March 2012

Munchie Looks To Make His Case

When Butch Jones became the head football coach at Central Michigan, he didn’t have to worry about finding a quarterback.  Dan LeFevour led the Chippewas to a MAC title the previous year as a redshirt freshman, and Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian helped him develop into the only quarterback in NCAA history with more than 12,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards.

When Jones left CMU for Cincinnati, he inherited quarterback Zach Collaros who had excelled in limited action the previous year as a back-up to the injured Tony Pike.  Under Jones and Bajakian, Collaros earned All-Big East honors in his two seasons as the Bearcats’ starter.

That got me thinking.  As Jones prepares for his sixth season as a college head coach, is this the first time that he’s held spring practice without knowing who his starting quarterback is going to be?

“That’s a great question and you’re the first person that has asked me that,” said Jones.  “The answer is yes.  We’ve always had competition, but you kind of knew who the guy was going to be.  I think it makes for an exciting and extremely competitive spring.”

When I attended practice this week, junior Munchie Legaux took most of the first team snaps at quarterback, but Jones says the position is up for grabs.

“Right now, Munchie is number one and I would say that Brendon Kay is 1-A,” said Jones.    “Both of those individuals are doing well and competing while helping each other out.  We’re bringing Patrick Coyne along as well, and you can see him starting to grow each and every day.   I’ve been encouraged by all of our quarterbacks, but it’s still the little things, the small details – taking care of the football in the red zone, not making catastrophic mistakes – that’s what it’s all about.”

The favorite to win the job would seem to be Legaux for the simple reason that he is the only candidate who has started a college game.  The Louisiana native replaced an injured Collaros in the West Virginia game and nearly led the Bearcats to a dramatic come-from-behind victory.  Then after struggling in his first start – a 20-3 loss at Rutgers – Legaux guided the Bearcats to back-to-back victories to end the regular season.

“The encouraging thing about Munchie is the game-speed reps that he received,” said Jones.  “On top of that, he had to play in meaningful games last year, and the mark of a great quarterback is leading their team to victory on the road in a hostile environment.  He did that at Syracuse in a must-win situation against a very physical football team who dominated us the year before.  Then he came home in a must-win situation to earn a league championship against UConn.”

“Being the number two guy last year, Coach Jones would always tell me that you never know when your number is going to be called and when it’s called you have to respond,” said Legaux.  “In that West Virginia game it was called.  I felt like I was prepared, but I wasn’t ready.  I knew the offense and things like that, but when I went in, things didn’t flow the way they were supposed to.”

Legaux looked very comfortable at the practice that I attended this week, completing most of his intermediate passes and breaking off a couple of long runs.

“He adds another dimension to the offense,” said safety Drew Frey.  “It’s hard as a defensive back and you really have to be on your game because when they do zone-reads, is it a run by the running back or is a zone keep with the quarterback?  That element of surprise is going to add a lot to our offense because Munchie is not slow by any means. He’s an athlete and he’s shown that he has definitely worked on his throwing ability as well.  I’m excited to get the ball rolling.”

“There are so many things that he brings to the table offensively,” said Coach Jones.  “You can really be creative with him and put stress on the defense.”

Since Legaux played wide receiver as a freshman, he’s working hard at mastering the offense in his second season as a quarterback.

“I’m trying to learn the playbook inside and out, knowing the intentions of (offensive coordinator Mike) Bajakian – why he’s calling certain plays, what he’s trying to get accomplished,” said Legaux.  “Not turning the ball over, leading my team to victories.  Just being ‘that guy.’  Being the leader on offense.”

Leadership ability is a key element that Coach Jones will consider when choosing his next starting quarterback.

“We have some tapes of Trent Dilfer on what it is to be a quarterback that they listen to,” said Jones.  “You have to be the alpha male.  You have to be the guy that’s in control when you walk in the room.  You’re their leader.  It can be overwhelming at times, but I think that all three of the quarterbacks are embracing the expectation that comes with that position.”

“Coach Jones preaches to us every day that leadership is not a sometimes thing – it’s an all the time thing,” said Legaux.  “Every day you have to wake up with your mind set on how you’re going to lead your team today.  I wake up saying that I’m going to have a great practice.  If the quarterback is down, then everybody is down.  I try to have energy every day and when people are down at practice, I try my best to pick them up.  That’s a leader.”

