. OK, maybe not DePaul or Rutgers, but you get my point. How would St. John's or Seton Hall fare in the Big Ten? I'm betting they'd be better than the 3-8 and 4-7 records, respectively, those teams are displaying in the Big East. I'm not saying that Matta and Painter haven't done nice jobs with really good players - I would argue Craig's point that their cupboards were bare when they took over - but they also weren't competing in the same league against Rick Pitino and Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim and Jamie Dixon and so on and so on.

 

As for Bruce Pearl: yes, Tennessee was down after Buzz Petersen left, but to me, you can't really compare his situation to Mick's. Yes, a couple of top recruits had transferred out after Pearl was hired, but it's not like the program was decimated. He still had Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson and Major Wingate - guys who were pretty good to legitimately great players. The Bearcats had Deonta Vaughn, a freshman. And that's about it.

 

But there's one program Craig didn't mention: Baylor and coach Scott Drew. Most of Dave Bliss' player had transferred out before Drew was hired in August of 2003 after that humongous scandal, but since then, Drew has done a remarkable job bringing this program back from the brink of irrelevance. Here's his record through his first four seasons:

 

2003-04/8-21/3-13 Big 12

2004-05/9-19/1-15

2005-06/4-13/4-12

2006-07/15-16/4-12

 

And in his fifth year, the same number I'm saying Mick should get? The Bears went 21-11 and made the NCAA tournament.

Mailbag time!

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Apparently, me asking you to e-mail some questions for the long-awaited return of the mailbag has allowed you to let off some steam. Yikes. It's pretty easy to see that people are upset with the state of the basketball program, and that's reflected in some of the e-mails I've received.

 

So, let me try to assuage some of your fears, correct what I feel are some wrong impressions, and tell you how I feel about the prospects of changing coaches. Just an FYI, I edited some of the e-mails for length, but I've tried my best to keep the original intent of the e-mails intact.

 

Onward to the mailbag:

 

From Gary:

 

You should write another book. "The Rise and Fall of a Basketball Dynasty". The object of the game is to put the round ball in the hoop. Coach Cronin's style of offense doesn't know how to do that. Substitute, substitute, substitute, that's all we do. After 20 games I can't name you our starting five, and whoever the starting five are ,they won't play more than two minutes together before one or more of them is pulled out of the game. How can an offense develop a rhythm or continuity when it is changed every few minutes?

 

Gary's first comment, of course, allows me to plug the book I actually did write. You can find it and buy it right over here. So, thanks for that, Gary. There's little doubt that the Bearcats offense has struggled, and, in part, it's because UC is just not a great shooting team. It ranks ninth in the Big East in shooting percentage, 11th in scoring offense and last in 3-point shooting. Deonta Vaughn has struggled. Lance Stephenson has struggled. Larry Davis, minus the last couple of games, has been invisible. Simply put, if the team wants to win, it must rely on defense. And that's been a mixed bag during Big East play. But that's the hand the Bearcats are playing with this year.

 

Gary is also asking about the substitution pattern, and that's something some of the media have been asking about for weeks. The answer: UC has plenty of depth, and Cronin likes to make use of it. Simple as that. And while he did play 12 Bearcats against Syracuse, only seven played more than 6 minutes. In fact, it was nearly 7 minutes before Cronin substituted for any of the starters in the first half. In the second half, he subbed in Cashmere Wright for Deonta Vaughn about 3 minutes in, but other than that, he left the rest of the starters in until 13:37 remained in the game.

 

From Justin:

 

Why won't Mick take Lance off the wing and post him up?  He is so strong and skilled, wouldn't it help his game to get the ball eight feet from the hoop with a smaller defender on him?  He could get to the foul line much more, and if he turns and faces, he could offer a plethora of moves.  

 

Out on the wing, with his jumpshot in brick-mode, he's having a tough time - nobody is playing him tight because he has no confidence in his shot, so he doesn't have any room to drive to the hole.

