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I'll never forget the first game I covered after moving back home to Cincinnati leaving my job covering UGA in Georgia. The Bearcats football team had been on quite a run. Even from afar on the other side of college football buried beneath eight layers of crazy inside the SEC I knew this fact.
But Game 1, Day 1 for me working for CNati.com (thanks again, CTR) came on Dec. 5, 2009: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh.
I sat in the press box at Heinz Field and knew the stakes. I knew the players. I knew the coaches. I knew the brisket buffet was delectable.
But looking back, I didn't quite understand. I didn't understand the fan base, the love of this place, the blue-collar, underdog persona of a program reflecting its city.
Then Tony Pike to Armon Binns happened.
That moment and the ripple effect of the following years began my education of the University of Cincinnati. Sure, I grew up in Cincinnati and even followed UC basketball as a young kid, but from the unbiased adult journalist side didn't quite understand the dynamic at play here.
As I look at the number next to "On The Bearcats Beat" on the right side of this page it's apparent 1,045 times, I attempted to disseminate what I was learning about this place and its programs. Sometimes the message came across coherently, other times in overwhelming charts still red flagged and studied for clarification by NASA. Occasionally, even I didn't know what I was trying to tell you.
But I think the broad brush statement of the tens of thousands of words, hundreds of videos, charts, gifs and the one awkward cat photo, was that there's a unique combination of tradition, community and progress at play in Clifton right now.
I've always loved this city and this University is a proud reflection of it. That will never change and will always mean something bigger than any coach, player, athletic director.
I'm moving on to cover the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer, working for the hometown newspaper has been my dream job since I was memorizing the stats of the 1992 Final Four team as a 12-year-old kid in Mason. That means I have to leave GoBearcats.com, a place that has allowed me to create a base and write regularly for the past four-plus years.
I couldn't be more thankful to everyone that commented, emailed, interacted on Twitter or chatted face to face. Except @walkjrw -- thank goodness for the block button.
But before I move on to The Enquirer, it only seems right to go out with one final trip to the griddle. One last Bearcats Breakfast.
Let's eat ...
--- I'll start off with the best thing this athletics program has going for it these days: Mick Cronin. I've written time and again about the job he's done. From stating how unfathomable it was to rebuild the program from one scholarship player to the middle of the toughest conference in basketball by 2010 to going off on how rare this type of loyalty and talent were in today's college hoops.
Time to do so one more time.
At the beginning of this season, Gary Parrish took a poll of the coaches under 45 most likely to make the Hall of Fame. Here's the list.
|Shaka Smart, VCU||131-44||74.8%|
|Brad Stevens, Celtics||166-49||77.2%|
|Sean Miller, Arizona||242-91||72.6%|
|Buzz Williams, Marquette||152-82||65.0%|
|Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State||84-44||65.6%|
OK, Mick Cronin: 228-128 -- 64.0%
Fair enough that he wouldn't reach that list if you look at those numbers, but consider he reached 64 percent wins at Murray State and building a program from scratch in the Big East.
If you take away just the first three years (2006-09) as he fought an uphill battle to emerge from decimation of the program, the numbers tell a different story.
He's at 186-76 -- 71.0%.
Now, take a deeper look at the coaches on that list. How many of those you think are as dedicated to staying at their current school as Mick? Any? Heck, one of them is on the assumption Stevens will eventually return back to college. Miller might be the only one I actually believe could stay for a career at the current place.
I'm not saying Mick will make the HOF. That's irrelevant here. I'm saying fans need to understand what they have.
Cronin pledges his desire to stay at Cincinnati every year. Over and over and over again. That's as rare a combination as you will find in the sport today.
The contingent of anti-Mick, pro-Huggs people gradually eroded since I joined the beat and I'm convinced the small fraction that still yells will be there forever. The fact they are holding on to that rather than embracing the electric, fun-to-watch players their "school" brought in means they probably never belonged under the "fan" classification anyway.
Mick and everyone inside UC sounded more optimistic this year about a solution to the arena issue than I've ever heard. And with the city beginning to address the US Bank Arena issue, a light flickers at the end of the tunnel.
I know this, for what Mick accomplished at UC he deserves the support -- both financially and verbally -- of everyone whose stepped foot into Fifth Third Arena for a men's basketball game. He saved a program and returned it to heights as relevant as ever. Look around, folks, you have something special going on here.
--- Mick will probably be there when The Sammi Cronin Show isn't just a gag on the Bearcats Sports Weekly Show with Tommy G, he could still be there when she is legitimately running the show. Of course, that could be sooner than later. Sorry, TG, she's good.
--- Speaking of TG, maybe one of the best things UC has going for them is Tom Gelehrter, Director of New Media and Broadcasting. The episodes of the Inside the Bearcats Podcast we churned out were among some of the most fun times I've had on the beat. And sometimes we even talked about UC sports.
Other times, we talked about cookie attendants, self-tweeting baby pics, the Harlem Shake, bedazzled mics, taking a trip to Sweden for Midsummer and, of course, Fred Savage.
