Feb. 25, 2009
(2:07 p.m): There are times when Yancy Gates looks like a veteran, athletic, future NBA power forward. He’s running the floor with ease, he takes the pass from a guard and jams it with authority. This is when you think: man, Gates could be really good.
Then, there are times when Gates looks like a freshman who’s not used to giving the effort needed to be a great player. He’s been taken out of a game for most of the second half, and his body language suggests he’s uninterested in the outcome. This is when you think: man, Gates has much to learn.
This, UC basketball coach Mick Cronin knows, is how freshmen can be. No matter how highly-recruited they were, no matter how many accolades they had earned beforehand, this is how rookies, most of the time, respond to a new college basketball environment.
“He’s no different than anybody else,” Cronin said. “He’s a freshman. He’s going to have good games and he’s going to have bad games. That’s what 99.9 percent of all freshmen do. They have good games and bad games, and as they go, you have to make sure in their freshman year that they don’t get overwhelmed and you don’t let them get worn down mentally. You have to help them through it. In this conference, it’s a constant barrage of, ‘Who’s the next guy you have to play against that has more experience than you?’ He’s handled that pretty well. But that being said, you never want to be satisfied with your play. You want a player to be salivating for more and hungry for more.”
For most of the season, that’s been Gates’ mindset.
He entered UC out of Cincinnati’s Withrow High School as the reigning Associated Press Ohio Division I player of the year and ranked as the Rivals.com No. 22 nationally-ranked player in the class of 2008. With the lack of an effective center the first two years of Cronin’s coaching tenure, Gates was expected eventually to become the post player that would help make junior guard Deonta Vaughn and the rest of the backcourt more effective.
But Gates didn’t feel any additional pressure. He was more concerned with preparing himself for what he knew would be a tough season.
“I wasn’t really feeling the pressure to play,” Gates said. “I was a freshman coming in, and people knew I was a freshman coming in. I didn’t feel that pressure. I was just focused on getting prepared to play. I wasn’t thinking about starting at all. I was just worried, ‘Am I going to be able to contribute this year?’ I felt I would be able to, but coming in was a whole other level. I didn’t really know.”
Although sophomore Anthony McClain started UC’s two exhibition games, it seemed only a matter of time before Gates stepped in as the top center on the team. Fans didn’t have to wait long. In UC’s season-opening win against South Dakota, Gates started and recorded a double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds in 20 minutes of action). He called that an adrenaline game. He was simply so excited to be playing college basketball, he helped dramatically with the Bearcats domination.
The next time out, though, he proved Cronin’s theory correct. Gates played 11 minutes and scored just three points against Texas Southern. He would record three points and four rebounds in 19 minutes in one game, and in the very next game, he’d play 19 minutes and manage 16 points and seven rebounds.
Gates was just trying to get through his learning curve.
“I was struggling with a lot of different things – the pace of the game, how hard other teams play and the physicality of the game,” Gates said. “As the season has gone on, I’ve been able to adjust to it.”
He’s had to adjust his attitude at times, as well.
“He’s made great progress,” Vaughn said. “He’s competed more in practice. Early on in the year, he tried to sit out a little bit more, trying to take his wind and taking breaks. He realized once you play hard in practice, it leads over to the game.”
But Gates also had to learn how to adjust to what one could consider a demotion.
After starting all but two of the Bearcats first 17 games, Gates had a poor outing in UC’s victory against Rutgers. He struggled with his shot and scored four points in the first half, and Cronin only played him 2 minutes in the final period before shutting him down the rest of a contest the Bearcats would win. His body language while on the bench was not good, and before the next game, Cronin yanked him from the starting lineup.
But Gates got through that rough spot, and he said he’s a better player for it.
“I didn’t look at it as being demoted,” Gates said. “I looked at it as a learning experience to becoming a better player. I got through it by just dealing with it. It was just a freshman learning experience. It wasn’t hard to deal with it. To start with, I never based anything on my career in starting. It was me being able to help the team any way that I could. Me coming off the bench, if I could help them, I was OK with it. It’s good, because as a freshman, I can see how the game is flowing before I step on the court.”
Said Cronin: “I’ve had that happen with numerous young players. It’s the first time anybody is yelling at some of these guys or demanding a certain effort from some of these guys. It’s an adjustment for young players, and he’s not different from anybody else.”
Lately, though, Gates has played well – and, at times, rather remarkably. One example occurred when Notre Dame and Luke Harangody, one of the top players in the conference, visited U.S. Bank Arena on Feb. 4 to face the Bearcats.
While Harangody scored 28 points and recorded 10 rebounds, he struggled for most of the game as Gates and Steve Toyloy hounded him when Harangody had the ball in the post. He took bad shots, and the Fighting Irish couldn’t overcome the Bearcats. Gates was effective in his 21 minutes, making 7 of 13 shots to finish with 15 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and some strong interior defense.
Afterward, Harangody complimented Gates but also said, “He has a long way to go until he’s as good as (DeJuan) Blair and others like that.” That’s probably true. But Gates says he feels like he’s progressing at a pretty good pace. That’s why he wasn’t all that shocked by his performance against Harangody.
“I wouldn’t say surprised necessarily,” Gates said. “I would say, really I just gave the effort and it paid off. It’s learning how to play hard and win games. I never thought anything would be easy.”
But Gates is finding that, when he does work hard in practice, he’s having greater success in games. And, at the same time, he’s making life easier for Vaughn and the other guards on the team. Unlike the two previous seasons – when a 6-foot-8 Marcus Sikes struggled to bang bodies with larger opponents two years ago and when Adam Hrycaniuk struggled to make point-blank layups last season – Vaughn has more help.
“We needed him a lot,” Vaughn said. “We needed him to finish around the rim. If he gets the mental toughness that Adam had, he’s going to be a great player.”