January 2012

The Bearcats Look Forward To Adding A Shaq Attack

UC freshman Shaquille Thomas is from a basketball family.  He is the nephew of former NBA first-round draft pick Tim Thomas and the brother of current WNBA All-Star Essence Carson.

But what about that first name?  Is he named for Shaquille O’Neal?

“No I’m not,” Thomas told me with a grin.  “And when you watch my game, you won’t think so.”

Unfortunately, Cincinnati fans will have to wait until next season to see Thomas in action.  The 6’7” wing player was one of four basketball recruits from NIA Prep in Newark, New Jersey that was ruled ineligible to play this year by the NCAA.

“It was the school – it was never me,” said Thomas.  “I always had decent grades and a decent SAT score, but it was the school that I went to.”

The NCAA has tried to crack-down on so-called diploma mills in recent years, but NIA Prep has had 28 athletes certified to play at Division I schools since 2006.

“When the NCAA, for whatever reason, feels that it can’t certify grades from certain prep schools, they pull the plug on those schools,” said UC head coach Mick Cronin.  “But there’s no way that Shaquille and his grandmother could have known that because the year before, his prep school was certified.  He had no opportunity to move to another school, which is why the NCAA granted him a waiver to attend the University of Cincinnati.”

The waiver allows Thomas to be on scholarship and attend classes this year, and he’ll have four years of eligibility remaining.

“Shaq did everything he could, Cincinnati did everything that it could do, and the NCAA cooperated with us as much as it could possibly cooperate,” said Coach Cronin.  “You hear people say, ‘It hurt our team.’  Well, he’s a real person and he was a nervous wreck.  You’re talking about a young kid with an uncle that played in the NBA for 15 years and a sister that plays in the WNBA – basketball is a major part of his life.  He and his grandmother were so happy when we found out that he could at least come to Cincinnati.”

Thomas was eligible to begin practicing with the team in mid-December following the fall semester.

“I think I’m doing pretty well,” said Thomas.  “I try to help the guys get prepared.  I want to help the team in every aspect of the game and I just try to go hard in practice.  That helps the team and it helps me get better too.”

“I think he’s doing a great job,” said sophomore Sean Kilpatrick of his roommate.  “It hurt him when he couldn’t practice.  It took basketball out of his life for a couple of months and when he came back, you saw a brightness on his face.”

Kilpatrick voluntarily redshirted at UC two years ago and has helped Thomas deal with the frustration of not being able to play as a freshman.

“He’s dealing with it well,” said Kilpatrick.  “He doesn’t always look at it as a negative.  I tell him, ‘You can’t look at it as a bad thing.  Coach is going through this with you.’  I think he’ll be alright.”

“(Sean) is definitely helping me,” said Thomas.  “He tells me to keep my head up and next year will be here before I know it.”

Thomas averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists at NIA Prep last year, and will give the Bearcats size on the perimeter.

“He’s a big guard,” said Coach Cronin.  “You look at Syracuse and they have big guards like Kris Joseph on the wing.  6’7” guys that are catching alley-oop dunks or driving to the basket and dunking the ball over people.  Shaq can really handle the ball and beat his man off the dribble.  As he becomes a better perimeter shooter, he’ll become really tough to defend.  He has very quick feet and he’s an excellent passer.  Right now offensively, he’s a great athlete who can handle the ball and pass and he’ll fit great in our offense.”

“He’s going to be special,” said Kilpatrick.  “He has great athletic ability and he has heart that a lot of people don’t have.  He can break-down a defender.”

Saturday night’s game at Rutgers would have been a homecoming for Thomas who hails from Paterson, NJ.

“Rutgers guards Myles Mack and Eli Carter are from my hometown, so I really wish I was playing,” said Thomas.  “They beat UConn and Florida, so I’m really proud of those guys.”

Shaquille will get the chance to compete against the Rutgers duo next year, which was one of the reasons why he chose Cincinnati.

“It was definitely a good fit for me,” said Thomas.  “You get to get away from home, but you still get to play against all of your friends in the Big East.  Every team that we’ve played again, I probably know two or three people on the team.  Cincinnati is a great up-and-coming program.  I love the city, the coaching staff, and everything about the Bearcats.”

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The Mick Cronin radio show moves from Thursday to Monday next week.  Come out and join us to talk Bearcat basketball and feast on the world’s best ribs from 8 to 9 at the Original Montgomery Inn.  If you can’t make it, I hope you’ll tune in on 700 WLW.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

Butch Jones Is Signed, Sealed, and Delivering For UC Football

Butch Jones and Whit Babcock have been friends since 2006 when they worked together for nearly two years at West Virginia University.  But their relationship changed three months ago when Babcock was hired as UC’s Athletic Director and became the head football coach’s boss.