Maybe the greatest side-creation of the podcast was the intricate renderings of Assistant Director of Creative Services and Multimedia Shane Harrison. As we talked about who knows what that shifted us off topic, we'd see him rapidly working the photoshops to fit our faces into the topic of the day. Magical. And I had to eventually eliminate his access to my Facebook photos. To this day, the stuff of genius.
--- This will be the point in the program where I spend time thanking everyone that helped me during my time at UC. I know some of you will scroll past it. Go ahead, this has to be done. The sports information/PR department is in great hands with Ryan Koslen and his entire staff there. Of course, I never would have known any of them if not for Jeremy Martin believing in the idea of true analysis on a web site. He's in a much better place now (no, not there, he's alive -- allegedly) and deservedly so.
From Whit Babcock to Desiree Reed-Francois and all the coaches who humored me thoroughly through dumb questions and typically absurd story angles, can't help but say thanks for everything.
Also big shout outs to Brad Wurthman, Jaime Juenger, Andre Foushee, Katie Botsis, everyone else in the SID office and, of course, Equipment Manager/Motivational Speaker/Dap Giver/Ladies Man Skippy.
--- When I first arrived at UC and was attempting to prove myself among writers/media members I didn't know, I received an email after a few of my earliest stories. It was from Dan Hoard. He said he enjoyed what I was doing and if I ever needed anything to not hesitate to ask. I never forgot that. In the position I was in, that meant the world to me. Then I proceeded to make him regret the offer as I leaned on him over and over again for help.
I owe a ton to Dan and am jacked I get to keep working around him on the Bengals beat.
--- My favorite story in all
my time there came after meeting former UC swimmer Nate Kramer. At the time I chatted with him he was fighting a battle with cancer still on the uphill end. The UC athletics community was rallying behind him and helping keep him going. Here's that story I was lucky enough to be able to tell.
I'm happier to report that of the last post from his family earlier this month, Nate is doing great almost two years since his brother underwent a bone marrow transplant to keep Nate alive. Amazing. And inspiring.
--- Maybe my favorite game that I covered wasn't one UC fans will want to remember in the scorebook, but for those who sat in the now (thankfully) torn down Nippert Stadium press box they will never forget the 2010 season finale against Pitt.
Snow poured down that day and covered the field. Playing the game was a challenge and keeping the yard lines clear was even harder. But, right before halftime an interesting comment popped up in my Twitter feed -- the police just took away the Bearcats mascot in handcuffs. Had to be a joke, I thought. Not the first time Twitter broke a comical lie. Then came another tweet. And another. And then, the video. For a man who loves mascots being placed in real world situations, this was the dream scenario -- the video.
Ryan Koslen had to stand up in the press box and actually make this announcement: "The mascot has been detained, the backup mascot is now in the game."
Maybe the greatest line uttered in any press box.
--- Randomness ....
--- Thank you,
Ryan Quinn. Thank you.
Baseball jousting, still the best in my book.
--- George Winn didn't
say much, but his emergence might have been one of my favorite storylines. Plus, he did this.
--- Usually in this spot I'd throw some silly Interwebbing viral video, some witty (at least in my mind) comment. Instead, for the last one, which feels a bit like an encore, I thought about the best encore songs I've ever seen. I narrowly estimate Pearl Jam, over Outkast and Phish, was my most highly embedded musical act, I could have gone with something from them. Baba O'Riley? SpottieOttieDopealicious? Tweezer Reprise? End of the Road by Boyz II Men? All lovely.
But nothing gets across my message like Monty Python.
Thanks for reading everybody. Trust me, when I say it's impossible that you enjoyed this more than I did.
The Bearcats have won most games this season due to their suffocating defense, but flipping the script to win offensively as they did in Saturday's 73-62 victory against Houston offered a glimpse of the possibilities as March approaches.
CINCINNATI -- Bearcats games this season -- and most since Bob Huggins ushered in the Clifton renaissance -- have been easy to describe.
Slugfest. Rock fight. Sumo bout.
Many seasons since the mid-90s also ended with the UC falling short of the aspired destination. More often than not, inability to produce consistently on offense took the blame.
This particular group should be viewed as the best defensively in the Mick Cronin era and would compete for the title with any under Huggins. They scrap, they steal, they block shots. Heck, they are 23-3 and 12-1 in the conference, you don't need me to reiterate how they are winning games. It's why you have fallen for this team like your college basketball's version of The Bachelor.
This defense can win games in March. Those facts are undisputed when you own the sixth most efficient defense in the nation and one that shifts another stratosphere in the closing minutes of tight games.
While defense may win games in March, that alone can't make runs in March. Teams need more.
"You got to be able to win a multitude of ways if you are going to try to win four to six in a row," Cronin said. "You are not going to shut everybody out. You have to answer and counterpunch when kids are making plays."
That's why the 73-62 win against Houston on Saturday stuck out among the lot of dozen conference wins and the latest against an opponent the Bearcats were favored to dominate.
No rocks were thrown. No sumo wrestlers diapered.
