Focal Point: Yancy GatesPosted by Patrick Prendergast on November 17th, 2011
Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates is the most important player on the Big East team with the largest increase in expectations entering the 2011-12 season. Gates is a preseason All-Big East Second Team selection, but in reality there is virtually no ceiling for his personal accolades this year. A postseason all-Big East First Team selection is within reach, as is the potential for Big East Player of the Year consideration when all is said and done.
Head coach Mick Cronin‘s Bearcats are coming off a 26-9 overall record last year, including a sixth-place, eleven-win Big East campaign, capped by Cincinnati’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in Cronin’s tenure. An appearance that ended with a third round loss to eventual champion Connecticut. The breakout season, along with the return of the team’s top four scorers from a year ago, has garnered a national ranking (No. 20 in the latest Associated Press poll), and an upper echelon fifth-place Big East prediction, while fans and national pundits alike are looking for more overall.
Now a senior, Gates represents the total package. The personification of power and physicality, yet, despite some stormy patches in his career, nimble enough to dance between rain drops. The 6’9″, 260-pound (it’s the new 285) forward is wide-bodied and broad-shouldered to the point his uniform number seems like 3444 as opposed to 34. (Can you imagine veteran Big East referee Tim Higgins calling a foul on Gates and signing 3-4-4-4 to the scorer’s table?) Gates also possesses perimeter skills — which he loves to show off — that are impressive for a player of his size. But to gain the consistency that has eluded him for most of his collegiate career, Gates has to resist the urge to complicate matters when the game can come so simply and easily for him.Adding to the intrigue, Gates is a hometown kid. Coming out of Cincinnati’s Withrow High School in 2008, he had a national profile, was a McDonald’s All-America nominee, and was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 22 recruit in America. To the delight of those in the 513, Gates chose Cincinnati over the likes of Georgetown and Indiana. Storybook, right? Not so fast my friend! (Lee Corso voice) The pedigree and the promise coupled with living in the local fish bowl placed Gates in the cross-hairs from day one. While the final chapter remains a work in progress, it has been anything but a smooth ride.
Gates came out of the gate (pun slightly intended) with a solid freshman year, averaging 10.6 PPG and 6.1 RPG. However, when he followed that up with a statistically similar sophomore year (10.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG), questions surfaced about his dedication, desire, motor and fitness level. Things continued to escalate last season as, two-thirds of the way through the year, it appeared to be more of the same with Gates. He lacked consistency and by late January his numbers stood only slightly better than his career pace at 11.4 PPG and 6.9 RPG. In the days following an eleven-point home loss to West Virginia in which he put up a paltry seven points and five rebounds, Gates was suspended indefinitely by Cronin, citing a violation of team rules.
While the official suspension turned out to last just one game, a 71-59 loss at Pittsburgh, the healing process extended a bit longer as Gates played sparingly and unproductively in the next two contests (14.5 MPG, 2.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG). Many credit the suspension and related process as the turning point. Gates played 30 minutes in the next game, an important 63-54 home win over then-No. 16 Louisville. Gates did not put up great numbers in the game (eight points, six rebounds), but from that point on, his performance surged. He averaged 15.8 PPG and 8.1 RPG while shooting 59.3% from the floor (versus a career 50.4% mark) and 69.8% from the foul line (career 58.4%) over the season’s final nine games.
As for this year, the early returns have been mostly positive. Gates opened the season on Sunday with a double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds) versus an overmatched Alabama State squad. But he fell off the pace a bit with an eight-point (on 3-10 shooting) nine-rebound performance in a win over Jacksonville State. Perhaps most importantly, coach and player appear to be simpatico. “He’s gonna have to be a leader for us. He has set the tone with his play in practice,” said Cronin referring to Gates in a taped interview broadcast during the Alabama State game. “You’ve got to lead by example and that’s what he’s doing.”
Now it is up to Gates to prove he has turned the corner, and he will have to do so once again facing the scrutiny that goes along with renewed and heightened expectations. Perhaps this storybook will have a fairy tale ending after all.