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UC-South Florida preview

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Yancy Gates is a different player today than he was a few days ago. OK, that's not exactly true, but if you're like me, you don't look at him quite the same way as you did a week ago.

 

Yes, Gates isn't always as aggressive as you'd like him to be with the ball in his hands. Maybe you wish he'd stop taking quite so many mid-range jump shots (even if he does hit his fair share of them) and use his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to make strong moves in the paint. Maybe you wish he'd always play with as much intensity as he showed last Saturday against Notre Dame. Maybe you wish he didn't seem to take off certain plays (whether it's because he's fatigued or because he simply doesn't play hard every second on the court).

 

But after watching his performance vs. the Fighting Irish - particularly the way he played defense against Luke Harangody, perhaps the Big East's best player - I'm a little more impressed by Gates. He's shown stretches during the first two years of his career where he's looked like he could become one of the best forwards in the league (particularly when he runs the court effectively), but against Harangody, Gates has proven that, matched up against one of the country's top players, he can be just as good as anybody around.

 

"You'd have to say absolutely - against a player of that caliber," Mick Cronin said when I asked him Tuesday if his effort against Notre Dame was the best defensive performance of Gates' career. "It's effort, but it's also strategy. Yancy is a pretty smart guy, and he knew if, 'I don't give this guy layups and don't foul him and I make him make shots, he's got a chance to miss those.' Now, Luke has a tendency to make a lot of tough ones, but you're not going to make all those tough ones. You're going to miss a few. Yancy definitely got him to shoot a lot of the shots Yancy wanted him to shoot. He took away his low-post game. That was a big key for us, because it kept him off the foul line for the most part."

 

Overall, Gates, who got some assistance from senior forward Steve Toyloy against Harangody, forced Harangody into making just 5 of 20 shots for 14 points. (Two days later, by the way, Harangody scored 31 points on 13 of 26 shooting against Syracuse). He only shot six free throws and made just two of those. So yeah, a heck of a performance by Gates.

 

He wasn't too bad on offense either, scoring 11 points (including the game-winning layup) and grabbing six offensive rebounds (he had 13 overall).

 

"It meant a lot," Gates said Tuesday. "He just had 31 on Syracuse, and for him to only have 14 when he came here, that was big to me. It was mostly following the scouting report. The scouting report goes in depth, so I followed that and watched a lot of film. I went into the game with a defensive mindset - more than I probably ever have in my life. I wasn't too focused on scoring. I knew at some point in the game I would probably score a couple baskets, but I didn't expect to be scoring a whole lot."

 

--You look at South Florida and its conference record, and it's hard to be impressed. Actually, it's been that way ever since the Bearcats entered the Big East - has South Florida ever looked good in this conference? -  but the Bulls actually have won two of their past three contests against Cincinnati. So, there is the possibility the Bulls could pull the upset tonight at 7 at 5/3.

 

Especially with junior guard Dominique Jones averaging 19.5 points (third in the Big East), 4.2 assists (10th), 2.0 steals (third) and 5.9 rebounds per game. Based on those stats, is there anything Jones can't do?

 

"Dominique Jones is a great player," Cronin said. "It's hard to appreciate how good he is until you really start watching him on film. He scores in every way you can score - he's excellent in transition, probably as good as (UConn's) Jerome Dyson and that's saying a lot. In the half-court, he moves without the basketball as good as anybody in our league - his use of screens and backdoor cuts. With the basketball, he creates his own shot and he gets other people shots. He does it without forcing a lot of stuff. He's a highly productive player who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. The only thing you can say about him at times is that he's foul prone."

 

So, how do you stop him?

 

"Hopefully," Cronin said with a smile, "he fouls."

 

--And here's how freshman guard Lance Stephenson is feeling about his game at this moment.

 

"I don't think I've hit a wall," he said. "I'm just doing other things on the court to win the game. If I score a lot of points most likely, nobody else is involved. I'm trying to get everybody involved to win these next few games. As long as we're winning, I don't really care how I play. That's how I feel."

A Bearcats NFL update

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As the NFL's conference championship games loom this weekend and with the emergence of the Cincinnati Commandos pro indoor team that features a myriad of former UC football players, I figured today would be a good day to update you on how last year's Bearcats seniors fared in their first season in the NFL ranks.

 

Some, like Bengals punter Kevin Huber, you got to watch every week. Some, like Brandon Underwood, you saw every once in a while. Some, you didn't see at all.

 

Let's take a look at the Bearcats seniors who helped UC to the Orange Bowl and how their lives have changed post-college.