 

Post him up, let him use that NBA body. Then have Yancy/Ibrahima/Steve dive to the hoop for dishes or to get into offensive rebounding position.  

 

An interesting question/theory. If you're talking about using Stephenson as a power forward and having him go against the other team's No. 4, that wouldn't work at all. Stephenson isn't nearly big enough - on offense or defense. He's got an NBA body, but he can't compete against a guy who's four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.

 

The other factor, if you're talking about keeping Stephenson at the No. 3 but having him post up his small forward defender, is this: Stephenson, right now, has struggled at his role on the perimeter - the one he's been playing all season. I don't see how it would be possible to wave a wand and make him play a different style and expect him to handle a completely new assignment in the middle of a season. He's having a hard enough time as it is playing in the Big East as a freshman. I don't think moving him would help. Besides, he's an attacker and best with the dribble-drive. Posting him up is just a completely different deal.

 

And let me answer one final e-mail from Darrell, who writes he's been a UC fan since 1971 and obviously is quite upset. The gist of the e-mail is that Cronin should be fired, and it's basically, the same kind of sentiment found on many of the message boards lately. I don't need to run down the points Darrell makes, because I'm sure you've read them all before.

 

Here's my take on Cronin and whether he deserves the chance to coach a fifth year. Everybody seems to forget the predictions that were made when Cronin took over before the 2006-2007 season. I know I told this to whoever was interviewing me, whenever fans asked me. We all said the program wouldn't fully recover for five years minimum. That's how long we all predicted this program would take to stock itself with Big East talent and with players who could understand and could execute the system Cronin put in place. Well, it's still only year No. 4 of the Cronin era. Mike Thomas doesn't spend much time in the spotlight - and I'm not sure how or if he's answering these angry e-mails that angry fans say they're sending him - but he strikes me as a guy who remembers the predicament this program was in after Andy Kennedy left. He uses long-term analysis in his decision-making.

 

You have to remember who played center for the Bearcats in Cronin's first year to understand what I'm saying: yep, it was Marcus Sikes. Which means Cronin, in his first year, basically had nothing but a scholarship player in Cedric McGowan and some JUCO players who wereat the bottom of the barrel and unsigned for a variety of reasons. Plus, the immortal (and scribe favorite) Ron Allen.

 

Now, it's completely fair, I think, to judge the progress of the players who have been in Cronin's system these past few years. Fans are doing that, as well. But to expect Cronin to turn around the program so quickly (and there were people who were calling for Mick's head in Year 2) was simply unrealistic, especially in the Big East.

 

So yes, I believe Cronin deserves his fifth year. After all, we all said it'd take at least that long in the first place.

 

FYI, I've got more than enough questions to satisfy another Mailbag, most of which will focus on the football team. But if you disagree with anything I just wrote, let me know. I like the conversation we've got going. Hit me back at jkatzo@hotmail.com.

What's happening with Lance Stephenson

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The season Lance Stephenson is experiencing fascinates me.

 

There was the hype before he ever stepped foot on campus - "Born Ready" and the legal trouble and the questions about whether he'd be even eligible to play this year. There was the hype in the preseason when those who saw him play in open gym or in summer leagues said the hype about his talent (and, I suppose, his born readiness) was legit.

 

And there was the hype that followed the Toledo game, the second contest of his career, when he made 6 of 13 shots and finished with 16 points. It led to the Big East rookie of the week award, and it led to even greater expectations. Mick Cronin said Stephenson was a game-changer, and at first, he proved to be exactly that.

 

"Enjoy him while you can," was the thought espoused by many Bearcats fans. "He might be one-and-done and off to the NBA after the season is over."

 

Three months later, after watching Stephenson average 11.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 28.7 minutes per games, how do you feel now about those preceding statements? There's little doubt Stephenson has an NBA-type body - that was what struck me first when I saw him in a preseason intrasquad scrimmage - and that he has NBA-type moves and NBA-type athleticism.