Asked to overcome a Houston team shredding the UC defense and making shot after shot, the Bearcats churned out their most efficient offensive effort of the season.
It wasn't close.
The Bearcats finished with 135.2 points per 100 possessions -- the definitive advanced statistical measure for efficiency on offense in basketball.
Their previous high on the season against non-cupcakes was 123.5 at Temple. In those 17 previous games, UC only crossed the 110 barrier five times.
Only four home team turnovers graced the box score. That's the fewest on the year, the previous low being seven against Nebraska. Place that number against 15 assists and the 3.75 assist to turnover ratio blows any previous game out of the water.
Houston's defense leaves plenty to be desired, but they are middle of the pack in conference play. This wasn't bad defense, though. This stemmed from a week-long directive.
Lacking enough numbers to practice 5-on-5 and enduring a busy first five weeks of conference play not enough practice time could be dedicated to ball movement and offensive passing habits.
That changed this week when Cronin focused his time on improving efficiency and passing. The numbers along with an eye test left an obvious assumption -- it worked.
"For the past week we have really been focusing on our offense and really swinging the ball," Sean Kilpatrick said. "A lot of games this year we kept the ball on one side of the floor. That's something that really wasn't helping our big men especially on the weak side for rebounding. Being able to swing the ball today and drive the big gaps and get in the middle and look for the open guy -- especially in the second half -- that was something that was huge for us."
Enjoying efficient offensive days can be easy when Sean Kilpatrick plays as he has the last month. The latest effort -- 28 points, six assists, five rebounds and only one turnover -- left Cronin rightfully asking what guard could possibly keep him off First Team All-America.
But, without Shaq Thomas attacking the basket early and converting using his trampoline feet and Inspector Gadget arms, 73 points never would have been possible.
If not for Ge'Lawn Guyn burying wide open back-to-back 3-pointers on game-changing assists from Kilpatrick, a win might not have been possible.
If not for Justin Jackson's spin moves leaving post defenders grasping at nothing, 51 percent shooting on the day never exists.
The headline above the Bearcats name on the NCAA Tournament bracket will start with the word defense and include the name Kilpatrick. But if they want a headline for the Elite Eight or beyond, efficient and offense must bully into the subhead.
This week of much-needed practices and Saturday's result served as a step in that direction. In the process, it began to belly the sumo wrestlers toward the edge of the ring.
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Sean Kilpatrick appeared in line for a great senior year that would make the fan base appreciate his UC career, instead, his ascension of late grabbed the attention of a college basketball world appreciating his seizure of the national stage.
CINCINNATI -- The Sean Kilpatrick story already played out like the feel-good movie of the season around UC athletics. The grinding senior expected to push his way to elite territory in school record books and enjoy a swan song in reward for returning to school as a 24-year-old.
Fans would applaud. Teammates would brohug. Mick Cronin would probably well up.
Only, of late, the feel-good story of Kilpatrick executed a plot twist that would make Steven Spielberg set his Oscar down.
Suddenly, the work-hard scorer enjoying a fun senior season for local diehards to appreciate has tossed this team on his back and made the entire nation take notice. An enjoyable ride morphed into an unprecedented adventure, one Kilpatrick masterpiece at a time.
The last four games with victories against two ranked teams and twice on the road, he's averaged 25.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists. His leadership calmed tornadic storms, his free throws buried desperate hopes, his confidence lifted all boats.
Now the Bearcats are 22-2, 11-0 in conference, winners of 15 straight and ranked No. 7 in the country. He's the clear front-runner for American Player of the Year, but now elicits realistic mentions as a first-team All-American.
During his finest work of art yet, racking up 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in topping No. 22 Connecticut Thursday, students chanted "M-V-P!" as he stood at the free throw line in the final seconds. That award doesn't exactly exist in college basketball, but no matter. The reverence nonetheless deserved and understood.
The last four games, an already great individual season turned special.
"No doubt about it," Cronin said. "Mark of great players is they rise to the occasion. He has the ability to rise to the occasion."
The rising of the numbers stand impressive enough. He's hit 43 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep over the four-game stretch. Knocked down 28 of 32 free throws, most in defining moments. He's notched 12 games of at least 20-plus points this year. Nobody else in the conference managed more than eight.
Kilpatrick rose for one-handed dunks that sparked season-altering runs. He silenced crowds and ignited them.
Yet, the more impactful element of his special play has been the method behind his madness. He's not seeking points or prestige, averages or awards.
He cares about wins and being a leader of his team. That's it.
"I am just doing my job. I'm not the MVP, my whole team is the MVP," Kilpatrick told us, crediting his teammates for all the success. Fairly unprecedented stuff in a college sport stuffed with players seeking SportsCenter moments and enough shine to impress NBA scouts.
Outdueling Shabazz Napier, as he did resoundingly Thursday, didn't enter his conversation before, during or after one of his greatest games. The only reality clearer than Kilpatrick's skill was his humility and maturity.