 

<b>P Kevin Huber: Bengals fifth-round draft pick: The Bengals thought so much of him that they cut longtime punter Kyle Larson before the season, and he rewarded them with a pretty decent years playing for his hometown team. He struggled with inconsistency, and after transforming himself into of the country's best collegiate punters his final two years at UC, he certainly wasn't one of the NFL's elite punters. But he was solid

 

He was 11th in the league with a 43.2 average, though he drops to a tie for 30th with a 36.7 net average. This is what Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis had to say about Huber in his postseason presser: "I thought Kevin had a good year. Kevin has a lot more to do; he can be a lot better, but I thought he gave us some consistency. He wavered a little bit, probably Games 8-12, but he came back strong at the end. I think Kevin is everything we expected him to be, and probably a little bit more solid as far as other parts of the game. I think he's more solid in the mental stability part, as far as being a rookie punter in the NFL and the things that you deal with."

 

<b>DL Connor Barwin: Texans second-round pick: He didn't get much playing time at the beginning of the season - after all, he was still in only his second year of playing defense, and he still had much to learn, especially at the pro level - but you might remember him earning his first career sack at Paul Brown Stadium in a Houston victory against the Bengals.

 

By Week 12, he appeared more comfortable, recording 3 ½ sacks and two passes defended in the final six games of the season. His 4 ½ sacks on the season were third-best among all NFL rookies.

 

He also managed to draw the wrath of New England quarterback Tom Brady when the Texans beat the Patriots in the last week of the regular season.

 

"I think I was just frustrated that we didn't convert on third down and he happened to be the guy standing there next to me," Brady said afterward. "He pushed me down, then I said something and he said something. I was more frustrated that we didn't convert on third down than at him. That's the way it goes."

 

<b>DL Adam Hoppel: undrafted, signed with Cleveland as a free agent: It doesn't appear Hoppel has much of a future in the NFL. He was cut by the Browns in the preseason and signed to their practice squad in December.

 

"I pretty much wasn't expecting (to be resigned) when it happened," Hoppel told the East Liverpool Review. "I wasn't really expecting to play football again."

 

A week later, he was cut again.

 

<b>CB Mike Mickens: Cowboys seventh-round pick: A topsy-turvy season for Mickens. He still wasn't fully recovered from his late-season knee injury as a senior Bearcat that caused his draft stock to fall. Then, he was afflicted with a few more dings this year and never saw any action on the field.

 

He started in Dallas before Tampa Bay plucked him off the Cowboys practice squad. He was on the Bucs' 53-man roster, but he was inactive for three weeks before Tampa released him. The Bengals picked him up for the practice squad, which is where he ended the season. Mickens was so good in college, but I wonder if that ability will translate into the NFL.

 

<b>CB/S DeAngelo Smith: Cowboys fifth-round pick: Smith certainly got his tour of the NFL. Drafted by the Cowboys, cut by Dallas and then placed on its practice squad, picked up by Cleveland, traveled to Chicago and then finished the season with the Lions.

 

He actually played the final seven games of the season in Detroit and finished the year with 16 tackles and a pass defended. In the only game he started - a 31-24 loss to Arizona - Smith logged a career-best seven tackles.

 

<b>DB Brandon Underwood: Packers sixth-round pick: Of all the former UC defensive backs, Underwood had the most stability this season, playing in 11 games in one place. He and Huber also were the only Bearcats rookies to make the postseason.

 

It'll be interesting to see how Underwood's role with Green Bay develops. The Packers secondary was not a strength this season, and it's an aging, injury-laden group. Underwood seems to have some potential as a nickel back, but it's unclear how heavily the team will invest in him. He did do some nice things on special teams, though.

UC-Notre Dame Rock 'N Roll Party

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Strong, strong win for the Bearcats. And a much-needed victory for the squad.

 

"It was very important," said senior guard Deonta Vaughn, who finished with a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds. "We lost three in a row in the Big East. We felt like we should have won at least two of those. We wanted to start over fresh. We still have hopes to get to the NCAA tournament. To get this win, it really helps us out."

 

Said Mick Cronin: "Huge. We're 12-6, but we could be sitting here and talking at 15-3 or 16-2. We've had some tough calls, made our own mistakes. We've got the market cornered on bad beats. As a coach, you tell your guys that it will all even out. But if it doesn't, you worry about the toll it's going to take.

 

"I was really proud of our guys' emotional response. We played with the attitude that enough was enough and that we had to win no matter what. It's easy for a coach to have that will and resolve. It's your career. You should have that. But the trick is imposing it on your players."

 

That will was evident, because the Bearcats absolutely struggled on offense, shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 23.8 percent from the 3. As Cronin said, it's not often a coach walks up to the podium with a victory when his team has shot that poorly.

 

But Cronin was impressed with the demeanors of Yancy Gates (11 points, 13 rebounds) and Rashad Bishop (10 points, five rebounds) - guys who normally are laid-back. But today, they were feisty, and while Cronin didn't love the fact they were getting mad at each other and their teammates, he knew at least that they cared.