“We laugh about that,” said Babcock.  “We acknowledge that up front – there are certain things that we’re friends on, and then there are other days where I have to tell him something that he doesn’t want to hear and vice versa.   I guess that’s why I wear a tie every day – so that he knows that I’m the boss.”

“Sometimes I have to tell him to loosen that tie up,” said Jones with a laugh.  “But it isn’t difficult because we have mutual respect for each other.  We’re able to separate our personal relationship and our business relationship.”

Their relationship helped produce the contract extension that Jones signed on Tuesday.  The new pact will pay the 2011 Big East Conference Coach of the Year more than 10 million dollars – before incentive bonuses – if he stays at Cincinnati for the next six seasons.

“Whit was extremely proactive right from the very beginning and that meant more to me than anything else in the contract,” said Jones.  “The way our administration was proactive at a very early stage in our season, showed me that they really believe in the foundation that we’re building, and our philosophy for what we want in our football family.”

“If I played a small role – great – but I really think it comes down to the character of our coach,” said Babcock.  “Butch is grateful for the opportunity here and as hard as he sold me on the University of Cincinnati when the A.D. job was open, I know that he cares about it and loves it.  He wants to be a part of building this thing and finishing what he started.”

Jones has won three league championships in his five years as a college head coach, including a share of the Big East title this season.  Next week, he’s expected to sign the most highly-touted recruiting class in school history.  Scout.com currently has Cincinnati’s projected class ranked #23 in the country and #1 in the Big East.

“He’s even better than I thought and I knew he was good,” said Babcock.  “People take for granted that every team plays hard every week and they don’t.  I’m just really impressed with how hard our team plays for him.  That comes from the leader.  It’s an overused term, but they would try to run through a wall for him.”

“I’m definitely excited for the university and the program,” said quarterback Zach Collaros.  “He’s done a great job of installing what he wants in a program which is family and toughness.  I think we’ve come a long way in doing what he wants and it’s only going to get better.  I’ve read that they have a great recruiting class coming in and last year’s class was great, so it’s great that Coach Jones decided to stick around.”

“I know that it doesn’t really affect me because I’m a senior, but he’s taking this program in a good direction and I want the best for the team,” said linebacker JK Schaffer.  “I am absolutely happy that he is signing a contract extension.  I see this program over the next few years climbing even higher than it has over the last four years.”

“I thought it was time that somebody stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we’re committed to being here.’” said Coach Jones.  “I’m excited about what we’re doing in this football program.  We have a lot of things to be proud of, and we’re going to continue to grow, and build, and elevate this program into elite status.”

The contract extension also includes a $250,000 increase to the salary pool for assistant coaches, raising the total to $1.85 million.

“You win with consistency and continuity and I’m excited about what we’re building and the possibilities that we have for the future,” said Coach Jones.  “The big thing for me is being able to continue to attract the best staff in the country and keep them intact and take care of them.”

There is also a sizable increase in the buyout clause that would allow Coach Jones to take another job.  It jumps from $1.08 million to $1.75 million in year one, although Babcock admits that figure probably wouldn’t scare away big budget schools.

“There’s a balancing act there,” said Babcock.  “You want the buyout to be enough so that if the coach leaves, it can help to fund your search for the next coach.  And you want it be a number that gives some people a reason to pause.  But I don’t think you want to have it at such a level that you trap a coach.  If you ultimately have a coach that doesn’t want to be here, do you really want to handcuff him?  There’s a fine line there, but I think it needs to be enough to get people’s attention and to help you – if you do have a coach leave – to conduct the search and get things in place to hire the next guy.

“But my goodness, I look at this contract as a way to have Butch here for a long time and not to figure out what the heck to do when he leaves.  I think his loyalty and love for Cincinnati played a real big role in this contract.”

Cincinnati’s previous two head football coaches – Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly – each spent three years in Clifton.  As Jones prepares to enter his third season, he often hears from fans who tell him that they hope that he stays at UC.

“I hear that all the time and it means a lot,” said Jones.  “We have a fan base that has been extremely loyal to me since the day that I walked in, and I can’t say enough about the amount of support when things weren’t going as well as we wanted.  To me, that means everything.  This truly is a special place.”

Sorry Kemba…This Time It Was Kilpatrick’s Time To Shine

After hitting a jumper that helped Cincinnati build a 12-point lead before halftime, Sean Kilpatrick looked up in the stands and saw a familiar face:  Former UConn star – and Bearcat-killer – Kemba Walker, now in his rookie season with the Charlotte Bobcats.

“When I hit a three in the first half, he looked at me and gave me a little wink,” Kilpatrick told me.  “He’s a New York guy like me, and having him at the game was big – especially in the middle of the NBA season.  He’s a great player and I’m happy that I got to see him.”