"I'm playing to win," Kilpatrick said. "I am just playing to win. I don't care about points. I don't care about any of that. To help my team win and put them in the best situation that's something leaders do. Leaders don't go out there and try to compete against the other best players and try their hardest to outscore them. The only score that matters is the final score. Your points don't matter at all."
As it was his 26 points came on an ultra-efficient 15 shots. The most significant difference in Kilpatrick's offensive rating ballooning from 108.5 last season to 121.4 has been a lesson in shot selection and trust in teammates. That offensive rating ranks fourth in the country among those used on at least 28 percent of their teams possessions.
He plays smarter basketball. He plays winning basketball. Consequently, the Bearcats do, too.
As the game went on Oscar Robertson, from his standard court side seat, would motion for Kilpatrick to keep shooting. Nobody at UC can touch Oscar's unprecedented aura, but Kilpatrick couldn't help even letting the Big O know what everyone in the nation is now understanding.
"He kept giving me the signals to shoot," Kilpatrick said with a laugh before reverently referring to Robertson a legend. "I told him just relax, we got it."
He was right, leaving Oscar able to sit back, smile and wonder along with the other 12,432 at Fifth Third Arena what the next exciting chapter will be in this coming-of-age tale. The final stanza has begun to be written.
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Mike Bohn noticed the moment he walked to the podium at the eighth floor of the Lindner Center the energy and momentum driving University of Cincinnati athletics.
With the pep band playing the fight song and cast of faculty, staff and coaches coating the back wall only hours before a critical home basketball game against UConn, Bohn couldn't help acknowledge it.
With a bombastic and energetic tone he's been known for since jumping into the athletics game 30 years ago, he heaped praise toward the band, cheerleaders and jumped into speaking about the passion he's noticed around town.
"The sense of team came through loud and clear," Bohn said. "That's impressive to me. That's attractive to me."
The word momentum would flow out of his mouth dozens of times in the next 30 minutes as blew through the local media car wash.
Momentum created here under Whit Babcock caught his eye. An ability to create momentum sold President Santa Ono.
Everywhere Ono seeks a leader and the Bearcats to advance on the college athletics landscape Bohn offers experience times over.
Need to raise money? He oversaw several multi-million dollar capital projects and facility upgrades at Colorado, as well as secured the largest corporate sponsorship in school history.
Need to spend effectively? In 2013 his athletic department was name the most economically efficient in the country.
Need to invigorate the fan base? Ono can relay that answer: "He is a communication and marketing genius."
Perhaps most importantly to those familiar with the economics of college ahteltics, if you need an athletic director familiar with navigating the water of conference realignment, Bohn would be your man.
He was the first to hop into the Pac-12 and secure Colorado's spot at the table. As an AD at Idaho he even found a way to temporarily keep the football program afloat once the Big West conference stopped sponsoring football. It wasn't the best fit moving the Sun Belt, but kept the program alive.
He knows how to align a program to take advantage of whatever opportunity that arrives. It's why he's here.
"It's imperative to have your trustees, your president, your athletic department, your community all in alignment," he said. "That's why I talk about synergy and teamwork. And that's why it's inspiring to be here because that is in place. Other institutions, that is what they are looking for, a commitment and great sense of foundation from all those key players."
His connections across college athletics wowed Ono. As did Bohn's personality. While Babcock's search lasted 10 weeks, this lasted 12 days. Bohn left Ono with no doubts.
"He's a seasoned leader, proven innovator, trusted partner and community builder," Ono said. "He's somebody deeply connected to the community, alumni and fans. He has a tremendous amount of energy and passion."
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A huge night for Bearcats basketball boils down to three seniors leading the nation in toughness and showing the type of fortitude that wins games in March.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Russ Smith pulled up from 25 feet with the game tied and time running down on the shot clock to remind everyone why he earned the name Russdiculous.
Suddenly, 22,264 who spent the first 35 minutes berating the officials erupted in the latest attempt to blow the exclamation point off the KFC Yum! Center.
The defending national champions in their own house, the worldwide leader allowing the entire nation to watch, all momentum carrying them like a tidal wave from down 17 to up three in the same half. No. 12 Louisville took the floor with a deafening crowd, college basketball's seventh-ranked defense and both hands square around the throat of their biggest rivals.
Average teams don't recover for weeks. Good teams don't score again.
Even great teams mostly tip their cap and learn from the film. Few moments of that intimidation level exist across college basketball.
Yet, this Bearcats team, followed during every step of their 12-game win streak by "yeah, but," wheeled out three seniors and a toughness impossible to gauge in recruiting stars or highlight videos.
They accomplished the improbable. They found a way.
How did they do it? Sounds complicated, but for Mick Cronin, is explained simply.
"I made sure Justin, SK and Titus were in the game," he said.
Such resiliency in leadership speaks more than a single win against a rival, 20-2 record or two-game advantage in The American standings. It speaks to a team capable of facing any opponent, any obstacle, any atmosphere and making the plays the other side isn't willing or able to convert.
It speaks to a team built for March.
"I got the best three senior leaders in the country. Period," Mick Cronin said. "They may not be the best three players -- Kansas, Kentucky have three lottery picks each -- but I wouldn't trade my guys for the world.