 

And as much as Cronin talks about how the Big East is a grind-it-out league, it looks like, for one game at least, the players understood that and somehow found a way to get the victory.

 

"It was a real good grind out," Vaughn said. "We stayed solid. We didn't want to make the same mistakes we made against St. John's and do something silly that was going to cost us the game. We knew Notre Dame averaged 82 points a game, and we came in with the right mindset and played our defense that we usually play and limited our turnovers. Just play solid and smart and everything will come to us."

 

--Vaughn's final play, in fact, was the result of smart thinking, Cronin said. Running a pick and roll, Vaughn recognized that the Irish were switching defenders as he drove to the hoop - I think Harangody was the one who switched to Vaughn - and threw to Gates, who was matched up with a Notre Dame player who would have a tough time handling Gates' girth.

 

From Gates' perspective: "When he made the pass, I knew I was close enough to the bucket to drop it in, but I babied it too much. I felt it, so I jumped up real quick to get it. (Cronin) wanted to get me and Deonta in a pick and roll. Either he was going to be open for a drive or I'd be open under the rim."

 

Irish coach Mike Brey came away impressed.

 

"We just couldn't get a block-out on a really big guy. He's hard to block out even if you get great position on him."

 

--How about Gates' performance on Harangody? The Notre Dame senior came in as the Big East's top scorer averaging 24.9 points per game, and Gates' ability to push him away from the basket forced Harangody to take more outside shots than he wanted.

 

"I got some looks that I usually hit," said Harangody, who made only 5 of 20 shots for 14 points and 11 rebounds. "Give them credit. They did a heck of a job guarding me tonight."

 

Gates took his assignment today as a personal challenge. The mindset, he said, was to limit Harangody's touches, and while that didn't exactly work out, you can't argue with Gates' results.

 

"Coming into this game, we knew Harangody is almost their whole offense," Gates said. "He got the ball a lot, but I was able to make him miss a few shots that he usually makes. I think I did OK."

 

--I was interested to hear the explanation about why UC's bench got hit with a technical foul late in the first half after Darnell Wilks and Harangody tied up with each other while trying to secure a rebound.

 

Apparently, the officials told Cronin that Wilks fouled Harangody before Harangody pulled Wilks to the floor. Cronin's question: why wasn't Harangody called for a technical foul.

 

"Very confusing," Cronin said. "Somebody from our bench said something that (official) Brian O'Connell didn't like. When he told me what they said, and if that was what was actually said, then he made the right call (on the technical). He's one of the best officials in America. I thought it was an over the back (on Harangody), but the call went the other way. Luke Harangody is a great kid. He's not a dirty player. It was just a physical play."

UC-Notre Dame LIVE blog

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Looking through the Notre Dame notes: Man, I had no idea Mike Brey has been in South Bend for 10 years. I would have guessed, like, five or six at the most. Crazy.

Luke Harangody averages 24.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and is the Fighting Irish's most dangerous player by far. Here's what Mick Cronin said about him earlier this week: "The main problem is he's so good in the post that you have to put a bigger guy on him. But most bigger guys can't defend at 22 feet, so you're going to have to pick your poison. You can't put a smaller guy on him, because he'll kill that guy in the interior. He's not living at the 3-point line, but if you fall asleep, he'll get one in transition or on a pick-and-pop."

Harangody is shooting 52 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent from the 3.

Also, Anthony McClain is out of uniform and on the bench. I imagine his foot is bothering him.

The football team walks into the arena and is greeted with applause. Not roof-raising. I'd describe it more as tepid. But it's there.

The UC starting lineup: Deonta Vaughn, Larry Davis, Lance Stephenson, Yancy Gates, Steve Toyloy.

And just like Mick said, Harangody shoots from the top of the key on the first play of the game and he swishes it. Toyloy did not recover in time.

An absolutely pathetic start by the Bearcats. Four misses - including two three-pointers - and Notre Dame leads 7-0 before Mick calls timeout.

Vaughn hits a 3 to start the scoring.

Harangody does have a reputation for whining to the refs. After Gates blocks his shot, Harangody shoots a sharp look to the officials.

Notre Dame 7, UC 3 (15:56 to go)

Jaquon Parker in the game as backup point guard before Cashmere Wright. He hits a 3 and then banks in a 10-footer. He looks good today.

Notre Dame 14, UC 12 (11:37 to go)

Gates, who's playing good defense on Harangody, just buried a 14-footer.

The Bearcats only have two turnovers so far, but Stephenson just dribbled one of his foot to continue his struggles. He's 0 for 2 so far today.

UC is shooting 31.6 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from the 3. Same old story.

Notre Dame 18, UC 15 (7:56 to go)

We've seen a lot of Parker running the point and Vaughn playing the 2. Doesn't mean the offense is running much better, but the Bearcats also aren't turning it over.

