Bearcats Set to Open NCAA Tournament Friday vs. Kansas State
March 16, 2017

KochBy Bill Koch

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SACRAMENTO - Having watched University of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin dial back the length of practice in recent weeks in an attempt to keep his players fresh, junior forward Gary Clark wasn’t expecting a return to the intensity of an October or November practice when the Bearcats arrived here for the NCAA Tournament.

He was in for a big surprise.

“We were going hard,” Clark said. “You’d think when we got to this point it would be a little more chilled, but it’s what we needed because against SMU in our last game we weren’t together. We didn’t get stops down the stretch like we needed to.”

There was never any question in Cronin’s mind about whether he would take it easy on his players as they prepared to face No. 11 seed Kansas State on Friday at 7:27 p.m. at Golden 1 Center, the sparkling new five-month-old home of the NBA Sacramento Kings.

“You’re either preparing to win or you’re preparing to lose,” Cronin said. “We’re trying to prepare to win. What did Bill Belichick say? No days off. I told ‘em I carried them through February knowing that we were gonna be here, so I saved their legs for now.”

The No. 6 seed Bearcats will take a 29-5 record into their first-round game in the South Region with wins in seven of their last nine games. Kansas State, coached by Bruce Weber, had to earn its way here by beating Wake Forest, 95-88, in the First Four at Dayton on Tuesday night. The Wildcats (21-13) have won four of their last five games. Their only setback during that period was a 51-50 loss to West Virginia in the championship game of the Big 12 tournament.

“They make it as hard as they can on you to score,” Cronin said. “But I think they also do it on offense. Their players really know what they’re good at. They’re unselfish and they’re doing everything they can to get a great shot. I don’t see them taking possessions off. They just don’t give in and take a bad shot. They’ve had to really get hardened and tough and eliminate mistakes to win enough games throughout the Big 12 to be in this tournament because their league is so tough.”

‘Hardened’ and ‘tough’ are words that are also frequently associated with the UC basketball program. And those aren’t the only similarities between these teams. Both have four starters averaging in double figures. Kansas State averages 72.4 points while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 36.1 from 3-point range, and allows 67.6 points per game. UC averages 74.5 points while shooting 45.

But they’re not mirror images of each other.

“We’ve got two inside scorers and they’ve got one inside scorer,” said associate head coach Larry Davis, who put together the scouting report on the Wildcats. “We’ve got similar type perimeter players, but a little different point guards. Troy (Caupain) is more of a power point guard. This kid is a fast, quick little guard. They’re not looking to push it like us.”

There’s also a major difference in their defensive approach and it’s that difference that the Bearcats hope to exploit.

“They help tremendously,” Davis said. “They over-help so much they give up a lot of 3s. If you look at their statistics in the Big 12, teams have shot 42.2 percent from three against them. If we pass the ball, we’re gonna have wide open looks because that’s just how they play. We’ve been talking to (our players) about how we can use it against them."

But those open looks are only beneficial if the Bearcats make the long-range shots, which they didn’t do against SMU when they made only four of 24 from beyond the arc.

The Bearcats will have to contend with D.J. Johnson. At 6-foot-9, 237 pounds, he’s a force in the post where he averages 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 62.6 percent from the field. But the key to the Wildcats’ success, Cronin said, is six-foot point guard Kamau Stokes, who averages 11.

While the Bearcats have improved offensively this year over their recent NCAA Tournament teams, their defense is still what gives their opponents pause.

“Their numbers are amazing,” Weber said, “whether it’s points allowed, field goal percentage defense, steals or blocked shots, you know some of the best in the country. We’ve got to limit their easy looks and make them earn things and maybe we get some transition off of some good defensive possessions and steal some baskets.”

This is UC's seventh straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, a run of success the Bearcats are extremely proud of, but they’re also keenly aware that they’ve made early exits from this tournament in recent years.

Last season, their first-round elimination was especially painful when they lost to St. Joseph’s in Spokane after the officials ruled that Octavius Ellis’ follow shot that would have sent the game into overtime had not left his fingertips before time expired.

"It definitely left a bad feeling for some of the guys who were here last year,” Clark said. “But we don’t need much (extra) motivation because of the passion that we have to really make a name for our team and just be dominant and try to go as deep as we can.”

For UC seniors Caupain, Kevin Johnson and Zack Tobler, this is the last chance to make a splash in the postseason.

“I’m now on the West Coast in three of my four years and I’ve never conquered the West Coast,” Caupain said. “We’ve got a lot of things that are motivating us. We don’t want to end it this weekend. All these guys love each other. It’s a special group.o That’s the biggest thing, not to end this year with this group of my teammates. This is my last time doing it as a Bearcat. It’s over after this for the seniors. I told Kevin this morning, ‘We’ve been dancing four straight years, so let’s do something with it because we’ve never conquered the West Coast. Having this opportunity again is special. Let’s go out with a bang.’”

Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of in January, 2015.