"You can't understand the fortitude of Titus, Jack and SK," Cronin said. "That's why we have the record we have."
After Thursday, the college basketball universe may be starting to get the point.
Time and again, the Bearcats accepted brutal punches by the Cardinals and steadied the ship. The first came after a 7-0 Louisville run to close the first half placed pressure on UC coming out of the break.
Kilpatrick hit a 3 to start a run of 16 points in the first six possessions of the half.
When Louisville broke out the Montrezl Harrell dunk parade a 14-0 run saw the Bearcats unravel like has happened many times before against Louisville. Last year UC committed 21 turnovers, lost composure and it buried them into a blowout.
Instead, Kilpatrick entered and immediately sent a message to his team:
"I said, you know what, everybody has to calm down because if you come into this type of environment and try to speed up with them then everything goes out of hand."
His message backed up with two free threes and a collection of backdoor cuts and drives to keep pace as the Cardinals heated up from deep.
Then Russdiculous happened.
And Justin Jackson, who spent much of the night quietly affecting the game with defense offered three game-defining plays. He forced in for an acrobatic putback of a missed layup, altered a Smith layup on the other end then when Harrell backed him into the post, Jackson reached around for a strip and turnover that allowed Kilpatrick back to the line.
Kilpatrick set the tone with a one-handed tomahawk jam in the opening minutes slammed with an emphatic message that these Bearcats would dictate the terms. Then he finished them off with finesse burying free throw 11 of 11 on the game -- one might have hit the rim.
Those are winning plays made by winning players. Those projecting the possibility of these Bearcats need to push the ceiling a little higher after witnessing what was accomplished Thursday night.
Cronin would say his team expected to win Thursday. Knowing their confidence level, he's not lying. But this win could only be considered special. The same descriptor belongs on this team. After Cincinnati 69, Louisville 66, we should discuss the possibility special could also describe their March run.
"I have been saying it this season," he said. "Those guys play hard, they're tough, they care about winning. I am just enjoying the ride with those guys."
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When Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino face off in a Top 15 matchup Thursday, it will be the latest head-to-head meeting between two coaches who share a special friendship in the middle of a heated rivalry.
Rivalries are supposed to bitter, ugly, filled with hate.
You know, poisoned oak trees, That Team Up North, fractured friendships, relationship deal-breakers.
In many ways, Cincinnati-Louisville owns those traits. Yet, this rivalry always rooted in respect more than resentment. Look no further than the relationship between Mick Cronin and Rick Pitino to gain a deeper understanding.
The story falls far from breaking news around Clifton circles. Cronin came up under Bob Huggins and eventually spent two years as an associate head coach under Pitino in 2002 and 2003 with Louisville. Pitino played as large a role as any in scoring Cronin his position restoring the University of Cincinnati basketball program.
During those two years Cronin became the latest branch on the Pitino coaching tree. To be fair, the tree looks more like a Toomer's Oaks at full strength these days. When Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame in September, Cronin couldn't help but look around at the six row of disciples filling the crowd in Springfield, Mass.
They were a whose who of the coaching world.
There was 76ers coach Brett Brown, Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Billy Donovan (Florida), Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) and Jeff Van Gundy (Former NBA coach, NBA Analyst). Jim O'Brien (Emerson) and Herb Sendek (Arizona State). Travis Ford (Oklahoma State), Scott Davenport (Bellarmine) and Melvin Menzies (New Mexico State). Stu Jackson (Executive VP NBA), Kevin Williard (Seton Hall) and Reggie Theus (Cal State Northridge).
In the middle of all those coaches was Cronin, feeling proud, lucky.
"He treats me like his little brother," Cronin said. "It's a luxury for me. It's been one of the great things to happen in my life that he opened his world up to me."
Most conversations between the two stray away from the basketball court these days. Instead, Cronin jabs Pitino for dodging him on the golf course. Or they discuss the latest horses running at Churchill. When Mick and his father, Hep, head down to the races, Pitino opens up his suite to them.
Cronin holds close relationships with Pitino's son Richard, now the coach at Minnesota, along with many in the host of basketball coaches to come through Louisville during his two years there. When career opportunities floated his way, Cronin could lean on the advice of the Hall of Famer whose lived and learned bouncing around the coaching map.
Now eight years into Cronin's head coaching career and developing a program ascending to the level of the Cardinals -- he's beat Pitino three of the last five meetings -- the relationship doesn't change for Mick. He's never felt like the younger brother eager to prove he belongs on the same court.
"Having worked with him I never felt that need. At all," he said. "I think that for me with him it's like an older brother. When you know somebody you can talk to that is going to give you advice solely based on what's in your best interest it's a luxury. And he happens to be a Hall of Fame coach. For he and I don't really talk about basketball much unless its my future with job situations."
The job Thursday will be finding the latest way for younger brother to knock older brother down a notch. Current possession of first place in The American will be on the line. Afterward, respect will be exchanged, likely along with Cronin's latest low score on the golf course.