UC doesn't look - how do you say? - comfortable against Notre Dame's zone defense.

Somebody forgot to box out Darnell Wilks. After a missed Davis 3, Wilks goes up unmolested and rattles the backboard with a jam.

Geez, Davis has been terrible today. He misses his fourth 3-pointer of the game and gets the ball back before immediately turning it over. That led to a layup from Abromaitis that extends the Irish's lead to seven.

Notre Dame 28, UC 21 (3:17 to go)

Heck of a play by Stephenson to force the turnover, go one-on-one with Harangody, fraw the foul and score the layup. Of course, he misses the FT.

Uh oh, a crazy situation breaks out. Harangody and Wilks are tangling for the ball, and Wilks is called for the foul. Then, Wilks gets in Harangody's face and he backs up into UC's bench. Where, it looked, Chris Goggin puts out his arm to brace himself and touches Harangody's back. Harangody goes beserk, and UC's bench is assessed a technical foul.

Things are getting testy here at 5/3.

Lost in the shuffle is that UC played pretty good defense in the first half to keep this game close. Because the Bearcats offense has been really bad (29.4 percent from the floor, 23.1 percent from the 3).

Harangody has nine points and nine rebounds, and Abromaitis has 10 points to lead the Irish.

Vaughn has six points to lead UC's offense.

UC is out-rebounding Notre Dame 25-18.

Now, when the UC football teams comes out to mid-court, the place goes crazy.

Notre Dame 32, UC 25 (halftime)

Bishop hits a 3 to open the second half, and then Vaughn hits one. In between, Harangody missed two more FTs (he's 2 of 6 so far today).

Gates continues his strong defensive work on Harangody, who's settling for mid-range jumpers and (mostly) missing. Then, a short jumper from Bishop and a 14-footer from Vaughn ties the game.

UC 35, Notre Dame 35 (16:39 to go)

Then, a turnover from Harangody and Bishop with the layup to give UC the lead.

Short-lived, though.

Notre Dame 39, UC 37 (14:26 to go)

Haven't seen much of Ibrahima Thomas today. And absolutely none of Cashmere Wright.

Heck of a drive there by Dixon to get the foul and the layup. His FT gives UC a 42-41 lead.

A three by Harangody changes that, though.

Notre Dame 46, UC 42 (11:48 to go)

UC keeps crawling its way back into the lead. A strong move by Gates in the post results in a layup and the elad.

After Harangody is called for the charge, Stephenson tries to help him up. Harangody slaps at his hand in disgust. Stephenson looked surprised.

Stephenson has kind of taken the game over - on offense and defense - in the last minute or so.

UC 49, Notre Dame 48 (7:03 to go)

That was a ridiculous flop by Harangody while Vaughn was driving. Correctly, the officials whistle Harangody for the foul, his fourth.

A three in the corner by Peoples ties the game at 51 with 5:56 to go.

People are going crazy about the over-and-back call, but I think the refs got it right.

UC is shooting 32.3 percent from the floor, 23.8 from the 3.

Harangody is 5 for 19 from the floor. 11 rebounds though.

Free throws upcoming for the Irish.

UC 55, Notre Dame 54 (3:20 to go)

Abromaitis misses both FTs.

A couple free throws from Hansbrough, a turnover from UC and then Hansbrough misses two FTs. Still 56-55 ND.

Bishop, with one and one, hits both for a UC lead.

Harangody misses a 3. UC timeout.

UC 57, Notre Dame 56 (1:05 to go)

Bishop at the line with 53 seconds to go. He makes 1 of 2.

Tory Jackson misses a tough layup, but the ball is out of bounds off UC.

UC 58, Notre Dame 56 (0:37 to go)

Hansbrough buries a 10-foot jumper over Dixon to tie the game. UC timeout.

UC 58, Notre Dame 58 (0:15 to go)

Great pass by Vaughn as he's driving. Over Harangody to Gates, who misses the layup. Gets the rebound and puts it in with 2.4 seconds to go.

Then, Jackson attempts a three-quarter shot that skims the bottom of the net.

Vaughn finishes with 15 points, seven rebounds. Gates with 11 points, 13 boards. Bishop scores 10. UC shoots 32.3 percent from the floor, 23.8 from the 3.

Abromaitis leads Notre Dame with 16 points. Harangody records 14 points, 11 rebounds.

UC out-rebounds Notre Dame 50-31.

UC 60, Notre Dame 58 (final)
 

UC-St. John's thoughts

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Well, that wasn't good.

 

So, there's much that we could discuss from this game - from the 21 turnovers to the 12 missed 3-pointers,* from Lance Stephenson's second-straight game with six turnovers in front of his hometown fans to another defeat against one of the Big East's so-called light weights. Or you could talk about the positives - from the impressive defensive performance to the solid play of senior forward Steve Toyloy.