The last time that Kilpatrick saw Walker, the Connecticut guard ended UC’s season by scoring 33 points in the Huskies 69-58 win over the Bearcats in last year’s NCAA Tournament.  But on Wednesday night in Storrs, CT, Sean played the hero by drilling a 3-point shot with 2.5 seconds remaining to give Cincinnati a thrilling 70-67 win.

(You can watch the video here)

“The last time that I hit a game-winning buzzer beater was at White Plains (High School),” said Kilpatrick.  “This one was big and I’m happy that I got the win for the team.”

The sophomore guard could have clinched the win much earlier at the free throw line, but twice missed the front end of one-and-one foul shooting opportunities in the final 1:30.

“It would have been a tragic loss,” said head coach Mick Cronin.  “We started missing free throws when we were up by eight with our best foul shooters getting fouled.”

“That rim did me dirty,” said Kilpatrick.  “The ball was going in and it rolled out.  Coach Cronin said, ‘Don’t worry – just run back on defense.’”

But while Sean was hustling back to guard Jeremy Lamb, the Huskies’ leading scorer didn’t get the ball down the stretch.  Instead, it was UConn point guard Shabazz Napier burying three clutch treys, with the last one tying the score with 9.5 seconds to go.

“When he hit that shot, I just rolled my eyes and thought, ‘Oh no, not again,’” said Kilpatrick.  “When I looked up the scoreboard and saw that it was tied, I was like, ‘Yo!  We have got to do something.’”

Sean took matters into his own hands.  After catching the inbounds pass from JaQuon Parker, Kilpatrick dribbled into the front court, pulled up at the three point line, and calmly sank the game-winner.

“I was going to drive and try to get fouled, but once I saw my man close the lane, I was like, ‘You know what?  I’ve got to take the shot,’” Kilpatrick told me.  “It was plain to see that it was up to me to take the shot, so I took it.”

And he made it, giving the Bearcats their seventh consecutive Big East road win, and their second over a Top 15 team in the last ten days.

“They have a great team full of All-Americans, a Hall of Fame coach, and it was a sold-out arena,” said Coach Cronin.  “When you’re able to come in here and get a win, people are going to stand up and take notice.  That’s what our players want.  They want to be a ranked team whether they say it or not.  They want to be a team to be reckoned with, and they want people to respect them as individuals.  To do that, these are the type of games that you have to win.”

“I hope it opened some eyes, but you can’t really worry about that,” said Kilpatrick.  “It’s all about the Bearcats.”

Walker was clearly impressed.  As Kilpatrick walked toward UC’s team bus after the game, Kemba was waiting by the exit to congratulate Sean and exchange phone numbers.

I asked him what he thought of Kilpatrick’s dramatic shot.

“I was mad as hell,” said Walker.  “But he’s my guy so it’s all good.  He played good, man.”

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It was great to see former Bearcat Kenny Satterfield in attendance at Connecticut on Wednesday.  The former UC point guard who helped lead the ‘Cats to their last Sweet 16 appearance in 2001 is still playing professionally in Japan.

Come out and join us for the Mick Cronin radio show on Thursday night from 8 to 9 at the Original Montgomery Inn.  If you can’t make it, I hope you’ll tune in on 700 WLW.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

JaQuon Parker and the “Magic” Broomstick

On the all-time list of people with magic broomsticks, you have:

A)  The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

B)  Quidditch players in the Harry Potter books.

C)  UC assistant basketball coach Larry Davis.

Huh?

OK, so maybe Larry’s broomstick isn’t magical, but it has helped turn Bearcat guard JaQuon Parker from a guy who only made three more 3-point shots than you did last year (he was 3-for-20), to a 58% shooter from beyond the arc this season (15-for-26).

Parker had a mechanical flaw where he twisted his feet in the middle of his shot, so Davis suggested that he practice shooting with a broomstick lying on the floor between his feet.

“At first I looked at him and said, ‘Are you crazy?’  But it’s been good for me,” Parker told me.  “For the first five minutes I kept landing on it.  I never fell down, but it was close.  I stumbled a few times.  He kept telling me that it would really help my shot.  It worked.”

“I was trying to find a way a long time ago to help guys that turned their feet when they shot the ball,” Coach Davis told me.  “Once you have everything lined up in a straight line to the basket it’s easy.  I decided to put a broomstick on the floor to force them to stay in a straight line with their feet.  If you don’t, you fall on the broom so that’s how it started.”

After averaging 1.5 points and 1.7 rebounds in 23 games last year, JaQuon is up to 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in 11 games this year.  In games where Parker has made more than one basket, the Bearcats are 8-0.

“When I came back here after the summer, I was really hitting shots,” said Parker.  “The guys were all saying, ‘He can shoot now,’ so I knew I had improved.”

Broomstick aside, there is no mystery behind JaQuon’s dramatic improvement.  It’s the result of many hours of hard work in the gym.