Pitino expressed the constant pride derived from helping assistant coaches advance to fulfill their career dreams under his watch during his Hall of Fame speech in September. Cronin, sitting among those in the six rows owing part of their success to him, held a similar pride in sitting on the other end. This fraternity matters almost as much to those apart of it as it does to the founder.
"It's just nice to be a part of something and a network that has become a real special thing in college basketball when you think about it," Cronin said.
Of course, the predictable, competitive conclusion to the glowing conversation about their relationship followed soon after.
"Hopefully I can give him a little pain Thursday," Cronin said.
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Following the first interview I did with Whit Babcock upon his hiring, I hung up the phone and shook my head in near disbelief.
Making a living in the media we are trained to smell dishonesty. We swim to and from the office in a pool of half PR spin, half blatant lies. So, upon talking about his first job as an athletic direction and the challenging decisions confronted with at the University of Cincinnati the gut reaction on Babcock stuck with me for days.
This guy is different. He's honest. He's transparent. More specifically, he's genuine.
Through 27 months of toeing the line of reporting about and working alongside Babcock that genuine demeanor and commitment to honesty, the power of positivity and belief people make all the difference never eroded from me.
In every instance, on and off the record, Babcock lived in humility, quest for truth and empowering others around him.
One walk around the Lindner Center shows how that filtered from personal philosophy to athletic department culture.
One Team began showing up everywhere. Attitudes of employees perked up. A department often treading water in hopes of establishing its visions walked with purpose and direction. Accomplishment followed.
Marketing broke new ground. Basketball grew. Accountability reigned.
Boosters believed in the vision and suddenly the Nippert Expansion fast-tracked with millions of dollars to cover it already in the pocket.
Daily life felt and looked different.
UC athletics excelled and accomplished before Babcock. Claiming otherwise would be preposterous. What Babcock developed and instituted into every aspect of Bearcats sports was a reinvigoration of pride, optimism and honesty. The restoration of being genuine. This resonated with everyone connected to the program, by paycheck or diploma, ticket or jersey.
The great news for fans as Babcock moves on to a well-deserved return home as AD at Virginia Tech is the culture he created in Clifton so embedded itself into every day, undoing that momentum would be difficult to envision.
Differing strategically with how daily events are handled can be debated. Success rates can be achieved many different ways. And quickly.
However, there is no easy way to fix a defeating culture. The person who comes sits in the chair after Babcock and interim AD Desiree Reed-Francois won't need to worry about such problems. Reed-Francois enters the fray as a dedicated professional in the same mold of her former boss. The ship sails forward, route unchanged.
In the days following Babcock's departure I was shocked to hear from fans frustration and even a few ugly words directed at his leaving. Seemed almost mind-boggling to me. Doesn't everyone see what happened here the last few years? Well, the answer to my own question was not really.
Perhaps anyone without a view of the program from the inside out can't truly appreciate the enormity of what he accomplished.
They can't truly appreciate how much easier this job will now be for his successor.
Changing leadership can be done seamlessly. Just ask Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and Tommy Tuberville. Changing culture takes years, sometimes decades.
Babcock leaves that legacy behind. His time at UC was shorter than anybody in the building would have liked, but the residue of his work will cake the program for years to come.
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The Bearcats are enjoying their best start under Mick Cronin and perch atop The American but the coach and his star player take the court with a chip on their shoulder.
CINCINNATI -- This week, finally, the gloves came off for Sean Kilpatrick, Mick Cronin and the Bearcats. They weren't politely pulled one finger at a time like two hipsters leaving the cold entering a posh OTR restaurant.
The gloves were tossed aside, cascading across the ice like Canucks-Flames goonfest.
Kilpatrick and the Bearcats believe they've earned respect of the country with a 17-2 record, undefeated while leading a conference featuring powers Louisville, Memphis and UConn. Winners of 10 straight they've suffocated opponents allowing the second-fewest points per game in the country.
Sure, they've trickled their way up the polls to Nos. 15/16, but the rise came as slowly as it did quietly.
"Guys really bled and sweated UC and put things in perspective for the program," Kilpatrick said. "We beat teams that were ranked higher than us and played a huge role with going at teams like they predicted to be better than us. Now we are still not getting the same respect that we deserve so next question is what do we need to do in order to do that?"
The easy answer is simple: Win.
The more complicated answer requires a doctorate in the College Basketball Noticeability Theorem. Storylines, McDonald's All-Americans and primetime television slots grab the attention of the average voter and college basketball writer.
"People get caught up in 'We don't have talent,' yes we do," Cronin said. "There's a lot of skilled players that lose. Playing hard and playing to win is a talent, unfortunately, that talent is not accentuated by recruiting analysts. But it is a talent. It's a talent anybody looking to put a winning team together is looking for."
Polls serve as much of a true representation of college hoops achievement as looking at a resume predicts who would best fill a job. Voters and national pundits grazing box scores and headlines rarely view the relevancy of a team overachieving -- certainly not on Jan. 23.