 

*<i>You know the last time UC didn't make a 3-pointer? The Memphis game from March 2002. In March 2002, I had just started my job at the Augusta Chronicle. I was 23 years old. I wasn't yet married. I didn't even have a 401 (k) that I would lose half of seven years later. I wasn't even a shoe maven yet. It seems like a long time ago. </i>

 

But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about the final 1:30 of the game, because that is where the Bearcats lost this one. That's where UC lost a chance to move back into the upper half of the conference and where the Bearcats hurt their NCAA tournament chances.

 

OK, back to the videotape.

 

A Yancy Gates layup gave the Bearcats a 50-47 lead with 1:29 to play, and from there, UC had a number of chances to close out the game and improve to 3-2 in conference play. That's what the Bearcats should have done. Instead, this ...

 

-After a timeout with 1:13 left, Vaughn played good defense, tying up Sean Evans as he took a handoff from a teammate with 53 seconds to play. St. John's had the possession arrow and retained possession of the ball, and with the shot clock winding down. D.J. Kennedy lofted a prayer that had no chance of finding the basket. St. John's turnover, and UC edges ever closer to the victory.

 

Except it didn't.

 

-With 24 seconds remaining, Mick Cronin takes a timeout, and on the inbounds play, junior guard Rashad Bishop was supposed to find freshman guard Lance Stephenson, who was coming off a double screen and was open. Instead, Bishop passed to Gates, who was trapped on the sideline and threw it back to Bishop - who was then stripped from behind by a Red Storm defender. The ball somehow rebounded to sophomore guard Dion Dixon, whose shot was blocked by Paris Horne.

 

"That's a crucial play right there," Cronin said on his postgame radio show. "If we get Lance the ball, the game is over."

 

Except it wasn't.

 

-After Dixon's shot was blocked, he impeded Justin Brownlee as he drove to the hoop. A foul called, and I don't think it was a bad one by Dixon. Especially after Brownlee missed the first free throw and made only the second.

 

-On the inbound: Bishop was supposed to be looking for senior guard Deonta Vaughn, who was going to use a screen near mid-court and come back for the ball. The idea was for St. John's to foul him. Except Vaughn never used the screen, and Bishop - who Cronin said is the best inbounder on the team - threw a deep pass to Vaughn into double coverage. St. John's intercepted it, and Bishop fouled Dwight Hardy. He made both free throws to tie the game.

 

"That play is not in our repertoire," Cronin said. "It was not called. We don't run that play. Young people at times get rattled because of the turnover and do interesting things. We never should have went long in that situation and compounded it by throwing it. Deonta is supposed to come back. If not, give it to Dion Dixon on the flash. He hasn't missed a free throw in a month and the game is over."

 

Except it wasn't.

 

--With the score tied at 50-50 with nine seconds to play, Bishop Stephenson tries to hit Dixon on the inbounds. Except Hardy cuts in front of Dixon, steals the ball and takes the foul from Dixon. Then, with seven seconds to go, he hits the game-winning free throws.

 

"Knowing they were going to press, we don't flash strong to the ball," Cronin said. "If we flash strong to the ball there, we're going to get a foul on them. Instead, we let them physically cut in front of us and foul the guy. Young people do wild things. That's why coaching is a rough way to make a living. It boggles my mind."

 

UC should have beaten St. John's, should have walked out of Madison Square Garden with a hard-fought victory. Except it didn't.

UC-St. John's preview

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UC's defense has been the big reason why the Bearcats won 10 of their first 13 games. When you're allowing only 62.7 points per game, chances are pretty good you're going to take the victory.

 

This is what coach Mick Cronin has preached since he took over the UC job. The philosophy he espouses - his teams are going to be tough defensively - is the major reason the Bearcats had a chance to earn an at-large NCAA tournament berth last season with only two scorers who averaged double figures.

 

But since beating UConn and Rutgers to open Big East play this season, the defense has been quite dubious. It's been a tad surprising from this squad. It's also caused the Bearcats to drop their last two games - allowing 74 points to Pittsburgh and 83 to Seton Hall - while falling to 2-2 in the conference.

 

The main culprit: the UC perimeter defenders haven't been doing a good enough job.

 

"It boils down to three things," Cronin said. "Points in the paint - because teams are going to make layups - and not fouling the other team and letting them parade to the free throw line. You give up layups and free throws, you're going give up points."

 

The third point in his three-pronged hypothesis is for the players who are trying to implement the scouting report (more on this later).

 

"Most teams only have one or two guys capable of having a big night against you," Cronin said. "In the Pitt game, we allowed (Ashton) Gibbs 14 first-half points. It's a game we should have been up six or eight points at half, but we were down six. And we allowed (Seton Hall's Jeremy) Hazzel to have 33."