 

But we've learned much about Stephenson since the Bearcats started playing - the most-striking (and somewhat-surprising), is that Stephenson doesn't perform like a one-and-done kind of guy. When it comes to actually playing basketball, he's been nothing more than a pretty good freshman.

 

As Mick Cronin has said this season, there are very few freshmen in existence that have the skills and knowhow to take over a game as rookies - players like Kentucky's John Wall and Demarcus Cousins come to mind. Most tend to struggle sooner or later - or both.

 

Which is where Stephenson stands at this point. At times, he looks tentative. At times, he looks unsure of himself. At times, frankly, he looks lost on the court.

 

A prime example occurred last Sunday vs. Syracuse. In the first half, Cronin put Stephenson at the point guard spot against the Orange's vaunted zone defense. At 6-foot-5, Stephenson, Cronin figured, could better handle Syracuse's guards, who are pretty tall themselves across the front line of that zone. And for a half, Stephenson looked really good, recording eight points and six rebounds and handing off plenty of would-be assists to Bearcats who were fouled and sent to shoot free throws.

 

But in the second half, Syracuse adjusted its defense a bit, placing its wing defenders closer to half-court and making the lob pass to the interior much more difficult. Stephenson, Cronin later said, got gun-shy.

 

Coming off two-straight games where Stephenson didn't start the ballgame - his abdominal strain notwithstanding - and with Cronin recently complaining about his defense, I wondered about the kind of progress the freshman is making.

 

"He had a couple great practices (after the Notre Dame game)," Cronin said following the Syracuse loss. "He and I talked about his defense and his focus. One thing all young guys struggle with is focusing on scouting reports, paying attention, basic things. It's like coaching freshmen in high school. It'll drive you crazy. I have got to have your full attention."

 

This is not to say that Stephenson's talent has disintegrated. It's just that college basketball is completely different than anything he's ever experienced on the court. In a physical and a mental sense.

 

"All freshmen are like that, because every game is different," Cronin said. "It's the first time he's seen Syracuse's zone. Last year he was playing Grady High School."

 

Something to think about anyway.

 

--This is what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thinks about UC. I'm not sure it will calm the souls of those Bearcats fans who are really upset with the way this squad has played for much of the year, but it's a pretty interesting comment from one of the best coaches the college game has ever known.

 

"They have the players," Boeheim said. "It's just fitting them all together. That's difficult to do with so many new players. Stephenson is a good player and (Cashmere) Wright is a good player. They've been good at home because they've been able to keep the momentum. They got the lead, and they started to get tentative, especially against the zone. They've got really good pieces, but it takes a while."

 

The question is: how much more patience do Bearcats fans have?

 

--You know what we haven't done in a while? A mailbag. If you're interested, shoot me some questions at jkatzo@hotmail.com. I'll attempt to answer them. You have queries about the basketball squad, Butch Jones' football team, the reemergence of Mary Wineberg? Send them to me.

 

 

 

 

 

UC-Syracuse Rock 'N Roll Party

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The Bearcats scored five points in the final 12 minutes. And as Mick Cronin said in the postgame presser, you're not going to beat what he considers the top team in the country by scoring five points in the final 12 minutes.

 

This might seem obvious to you, and of course, it is. But the fact of the matter is that the Bearcats had a 49-43 lead against the Orange with the momentum building, and they had a real chance to knock off a team that's lost just once this season.

 

That's how good UC can be. Then, the Bearcats showed how bad they can play.

 

"We had a little momentum going our way," said Yancy Gates, who hit all five of his shots from the field (but missed 4 of 5 free throw attempts) to finish with 11 points and five rebounds. "But we started missing shots. Our aggression on the offensive glass wasn't the same as in the first half."

 

And the vaunted Syracuse zone defense finally took its toll.

 

"It just keeps trying your patience," Cronin said. "The mental grind of facing that zone wears you down."