The favorites will be exalted at every cost and risers struck down at the first possible moment. That's Cronin's message to his team this week regarding the current reality of UC basketball. Despite wins at Memphis and against Pittsburgh in New York City pairing with a perfect 6-0 record in conference, notoriety remains tenuous when colored red and black.
"It will all be gone quickly," Cronin said. "There's certain teams in college basketball that if they lose it would take them four losses in a row and they'd still be ranked. If we were to lose one game we will disappear. I make sure our guys understand that."
Those paying close attention know the difference between this Cincinnati team and one which stumbled down the stretch to close last season. Most notably, their biggest rival.
Cronin doesn't concern himself with impressing anybody except his players and those he needs to beat. Luckily, in a sport which settles itself on the court, little else matters. He knows Rick Pitino wouldn't drop UC off his radar if one upset loss occurred.
"We wouldn't disappear from coach Pitino's mind because he is an educated basketball expert,' Cronin said. "From some AP voters or people that continue to write stories about teams that are 1-5 in their league on national sites. They couldn't wait to say, 'See, I told you they weren't very good.' People don't like to admit when they are wrong. When people say that team is not that good, that coach is not that good, that player is not that good they can't wait for that team to fail. That's just how it is."
Unfortunately, it often leads to injustice in the mind of Cronin and Kilpatrick. The Bearcats leader and leading scorer was left off the Wooden Award 25 Semi-Finalists list this week. Here's the list.
He can earn his way back into a top 15 cut which will happen March 8.
It didn't make the snub sting any less.
First, to The Twitters:
Next To The Instagrams of SK: (http://instagram.com/p/jb1h1tICT0/)
"I come from the bottom... Come from nothing... And I'm not saying that there's not a lot of great players out in the world BUT just know I'm one of them. The more and more you don't respect my teammates and my game the more and more it puts more anger into the tank. I've worked my tail off all my life and Nationally some people still don't respect it? Some players been spoon fed all their lives when it comes to this"
Kilpatrick broke out the hashtag #NUMBERSDONTLIE and when looking at the guards ahead of him on the Wooden team the truth shows through. Of the 14 guards on the team, only four rank ahead of him in the KenPom.com offensive rating rooted in efficiency.
He's second on the list in points per game, trailing only Jordan Clarkson of Missouri by one-tenth of a point.
He's sixth in rebounds per game and three players have fewer assists per game.
|Player (All Guards)||KenPom Off. Rating||Points/G||Assts/G||Reb/G||Record|
|Keith Appling, Mich. St.||116.7||15.6||4.6||3.6||18-1|
|Kyle Anderson, UCLA||117.3||15.5||6.6||8.9||14-4|
|Jordan Clarkson, Mizzou||114.9||18.7||3.4||3.9||14-4|
|Aaron Craft, Ohio State||105.3||9.2||4.9||3.5||15-4|
|Tyler Ennis, Syracuse||122.4||11.9||5.5||3.2||18-0|
|Nick Johnson, Arizona||123.1||16.3||2.4||3.4||18-0|
|DeAndre Kane, Iowa St.||111.0||16.7||5.8||7.2||14-3|
|Shabazz Napier, UConn||121.4||17.4||5.9||6.2||15-4|
|Marcus Smart, OK St.||113.7||17.8||4.4||5.8||15-3|
|Russ Smith, Louisville||112.4||18.1||4.8||3.4||17-3|
|Andrew Wiggins, Kansas||109.9||15.2||1.4||6.1||14-4|
|Chaz Williams, UMass||110.1||15.8||7.3||2.7||16-2|
|Joseph Young, Oregon||133.0||18.0||1.9||3.5||13-4|
Obviously, other factors come into play. But anyone claiming Kilpatrick as a key part of the fourth-ranked defense in the country in terms of points per possession falls shy as an all-around player isn't watching.
Even more so for Cronin, anybody claiming a player accepted more leadership and responsibility in carrying a team emotionally, mentally and physically toward overachievement, they likely haven't followed Kilpatrick's rise through UC.
Cronin and Kilpatrick can take to any form of social media or conversation with media types all they want. No louder message reverberates throughout the national landscape like winning and winning big games. With two against Louisville, two against UConn, a trip to SMU and home tilt with Memphis on the horizon, the opportunities will come.
After that, the ultimate proving ground of the NCAA Tournament will settle all debates. Finally.
"Can't wait," Kilpatrick said.
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Sean Kilpatrick picked the right time to bust out of his shooting slump, but it only reinforced the team attitude that has carried this team to 16-2 following Tuesday's win against Temple.
CINCINNATI --Grabbing and pulling a 3-pointer from the wing, Sean Kilpatrick fired off in rhythm. After it ripped the net for the latest of six three-pointers and the defining moment in the game's defining run, he turned around toward the Fifth Third Arena crowd behind him and let out a scream.
His Bearcats struggled Tuesday night. Mick Cronin called it the worst first half of the season and afterward referred to it as about the most unintelligent game they'd played all year.
Temple erased a double-digit deficit and led by two. That would be previously 5-9, 0-4 playing without their starting point guard and only seven scholarship players, Temple.