 

Last week I asked Cronin about the team's help defense. Since he had touted having big men -  like Yancy Gates, Steve Toyloy, Anthony McClain and Ibrahima Thomas - who could play solid interior defense while blocking or changing the projection of an opponent's shots, I figured he could live with it if an opponents wing or a guard beat a Bearcats perimeter defender every once in a while.

 

No, Cronin responded. That, he said, is when the Bearcats get in trouble.

 

Here's why: when a perimeter defender gets beat, Gates - or whoever is in the post - has to move over to play help defense. That's one rotation, and the Bearcats are fine with that. But the problem occurs if the opponent with the ball passes to the player that Gates just left. Where, then, is the helper for Gates?

 

"What's happened recently is that our rotations aren't what they need to be," Cronin said. "After we have one scramble, where we have to closeout on (a shooter), we're getting beat too easily. Our closeout is bad - we're not containing the ball and that causes a rotation. Now, you're always going to have some rotation, but you can't have to rotate every play. If you're getting beat every play, it's going to put too much pressure on your rotation. We're getting beat too much off the dribble."

 

This is where the scouting report problem is evident. Let's say I'm Larry Davis, and I'm guarding Good Shooter A. If Rashad Bishop gets beat by his man and Yancy Gates leaves his own man (Call him Post Player B) to help, Davis will be reticent to leave Good Shooter A and take over Post Player B. That's because if the player driving the ball, who's now being defended by Gates, then flips the ball to Good Shooter A, Davis won't be there, because Davis had to help out on Post Player B. Then, Good Shooter A - who the scouting report says can't be allowed to get off a wide-open 3-pointer - has a wide-open 3-pointer.

 

It's a problem.

 

--St. John's has begun its Big East conference schedule with an 0-3 mark. But don't be fooled by that record. The Red Storm won't be an easy team for UC to beat tonight at 7 p.m. in Madison Square Garden. After all, this is the same team that beat Siena by nine, knocked off Temple by seven and lost at Duke by nine.

 

Plus, to go with the talent of D.J. Kennedy (16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game), St. John's finally has Anthony Mason Jr. - who's missed much of the past two seasons with foot and hamstring injuries - back in uniform. The Bearcats have a challenge in facing Mason, because they can't be sure what to expect from him.

 

"He hasn't played in a year and a half," Cronin said. "I'll say that, and he'll probably get 30 on us. For Norm (Roberts), it's a long awaited return of a guy that can score and try to incorporate him in their offense. The challenge for us is preparing for a guy who hasn't played a lot."

 

Lest you forget, Pitt's Gilbert Brown, who had only played a few games before facing UC, scored 17 vs. the Bearcats.

 

--So, what's sophomore guard Dion Dixon's explanation and solution for why UC gave up a 12-point first-half lead against Seton Hall before losing by seven?

 

"It's executing down the stretch," Dixon said. "We fall apart down the stretch, and that's not good."

 

Said Cronin: "The key is weathering the storm and staying focused and playing all the way through, which has been an issue for us at times. My message is you can't worry about the scoreboard. We have to worry about the next possession. We have to understand how to grind. You have to grind through this league; it's not going to be pretty. You have to understand the other team is going to play well at some point in the game. We just have to win."

 

--One last interesting stat on the Red Storm: they've outscored their opponents by a combined 64 points in the first half. In the second half, they're only plus-nine. Quite a difference, eh?

How Wright has adjusted ... and other cool things

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Freshmen don't really know the challenges they're going to face when they step on the court - for practices or for games. They don't know how hard life as a college basketball player is going to be. They might think they know, but, as Mick Cronin theorizes, they really don't.

 

That philosophy is one explanation why, entering Wednesday's 7 p.m. game at St. John's, redshirt freshman point guard Cashmere Wright - who, as you'll remember, was a top-100 recruit coming out of Urban Christian Academy in Savannah, Ga. - is averaging 4.8 points and 2.2 assists in 17.8 minutes per game while shooting 31.7 percent from the floor and 30 percent from the 3.

 

It's perhaps one reason why Wright lost his starting job when Cronin moved senior guard Deonta Vaughn back to the point guard spot and, at times, looks lost and inconsequential on the floor.

 

This was the thought Cronin had last week, a few days before Wright played one of his better games in recent times vs. Seton Hall. Though Wright came off the bench again, he logged 17 minutes, hit three of his four shots and recorded seven points and five assists (against just one turnover). For a player who had scored only 12 points and dished five assists in his previous four games, it was a pretty nice confidence-booster.

 

But Wright insists he had no grand illusions before the season started. Though he's a rookie, he says he knew how tough life was going to be his first time playing collegiate basketball.