 

At first, the Bearcats played well against Syracuse's defense. With Lance Stephenson manning the point guard spot much of the time - his height helped counteract the bigger guards that the Orange play across the front line of that zone - UC hit enough shots in the first 30 minutes of the game to keep pace.

 

But Stephenson got a little tentative after a couple of his lobs to UC's frontcourt were deflected, and suddenly, the Bearcats were relying too much on their 3-point shooting - which, as we all know, is not very good (after today's game, they shoot 29.7 percent from behind the arc).

 

"I'm very proud of our guys' effort for the most part," Cronin said. "But our best three shooters went 2 of 12 from the 3-point line (that'd be Vaughn, Wright and Davis). At some point, you have to make some shots and loosen that zone up. To beat the team that's the best team in the country, you have to shoot a higher percentage. The only team to beat that team this year made 10 threes and 28 free throws."

 

That'd be Pitt, which actually made 26 free throws but did manage to score 82 points against the Orange.

 

Yet, even after today's game moved the squad further from the NCAA tournament bubble, Cronin said he was encouraged by the way his team played most of the game.

 

"The last three days, we've become a much better team," he said. "We were focused on the right things today. Our focus was right where it needed to be today. I wasn't happy with our defense late and I wasn't happy with a few calls, to be honest with you. But if we play the way we played today, we're going to be fine."

 

--It was striking to me that Gates and Deonta Vaughn entered the postgame presser joking with each other and with smiles on their faces. This isn't a new phenomenon either. Not that I'm saying these games - and losses - don't matter to these players, because I'm sure they do. I just wondered if they feel any sense of desperation as the season begins drawing to a close and seemingly they're, once again, outside looking in for an NCAA tournament berth.

 

I asked Vaughn about that afterward - if he felt desperate now that UC has slipped to 5-6 in the conference.

 

"Not too much worried about that right now," he said. "We know we have some winnable games still ahead of us and in the Big East tournament. We still know what we have to do to get a win. We let it slip away against a good team. We still know we have to keep playing. Don't worry about what everybody thinks about us as a team."

 

--One aspect of this game that really helped the Orange was how well Syracuse made up for the lack of production from forward Wes Johnson, who came into the game averaging 16.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Today, a sore Johnson, coming off a game in which he flipped and fell hard to the court, took three shots and finished with five points and three rebounds.

 

He also picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and left the game.

 

It hardly mattered for the Bearcats.

 

"We won this game without Wes Johnson, and he's good as anybody in the country," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said.

UC-Syracuse LIVE blog

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Live from 5/3:

UC's starting five: Deonta Vaughn, Rashad Bishop, Ibrahima Thomas, Lance Stephenson and Yancy Gates. Looks like Vaughn will run the point as Stephenson gets his first start in three games.

Some scattered cheers for the Orange during player intros. Fair amount of Syracuse fans here. Cheers actually outweigh the boos.

If UC can make those mid-range jumpers, like Thomas just did, the Bearcats might have a chance. Then, a 3 from Thomas.

Stephenson, who's playing a little point, throws the ball well over Bishop's head. Mick gets his attention and tells him to calm down.

After a really good first 4 minutes from the Bearcats, the fans applaud and cheer at the official timeout.

UC 7, Syracuse 2 (15:56 to go)

Wesley Johnson picks up his second foul with 15:16 to go. That's great news for UC, considering he averages 16 and 9. Boeheim is leaving him, though.

UC doesn't sub until almost 7 minutes have passed. Parker and Wilks in for Vaughn and Thomas.

Gates is 0 for 4 on FTs today.

Looked like Wilks cleanly blocked Johnson's shot there, but he's whistled for the foul. Mick points at the big screen after the replay and laughs.

Big drop-off in production from the starters to the subs. During the last three offensive possessions for UC, Syracuse's zone has forced the Bearcats into turnovers and terrible shots with the shot clock running out.