“I told him at the end of last year that we had to have a serious talk about whether he was going to stay at Cincinnati or not,” said head coach Mick Cronin.  “Playing at the highest level means that you have to be totally committed and you have to develop your game on offense.  You can’t just show up at practice and be a good guy and play hard on defense.  You have to be a totally committed basketball player.  He took it to heart and he did it.  You have to give him all of the credit because he did a great job in the off-season.”

“He let me know that if I worked hard, I would be an important piece next season, so I took that seriously,” said Parker.

But even before that conversation with his head coach, Parker realized that he needed to improve his work ethic.

“I think it was the second-to-last game last year,” said Coach Davis.  “We were out doing shooting drills before the game and he looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I blew it.’  I said, ‘What do you mean JaQuon?’  And he said, ‘I didn’t work last summer like I should have.  I have nobody to blame but myself.  That’s not going to happen again.  I’m going to work my butt off and when I come back, I’m going to play.  I am going to play.’”

“When I went home, I worked out with Maurice Riddick who played professionally overseas,” said Parker.  “He’s a real close friend to the family and I got a chance to work out with him every day for the month-and-a-half that I was home.”

“He definitely came back in the fall a much more confident basketball player,” said Coach Cronin.

And while Parker is not likely to remain a 58% 3-point shooter, he’s just as unlikely to go back to being the player who did not make a trey in his last 11 games last season.

“Oh man, it was really tough,” said Parker.  “I think I tried too hard to make shots instead of just going out there and shooting it.  Just seeing the ball go through the net helped me get my confidence back.  It’s a lot more fun when you’re making shots.”

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I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

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When Game Ends, Practice Resumes for Davis

As I type this sentence, it is 12:27 on Thursday afternoon – roughly 15 ½ hours since the Bearcats won their 7th straight game by beating Notre Dame 71-55.

I wonder if Jeremiah Davis is still in the gym shooting.

After every Cincinnati home game, long after the fans have exited and the only people in the stands are members of the cleanup crew, Davis can be seen launching shot after shot after shot.

“I started doing that this year,” Davis told me after the Notre Dame win.  “Things weren’t going the best for me at the beginning of the year and I’m here to play basketball, so I might as well be in the gym.  I’ve definitely noticed a difference.”

Haven’t we all.

The freshman guard from Muncie, IN did not score a point in his first four college games and went 0-4 from 3-point range.  But in his six games since, Davis is averaging 7.0 points in 13 minutes of playing time, and has drilled 8 of 13 treys (62%).

“He loves basketball and he’s not afraid to put in the work,” said head coach Mick Cronin.  “He’s got great parents that have instilled a great work ethic in him.  In recruiting, when you get a chance to meet a kid’s parents, you know what he is going to be about, because you know you’re going to get support from home.  He understands that hard work pays off because that’s what his family is about and that’s what he is about.”

“I appreciate Coach Cronin for saying that,” said Davis.  “Coach Cronin is a great guy too.  Sometimes people misjudge him a little bit, but he’s a great guy.  He’s a coach you definitely want to play for.  That’s why I came here.”

Davis played a key role in Wednesday’s win over the Fighting Irish.  Cincinnati held an 8-point lead when Sean Kilpatrick went to the bench with foul trouble with 10:23 remaining in the first half.  Davis helped UC quickly increase the lead to 13 points by scoring eight points in the next four minutes.

“In the first half after SK got his second foul, Notre Dame went exclusively to the zone,” said Coach Cronin.  “Dion (Dixon) was struggling and Jeremiah Davis gave us a huge lift.  Their zone was effective – we only scored 31 points in the first half – but it would have been even more effective if it wasn’t for Jeremiah Davis stepping up and knocking in some shots and giving us solid defense.”

“My teammates did a great job of getting me open,” said Davis.  “I just try to be a team player and everything worked out.”

Davis is not the only Bearcat freshman who has made a big contribution during the winning streak.  Jermaine Sanders went 5-for-5 from 3-point range in wins over Wright State and Radford, Ge’Lawn Guyn scored a career-high 11 points against Chicago State, and Kelvin Gaines had 7 blocks in the same game.

“I like our mix right now because our freshman can really help, but there’s not a lot of pressure on them,” said Coach Cronin.  “It might be Jeremiah one game, Ge’Lawn another game, Jermaine Sanders another game…those guys are going to jump up and help us.  But it’s nice that they’re coming off the bench.  Three or four years ago, we were trying to win with Yancy and Dion starting in their freshman year in this league.  You just can’t do it.”

Davis knows his role and is embracing it.

“I’m having fun,” Jeremiah told me.  “I love Bearcat Nation, I love Cincinnati, I love my family and coaches.  It’s a great time right now.  After that brawl, everybody got closer together.  I think you can tell on the court.  We love each other and we’re going to do anything we can for each other.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@bengals.nfl.net

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard

And I’m on Facebook. Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

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