 

"I knew it was going to be harder that what everybody thought it would be for me," Wright said. "From watching last year and being a part of the team, I realized that it wasn't as easy as everybody thought it was.

 

"Since the UConn game (where he recorded three points, three turnovers and just one assist), my confidence level has gone up. It's just knowing that I have the ability to play. Everything started to slow down, and my confidence level was right. Everything has started to work out. (The game has) slowed down tremendously. Coach Cronin started talking to me more and showing me things in the game film and showing me how I can improve, where my mistakes were coming, what I did to cause my mistakes and how I can improve them."

 

Like Cronin said, not every freshman can play like a Lance Stephenson or a John Wall. Some freshmen are just ordinary, non-NBA prospects. For those players, it takes time to adjust. Even for those that find themselves in the starting lineup at the beginning of their career.

 

"When I first came in and I was starting, I was thinking, 'OK, I can do this,'" Wright said. "He put me on the bench and made me hungry and made me realize that I had to work to get back to where I was."

 

--Freshman Lance Stephenson leads the team with 12.7 points per game (though Vaughn has 17.8 to Stephenson's 15.3 in Big East play) and his 4.8 rebounds rank third on the team behind Yancy Gates and Rashad Bishop. His three-point shooting has been rather unimpressive (a percentage of 15.8), but overall, he's had a nice start to his collegiate career.

 

But that doesn't mean he doesn't need to work on his game, because Cronin clearly thinks he does.

 

"Two things: all freshmen need to become more consistent, especially on the defensive end, and offensively for Lance, sometimes he's in 'all drive' mode and sometimes he's in 'all pass' mode," Cronin said. "He needs to do a better job of letting the defense dictate what he's doing."

 

Cronin points to an example. Against the Pirates last Saturday, Stephenson, while he was in "drive mode," moved into the lane toward the hoop and drew a charging foul. Cronin says he should have passed the ball instead of taking it to the rim, but because he had tunnel vision and was thinking "Drive, drive, drive," Stephenson couldn't get out of his own way.

 

"He needs to be in 'play basketball' mode," Cronin said. "Sometimes he decides what he's doing to do before seeing what the defense is giving him. I'd like to see him make the read."

 

--According to the Sporting News, quarterback Tony Pike and receiver Mardy Gilyard have been invited to next month's NFL Combine. That sounds about right.

 

It's still possible other players can be invited, but there aren't any other Bearcats that would jump out to me as big-time pro prospects. Maybe linebacker Andre Revels or tackle Jeff Linkenbach could snag an invite, but other than those two, I can't think of anybody.

UC-Seton Hall preview

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After the UAB game, after senior guard Deonta Vaughn managed just seven points on 2 of 9 shooting in a 17-point loss to the Blazers, Mick Cronin decided to try something a little different. Or, in reality, something the same.

 

He moved Vaughn back into his old role of point guard - the one he played last year when Cashmere Wright tore his ACL in the preseason - and since then, Vaughn has returned to his old effective ways, averaging 14 points per contest in his past six games.

 

Apparently, he just feels a little more comfortable there.

 

"Losing the UAB game, I wanted to be the point guard again and get myself in the groove again," Vaughn said. "I wanted to lead the team on. I've been more aggressive in practice. They say if you don't practice well, you don't play well. I've been practicing well and playing hard, and it shows in the game.

 

"I ran it last year and I'm used to it. Everybody saw me more as a shooter, but being able to play the point, it helps us scoring more in the front court. You don't have only one or two guys to key on. Now, you have to worry about everybody, so it gives us more depth on the court."

 

Cronin said he wanted to move Vaughn back to the point because he saw the team needed an adjustment.

 

"We've adjusted to make sure he's getting offensive opportunities," said Cronin, whose squad will face Seton Hall on Saturday at 6 p.m. "Our opponents are well aware of how capable he is as a 3-point shooter. When he was off the ball, he didn't have the opportunities. We weren't doing a good job of finding him and getting him open or finding him when he was open."

 

The move seems to have worked. The offense seems to run smoother when Vaughn is in there, and though he and Wright are on the court at times together, the Bearcats have responded positively to Vaughn's leadership.

 

"It's a comfort zone for him to have the ball in his hands," Cronin said. "Because we've been here so long together, he knows there are some things he can do with the ball in his hands where he can give it up and get it back."

 

--Speaking of point guards, how's Wright handled his decrease in minutes played? Cronin said he's responded pretty well to his diminished role, but UC's coach also wasn't surprised he had to change Wright's position on the team.

 

"He's just like most freshmen: college basketball is a lot harder than he thought it was going to be," Cronin said. "Not everybody is a Lance Stephenson or a John Wall. Some guys are regular freshmen. If you're on a winning team, it's hard to play as a freshman if you have veteran players."