UC 15, Syracuse 12 (10:56 to go)

When Dixon, Parker, Wright, McClain and Thomas are in there, who exactly is expected to score? To answer that question, Rautins blocks McClain and then hits a 3 to tie the game.

UC finally ends a drought of more than 6 minutes with a Larry Davis 3. Suddenly, you can't cool him off.

Davis then took a bad tumble after one of the Orange players bumped him and he stayed down between the basket and one of the student sections. He eventually gets up and walks to the locker room at the official timeout.

UC 20, Syracuse 17 (7:13 to go)

Loooong 3-pointer for Stephenson.

Wesley Johnson with his third foul with 4:10 to go.

After Bishop misses both FTs (we've seen that story a couple times today from various Bearcats), Jardine hits a 3 to give the Cuse a lead.

UC is 5 of 11 from the foul line.

Syracuse 27, UC 26 (3:20 to go)

Gates doing a nice job toward the end of the half of grabbing offensive rebounds and putting back the layups.

Larry Davis is back on the court with a band-aid over his left eye.

UC does a nice job forcing Syracuse deep into the shot clock, and as Jardine takes a wild shot, Vaughn fouls him with 4.9 seconds left. Not a good one.

Mixed first half for the Bearcats. They're down by 2 at the half, which is almost a victory in itself. They shoot 44 percent from the field but only 33.3 percent from the 3 and 45.5 percent from the foul line. Thomas leads the way with nine points and Stephenson has eight points and six rebounds.

Syracuse is shooting 44.4 percent and 45.5 percent from the 3.

Syracuse 32, UC 30 (half)

Couple nice passes inside to Thomas, but other than that, Syracuse looks more ready to play the second half than UC.

After UC's timeout, though, a short jumper from Gates, a layup from Wright and a 3 from Bishop.

Syracuse 41, UC 39 (15:29 to go)

UC doing some nice work in the paint this half against the zone.

Well, it's clear UC's starters can play with Syracuse's starters. UC's bench ... maybe not so much.

A missed runner from Wright and Stephenson with the rebound/dunk. Then he mugs for the camera. Boeheim calls a timeout.

Wesley Johnson with foul No. 4 with 12:40 to go. He'll go to the bench. Then a big 3 from Wright to give UC a six-point lead.

UC 49, Syracuse 45 (11:41 to go)

Ah, memories of my youth. A little "Let's Go Orange!" chant.

With 9:01 to play, both teams are exactly 19 for 39 from the floor.

Thomas has surprised me a little with how well he's played today. He's got 11 points, six rebounds.

Syracuse 55, UC 52 (7:38 to go)

And just like that, UC misses a couple shots, Syracuse hits a couple FTs, and the Orange lead is seven.

The Orange on a 16-3 run.

Make that a 21-5 run.

Syracuse keeping all the offensive rebounds away from UC. And suddenly, it's like the Bearcats don't know how to play this game called basketball.

Syracuse 67, UC 54 (2:06 to go)

And Syracuse finishes the game on an 18-2 run to make this look like another bad loss for the Bearcats.

Afterward, Jardine and Boeheim warmly greet Oscar.

UC finishes shoots 41.7 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from the 3. Syracuse at 51.1 and 50 percent.

Bearcats make just one FG in the final 12 minutes of the game.

Syracuse 71, UC 54 (final)

If you question the basketball team's effort ...

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listen to Mick's Cronin response.

"I know it's frustrating. You can be as enthusiastic as you want. That has nothing to do with playing smart and getting the job done. When you come out, and Cashmere and Deonta go out and combine for 3 of 17, that has nothing to do with enthusiasm. We played until the end. The bottom line is: let's look at things that really matter. We didn't get to the offensive glass. To me, that's physicality. They made shots, they're at home. They played well, we didn't. Our guys had a great week of practice, but you can't come in and give a team 83 points and expect to win.