And here was Kilpatrick. Made only four of his last 33 shots from deep asking anyone on staff for an idea how to bust out of this slump, Kilpatrick.
A developing storyline during UC's ascension to No. 19 in the country had been winning games despite ugly shooting. Whispers began of regressing from the 40-plus percent shooting that marked the early season to the 30.6 percent that clouded a disappointing junior campaign.
Only, with each passing 3 that found the net, including two and an assist on another by Jermaine Sanders, Kilpatrick reminded everyone why he's a preseason Wooden and Naismith Top 50 selection. And reminded why he's climbing the charts to a likely spot as the second-leading scorer in Cincinnati history.
Kilpatrick saves the day. Not the first time, but after missing 29 of 33 shots, remembering the last time can be the challenge.
And in this moment, as he enjoyed the return of his shot with 9,864 of his closest friends Tuesday, he couldn't help but celebrate by letting out a cathartic yell and head nod.
"Yeah, it's funny because today in walk through I was actually shooting and it was actually falling. I told Ge'Lawn (Guyn), man, I feel like I'm back. He said, 'you never left, I don't know what you are talking about.' But it was good to hit some shots today to help my team win."
Justin Jackson followed up Kilpatrick's statement with a confused look. On a campus where half the student body owns a No. 23 jersey, No. 5 would be considered his biggest fan.
"He don't miss in walk through," Jackson said.
That's the thing about shooting slumps for the team's heart, soul, leader and leading scorer. Misses can tailspin without support. Through all the misses and frustrations, Jackson leads the charge reminding Kilpatrick to keep shooting.
Nobody challenges Jackson's relentlessness both on the court and in supporting his teammate. There will be no concerns about a slump.
"I'm not letting that happen," Jackson said.
For Kilpatrick, the man playing with the weight of this team's success on his shoulders, relief and confidence on the court makes all the difference in attempting to leave a slump behind.
"Out of everybody he is on me the hardest, like, man you got to keep shooting," Kilpatrick said. "He says it don't matter how it hits, where it goes, if you shoot it and miss it I am going to get the rebound and throw it back to you. That's something I am happy for when it comes down to him being able to give him that kind of confidence."
Nobody can assure the support of Jackson and his teammates greased the wheels to Kilpatrick's 23 points on 6 of 13 shooting from deep. Nobody can assure this wasn't just the law of averages swinging back in favor of a talented shooter. Nobody can assure this wasn't the product of shots suddenly opening up when Titus Rubles cracked Temple's frustrating zone from the high post.
All those would be speculation and theory.
What can be assured from anybody within earshot of Kilpatrick's emotional scream during Tuesday's victory was that, for Kilpatrick, breaking out of this shooting slump sure felt damn good.
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The Bearcats defense left another lasting impression on an opponent Saturday and has eyes on being the best defense in the country.
CINCINNATI --For the final 11:45 of Saturday's 71-51 win against Rutgers the Bearcats didn't allow a single field goal.
The Scarlet Knights scored three points, all on free throws. A game within striking distance spread to the latest reason to believe in the 2013-14 Bearcats.
Though, the reason sounds the same as it always has around Fifth Third Arena. Mick Cronin and the Bearcats will win games when their best shooter clangs nine of 10 3-pointers off the rim. When their second-leading scorer spends half the game locked to the bench in foul trouble. When they turn the ball over 14 times.
"The answer for us is defense," Cronin said. "Our goal is to be the best defensive team in the country."
More suffocations like the final 12 minutes Saturday make that goal more than motivational chatter.
Following Saturday's games they rank fourth in the country in adjusted defense (points allowed per possession). They rank in the top 10 in turnover percentage, 2-point shooting percentage defense, block percentage and steal percentage.
It's now been 24 consecutive games the Bearcats held a team under 70 points -- the longest streak in the nation.
Stats don't tell the defensive story. The frustration on the faces of players like Wally Judge and Myles Mack do.
"That's what this program is based upon," Sean Kilpatrick said. "For the five years I have been around it's been just about defense and you can't win games if your defense isn't on point. That's really our bread and butter. That's what we get our points off of and we turn people over."
The length and athleticism of press wears teams down and by the time they reach the last quarter of the game exhausted bodies make poor decisions. They take bad shots. Or in the case of Rutgers, they don't muster a single field goal.
Even on a day when the press wasn't working as Rutgers ran out to 12 fast break points in the first half, Cronin realized his mistake and backed off the press to keep the Knights in front of them after halftime. Rutgers shot 23.1 percent after the break.
This isn't the first time and won't be the last.
Repeatedly, UC has forced one of the worst offensive outputs from opponents. In fact, of the nine opponents from a major conference this season, all have been held to one of their three worst scoring outputs of the year.
Rutgers, Memphis and Pitt were held to their lowest. Here's the results.
The number test and eye test have UC believing this could be the top defense in the country and probably the best of the Mick Cronin Era. Around Cincinnati, where defense defines every practice, workout and game, that's saying something.
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