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."
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
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).
a lot," Gates said Tuesday. "He just had 31 on
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."