"It's more technical (than effort). You can have all the effort you want, but if you're not technically blocking out the right way or setting a screen the right way ... Our big guys have got to rebound - whether that's effort or heart or toughness, call it whatever you want - or it does no good to play them. You might as well go with a smaller lineup."


UC-Notre Dame LIVE blog

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Live from the couch:

And waiting for this Purdue-Indiana game to finish so I can follow along with ESPN.

According to CNATI's Paul Dehner Jr., the UC starting lineup is Wright, Vaughn, Bishop, Thomas and Gates. Stephenson does not start.

Sounds like Brian Kelly is in the house as well. I imagine he won't be cheering for Mick Cronin's club.

Thomas is off to a nice start. Hits a three from the corner and then forces Luke Harangody to foul him.

UC has allowed two wide open dunks to Notre Dame in the first 3 minutes.

Tim Abromaitis has seven points so far, one more than UC so far.

Notre Dame 9, UC 6 (15:35 to go)

Lance Stephenson in the game.

UC doing a nice job of forcing Harangody outside once again. But the Bearcats are letting anybody else wearing a ND uniform dunk the ball.

Vaughn has had three open looks from the left wing, and he's bricked all three 3-point attempts.

Notre Dame 15, UC 8 (11:48 to go)

Gates starting to come alive on the offensive end. A layup and then a short jumper over Harangody.

That's four dunks in the first 10:30 of the game for the Irish.

Yep, Vaughn hasn't been so impressive thus far. That double dribble doesn't help.

Notre Dame has gone cold from the field, but UC isn't hitting its shots either. The Bearcats are missing a vital opportunity here. They're shooting 26.3 percent from the field.

Notre Dame 19, UC 14 (7:35 to go)

A surprising development: Larry Davis hits a 3.

Abromaitis is absolutely killing the Bearcats.

The Vaughn-to-Gates connection is working well.

Notre Dame 33, UC 25 (2:56 to go)

Not a great thing when Notre Dame's point guard rips the rebound away from Yancy Gates. And then Jackson ties up Toyloy.

Harangody isn't doing a whole lot wrong right now. He's got 16 points and 10 rebounds, and he finishes the half with a reverse layup.

Gates has 10 points, but nobody else has more than four.

Overall, UC is shooting 32.1 percent and 27.3 percent from the 3. The Irish are 42.4 and 30.0 percent respectively.

Notre Dame is also out-rebounding UC 23-18. That's not good for the Bearcats.

Notre Dame 40, UC 27 (half)

And just like that, Wright and Vaughn miss back to back 3-pointers. Somebody needs to get hot soon for UC to have a chance to win this game.

Maybe Toyloy can be that guy. He's scored four straight points. But probably not.

And what's up with Davis? He's hit three 3s tonight. And then, of course, airballs one badly.

Hey, it's look like I saw part of Beth Rex's nose on TV, sitting next to Brian Kelly.

Notre Dame 48, UC 37 (14:48 to go)

Ouch, BK calling out the Bearcats basketball team's tenacity.

Notre Dame 56, UC 43 (11:40 to go)

Even double-teamed and as he's fouled, Harangody still finds a way to get the ball in the basket.

Gates picks up his fourth foul with 10:31 to go.

And a huge slam by Harangody after the Irish easily get through UC's full-court pressure.

This is a bad showing.

Notre Dame 65, UC 48 (7:48 to go)

Notre Dame 75, UC 57 (3:12 to go)

It doesn't even look like UC is trying to guard Harangody at this point. He finishes with 37 points and 14 rebounds.

Overall, UC shoots 38.2 percent from the floor and 25.9 percent from the 3. You're just not going to win many road games if you shoot like that.

Well, UC missed an opportunity tonight. This would have been a good chance to get a win on the road, one of those "steals" the Bearcats might need. Notre Dame is good, but not that good. Rutgers, after all, just beat the Irish. Yes, the Joyce Center is a tough place to play, but also, UC needs to prove it can win games like this. Obviously, didn't happen, and for UC fans who are dreaming of the NCAA tournament, that has to be disappointing.

