Men's Basketball |
Nov. 5, 2008
SETTING THE STAGE
When Mick Cronin took over the head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati on March 23, 2006, he knew he faced the daunting task of rebuilding a program. With just one returning letterwinner and a team of freshmen and junior college transfers, Cronin spent the next two years in the opening act of an epic, creating a new team from scratch and developing a new culture, while putting together two recruiting classes that will lay the foundation of the program moving forward.
With the program’s progress last year, quadrupling the team’s BIG EAST wins, making the league tournament, and returning to the postseason for the first time under Cronin, a foundation was built that has UC on the cusp of taking its place in the BIG EAST as an annual contender in the nation’s premier basketball conference.
The curtain opens on Act II in 2008-09 when Cronin welcomes in a highly-touted recruiting class that includes two Top 100 players in freshmen guard Cashmere Wright and power forward Yancy Gates. Chicago Public League star Dion Dixon, from the highly respected Crane Technical Prep program, and junior college transfer Steve Toyloy, who averaged a double-double in two years at Miami Dade College and led the NJCAA in rebounding as a freshman, round out the 2008-09 newcomers.
This incoming class will have an advantage Cronin’s first two programs did not ... experienced leadership. After two years learning the intricacies of Cronin’s offense and defense and the hardwork and dedication it takes to play at the highest level, junior guard Deonta Vaughn, a 2007-08 first-team all-BIG EAST selection and seniors Mike Williams, a forward, and Branden Miller, a wing, will work together to mold a new sense of team chemistry and unity that will lift the program to new heights.
A large part of how the 2008-09 Bearcats perform will depend on its backcourt starting with junior Deonta Vaughn.
Vaughn, a preseason all-America candidate and 2007-08 first-team all-conference selection, supplies a large part of the Bearcats offensive punch, averaging almost 16 points per game in his first two seasons and leaving him just 12 points short of 1,000 for his career. After spending parts of his first two years at the point guard spot, Vaughn will stay at the off-guard position this season where his skills are focused on scoring and not running the offense. Even though, he averaged 17.3 points per game last season, he also found a way to get everyone involved ranking ninth in the BIG EAST in assists (4.16).
The emergence of freshmen Cashmere Wright and Dion Dixon as regulars will be keys to keeping Vaughn from handling the ball along with the play of Larry Davis and senior team captain Branden Miller.
Wright was highly touted coming out of Urban Christian Academy in Savannah, Ga., as one of the nation’s Top 100 incoming freshmen and one of the top point guards available. He brings a reputation as a complete point guard that can handle running the offense and put points on the board.
At 6-foot-3, Dixon is versatile and has the ability to move around and play both guard spots. He can also score as he led the Chicago Public League last year with 21 points a game.
Adding more experience and leadership to the youthful backcourt will be Davis, a sophomore, who played in all 32 games last year and Miller. Davis added an offensive spark at times to the Bearcats’ lineup last year, averaging 4.3 points per game as the team’s second-leading freshman scorer. This will be Miller’s third year playing for head coach Mick Cronin and he will play a crucial role, showing the younger players the right work ethic as they transition to Division I college basketball.
The Bearcats face some of the biggest and tallest front courts in the nation in the BIG EAST and during this re-tooling process over the last two years, Cronin has assembled a new cast that will compete with the best night in and night out.
Even though he has not played college basketball in two years after transferring to UC from Texas and then suffering an Achilles tendon injury that kept him out during 2007-08, 6-foot-7, 240-pound senior Mike Williams is ready to show off his rugged, high-energy style of play that made him a McDonald’s All-American selection as a senior at Wilcox Central High School in Camden, Ala. In two years at Cincinnati, he has been able to study and learn UC’s playbook inside and out, an advantage that should help him quickly make the transition back to the floor and game situations.
Williams anchors a seven-man group that averages 6-foot-8 and 243 pounds. Returning with Williams are sophomores: wings Rashad Bishop, Darnell Wilks, and Alvin Mitchell, power forward Kenny Belton, and center Anthony McClain.
Bishop, the team’s leading freshman scorer last season (5.3 points per game), made key plays on both ends of the court for the Bearcats last year and will also see time at the guard spot this year.
An extremely athletic 6-foot-7 guard with a 36-inch vertical jump, Wilks has been working on his overall game this offseason and working to find more consistency. He will compete with explosive Mitchell to earn more floor time.
Down in the blocks, Cronin will be equipped with more depth than at any other time in his UC tenure. Sophomores McClain, who put up 2.7 points and 3.0 rebounds in just under 10 minutes of action per game last year, and Belton, will see more floor time this year, but it is the addition of junior college transfer Steve Toyloy, a physical rebounder, and impact freshman Yancy Gates who give Cronin his newest weapons in the post.
Toyloy joins the Bearcats after a successful two-year career at Miami Dade College where he averaged a double-double and led the NJCAA in rebounding as a freshman.
Gates, a blue-chip recruit out of Withrow High School, decided to stay home in Cincinnati and brings his 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame to the Bearcats. The 2008 Ohio Division I High School Player of the Year is the most highly touted player to come out of Cincinnati since O.J. Mayo was playing for North College Hill. An all-around player, he averaged 21.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game last year.
When the young Bearcats come together and mature into their new roles, UC will compete in the BIG EAST thanks to its up-tempo offense and aggressive defense. As the curtain comes down on the year, UC hopes to find its spotlight pointed in the direction of the NCAA Tournament.