 

That said, Vaughn indicated Wright has to work on his game - most notably his ability to be heard when trying to run the offense.

 

"Be louder," Vaughn said. "We know Cash can score and has the ability to get into the paint. The thing is his talking. He's coming along and he's learning in practice more and more that he has to be more vocal."

 

--And what about Seton Hall? Well, for one thing, the Pirates are 9-5 and 0-3 in the Big East. And for another, junior guard Jeremy Hazell is really good. He's averaging 22.6 points per game and 4.1 rebounds, and he's a tough matchup for just about anybody in the Big East conference.

 

"He's 6-6, and if he has space and time, he's probably the best shooter in the league," Cronin said. "But also he's an underrated guy as far as getting to the basket. When he gets 30-40 points, it's where he's getting 15-20 free throws. The teams that have contained him have not given him layups and free throws. He's a guy who's going to take so many three-point shots - if you guard him, he won't shoot a high percentage, but if you don't guard him, he will. But what you can't do is give him layups and free throws. We need to make sure whoever has Hazell, has him."

 

UC-Cal State Bakersfield 2nd half impressions

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Twelve Bearcats - count them, 12 - scored for UC tonight. Dion Dixon led the way with 13 points, and Ibrahima Thomas had a nice night with 11 points. Really, no other stats stand out, except for the sheer mass of Bearcats who scored.

Oh, and that Deonta Vaughn and Yancy Gates each spent 30 minutes on the bench. Lance Stephenson only played 17. That's a nice change of pace for that trio.

Oh, and Anthony McClain had eight points and eight rebounds. So that was fun.


UC 87, Cal State Bakersfield 58 (final)


So, what do you get out of this if you're UC? Playing time for players who wouldn't normally get it.

 

"The one good thing about playing this game right now was to treat it as a day where we could practice and then play," Mick Cronin said in his postgame presser.


"We can show them film of themselves minutes. It gave some guys a chance to perform and give them playing time. Especially guys like Biggie McClain and Jaquan Parker who practiced hard in practice. Biggie would have had a double double but his bone spurs flared up in his foot."

 

Cronin on Jaquon Parker (nine points, five rebounds in 15 minutes): "One thing about Park is he hasn't played a whole lot of point guard. Having him play the point has slowed him down. He is a good defender and he can make the open shot. Turning him into a point guard takes time, and I have slowed him down with that. I think it will help him in the long run, but his effort is tremendous. One thing you will see is him in with Deonta, if he plays better. We have Lance and Deonta playing pretty consistent basketball, and we need another one playing well alongside them."

 
Other observations from the second half:

Well, that's a pretty weak way for UC to start the second half. A turnover, and two easy baskets for Cal.

Ugh, Dixon for the double pump back-handed slam, Hits the rim and bounds away. Not too good.

The Bearcats are looking awfully sloppy so far.

Cal stars the half with a 16-6 run to begin the half.

Larry Davis seems to have found his long-range shot tonight.

UC-Cal State Bakersfield 1st half impressions

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Starting lineup: Vaughn, Stephenson, Bishop, Thomas, Gates. No surprise not to see Larry Davis in there, considering he hasn't scored in three of the past four games.

Gates is pulled after less than 2 minutes. Perhaps, not surprising. He's touched the ball a couple times, and he hasn't made a move to the rim yet. Even though the guy defending is three or four inches shorter.

Ooh, Anthony McClain is in the game early. And immediately grabs an offensive rebound and puts in the short jumper.

In order for Cal to have any kind of chance in this game, it's going to have to shoot well from the wing and from the outside. In the first few minutes, they Roadrunners don't.

Man, Vaughn is kind of driving right down the lane, isn't he?

McClain can NOT be stopped.

Just your typical 20-2 run for the Bearcats. Man, the Roadrunners are just not very impressive, eh?

Interesting when Anthony Buford is talking about Yancy Gates and when he has that much of a size advantage, he doesn't work as hard. For instance, when Latunde got an offensive rebound for Cal, got the basket, the foul and the 3-point play. Apparently, Gates still hasn't learned this lesson.

It takes Larry Davis nine minutes to get into the game, and when he finally does, he dribbles the ball off his leg, leading to a dunk from Cal's Bragg.

Latunde just puts up some ridiculous shots. Shots that have no chance of going in the basket. Why bother?

How about Toyloy with that jam plus foul and that 14-foot jumper? He's an offensive maniac.

Thomas in the game with seven quick points. He always provides a pretty good energy to the lineup on the court.

You know what I like? A 46-10 run that doesn't equal any timeouts from Cal. That's a coach who knows his team's place.

Hey, a Jaquon Parker sighting. And he hits a 3.

I don't mind telling you, Latunde has been absolutely awful. And he keeps taking just awful shots.

UC 50, Cal State Bakersfield 16 (half)