Notre Dame 83, UC 65 (final)

The Signing Day fallout

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When the day was complete and all the signed letters of intent had been received, UC football coach Butch Jones could sit back, reflect on the past two months and then get back to work almost immediately.

 

"With the structure of getting our staff here, playing in the late bowl and having a couple dead periods of recruiting sandwiched in there, it made it extremely challenging," Jones said after today's recruiting rundown presser. "But I can't say enough in the job our staff did in assembling this class. We're very excited about the potential of it. (But) we're still going to continue to recruit for this class. There are some area needs that we would like to be filled. We're still looking to recruit this class and then we'll move onto the class of 2011."

 

But for the moment - and maybe only for this very moment - he could showcase to the assembled media the 22 members of the 2010 recruiting class, a mixture of Brian Kelly and Butch Jones recruits, and be proud of the work he and his assistant coaches accomplished in the first seven weeks of their tenure.

 

To illustrate that point, Jones pulled out his staff's itinerary from the first full week of January. On Jan. 6, the assistants that remained at Central Michigan helped coach the Chippewas to a victory against Troy in the GMAC Bowl. Of course, the game went to double overtime, which was a problem because the coaches had to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Cincinnati the next day. The new staff reached campus about noon on Jan. 7. The very next day, they were recruiting for UC.

 

"That's the whirlwind we've been through," Jones said. "This process was approached with meticulous attention to detail. It was finding the right individual that fits our profile, individuals who are representing the C. We made no promises, no guarantees. The only thing that was guaranteed was to compete for a top-10 football program on a daily basis. To re-recruit a class in a short period of time, that has a lot of challenges. We were forced to build relationships in a short period of time. We take great pride in the developmental business. We're going to teach our players to reach their potential."

 

More than a couple of the newest Bearcats, though, already have impressed people around the country with their talent. Guys like quarterback Munchie Legaux, who's ranked as the No. 12 dual threat quarterback by rivals.com and who committed to the Bearcats late Tuesday night after Legeaux's high school basketball game in New Orleans.

 

It was an especially key get late in the recruiting season because the Bearcats are in dire need quarterbacks - they only have three left in the system, junior Zach Collaros, junior Chazz Anderson, and sophomore Brendon Kay.

 

"He came up on his visit and fell in love with the place," Jones said. "He's an individual with high character. But we don't have to beg anybody to come to the University of Cincinnati. We're very attractive, especially for a young man who plays quarterback. Him also seeing us at the Sugar Bowl, he was able to understand our passion."

 

Legaux, while watching the Sugar Bowl, apparently was wearing a Florida Gators T-shirt. "We wanted to make sure we got that corrected," Jones said.

 

Another key element of this recruiting class was the former Central Michigan's staff familiarity with quarterback Cody Kater (from Montague, Mich.) and receiver Montrel Robinson (from Southfield, Mich.) - both of whom had attended CMU camps in previous years that were run by Jones and his staff. Those prior relationships helped ease the pain of losing former UC commits Luke Massa (to Notre Dame) and Dominique Brown (to Louisville).

 

"Recruiting is about relationships, and the relationships we had formed with Kater and Montrel, those are basically year-long relationships," Jones said. "There are so many things that go into a recruitment of a young man and the bonds that you form. Sometimes people look at these kids as property instead of as human beings. The relationship process was big with those two."

 

I also asked him if the coaches felt like they needed to make a big splash with this year's recruiting class so they could prove to the national recruits and pundits that they actually could recruit on a national level.

 

"No, I trust my coaches and I trust myself," Jones said. "It's all about the evaluating process. We don't get caught up in who's recruiting who or if he's a one-star or two-star or three-star recruit. The last time I checked we went to the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, and our recruiting classes have been middle to last in the Big East conference. We're just looking for the best players that fit our system and the best players we can develop."