Cincinnati Bearcats: With Suspensions Over, It’s Time to Think Bigger…Posted by Patrick Prendergast on January 3rd, 2012
Cincinnati used its suspension-laden post-Xavier brawl schedule to find itself, and rekindled some of the high hopes they and their fans enjoyed entering the season. The Bearcats went 6-0 while waiting for Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis to return from their suspensions. And now that their penalties have come to an end and the returns are slated to occur Wednesday when Cincinnati hosts Notre Dame, some are now wondering if it is a good thing, given their recent short-handed success. Of course the most notable and polarizing returnee is the senior center, Gates. On the cusp of his return, the talk centered around what role he should serve given his team’s small-ball success without him.
Guard play has been the reason for the six-game surge, but it had also been a primary issue accounting for Cincinnati’s pre-suspension struggles. Players like Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick had trailed expectations in the early going but have certainly stepped up their games when needed. Three-pointers were elusive before the streak (34.1% on 126 attempts in the team’s first eight games), but have been launched at a much more frequent and accurate clip during it (42.1% on 173 attempts in the last six games). That said, everyone knows that if you live by the three, you can easily die by the three. Gates’ low-post presence will help keep opposing defenses honest and should assist Cincinnati in avoiding long droughts as long as he stays close to the basket and takes high-percentage shots.
Another positive has been the emergence of junior guard Jaquon Parker, who did not even play prior to the Xavier game and has averaged 13.3 points per game since. Some of the talk revolves around senior forward Justin Jackson, who has also shown well during the streak, continuing to garner playing time at the expense of Gates. The fact of the matter is that while Jackson is athletic and versatile, he is a role player. Furthermore, his minutes have actually decreased from 26.5 to 19.8 per game since the Xavier loss. It may not happen on Wednesday, but expect to see Gates back in his customary starting spot soon. Cincinnati was outrebounded in both the Oklahoma and Pittsburgh games and will need to match other teams’ physicality as the season wears on. Also expect Mick Cronin, however, to use some of the combinations he discovered during the shortened-roster stretch to keep opponents off balance, and because players like Parker and Jackson add valuable depth — something the Bearcats were lacking prior to the Xavier debacle.
Taking nothing away from the streak, Cincinnati needs Gates, and they need him to play well to be successful in the long term in the Big East. Yes, Cincinnati was just 5-3 with Gates and 6-0 without him, but from a statistical standpoint, he was not to blame. He actually played better in UC’s losses than wins, averaging 17.3 points and nine rebounds in the Bearcats’ three defeats and 11.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in the five wins. And let’s face it, Cincinnati’s schedule over the last six games was incredibly favorable with four games against also-rans, followed by a one-point win against an Oklahoma team who, despite a good record, lost by 20 to St. Louis in its only other true test. Then, of course a good win on the road over a somewhat reeling and definitely short-handed Pittsburgh squad.