Does Legaux consider himself to be the leader in the battle to win the position?

“Yes, but you don’t want to get too comfortable because somebody is always out there to take your spot,” Munchie told me.  “I don’t want to get too relaxed, because the guys behind me are good.  You never know, they might have a great day and I might have a bad day and the tables could turn.  So I want to come out here every day with the mentality that I’m going to be the leader and it’s going to be my team.

“I’m ready.  I wish the first game was tomorrow.”

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No Binoculars Needed

The UC Bearcats began the season ranked 21st in the country, but after eight games, Cincinnati appeared more likely to play in the CBI than the NCAAs.

“We were so far from the NCAA Tournament that we couldn’t see it with binoculars,” said head coach Mick Cronin.

Here is Cincinnati’s resume after eight games (with opponent’s final RPI rating):

Wins:  Alabama St. (308), Jacksonville St. (220), Northwestern St. (217), Miami (248), and Georgia (100).

Losses:  Presbyterian (245), Marshall (43), Xavier (41).

That’s how things looked on December 11th.  Oh yeah, the Bearcats had also just been in a little brawl that you might have heard about.

“I told the staff that we have to forget about anything other than practice today,” said Cronin.

While Mick knew that the season was on the verge of spiraling down the drain, he never shared that fear with his players.

“I didn’t want my players thinking that we were dead in the water and you can’t have them panicking,” Mick told me.  “They had enough pressure on them at that point of the season.”

But the players don’t live in a hermetically sealed vault.  They knew how bleak things looked.

“We knew that our backs were against the wall,” said Cashmere Wright.  “Either your season goes downhill, or you go after what you want.”

Coach Cronin was able to turn the season around by relying on lessons learned during his first few years on the job.

“The one thing you learn when you rebuild a program is that you just have to control today,” said Cronin.  “You can’t worry about February in December.  On December 11th, you have to worry about December 11th.  If your leader is worried about other things, than the players are going to worry about other things.  You have to worry about the things that you can control, work hard, stay positive, and block out outside influences.  That’s how you improve.”

Since the Xavier loss – and brawl – the Bearcats have gone 21-7 with eight wins over Top 25-ranked opponents.  Statistically, their biggest improvement has been on offense where the Bearcats have gone from averaging 62 points to 70 points, but Coach Cronin says a commitment to playing defense saved their season.

“That was the metamorphosis of our team,” said Cronin.  “It had nothing to do with a fight.  It was Yancy, Cash, SK, and Dion – those four guys had to change their basketball personality.  Their basketball personality was offense player – and good offensive player.  We lost five (seniors) that had a defensive personality.  Those four guys had to change their basketball personality or we weren’t going to win.  And it took time to do that.  We were soft early in the year.”

“Coach Cronin kept telling us that defense wins,” said Wright.  “Early on I think we were more worried about our offense, but he told us that we’re not going to win games because of our offense.  The better we play on defense, the easier the game is going to get.  We just bought into it.”

As a result, the Bearcats are one of 16 teams still alive in the tournament.  That’s the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT, CBI, or CIT.

“I was always confident because of the players that we have – even off the court – everyone on this team is competitive and I always had it in my mind that we weren’t going to let the season slip out of our hands,” said Sean Kilpatrick.  “We are a lot stronger than that.”

“We just figured that sooner or later it was going to click,” said Wright.  “The core group that we had from last year to this year is totally different.  We went from seniors to a lot of freshman, so we really didn’t jell that well at first.  But we knew that the more and more that we played together, we were going to get better.  We kept grinding and knew the goal that we wanted to accomplish this year.”

The goal now is to survive and advance against the heavily-favored Ohio State Buckeyes.  If any team is prepared for the win-or-go-home crucible of March Madness, it is Cincinnati since the Xavier game.

“We’ve been in must-win games since December 14th at Wright State,” said Coach Cronin.

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Why UC Needs Cash To Be On The Money

Yancy Gates is Cincinnati’s biggest and most well-known player.  Sean Kilpatrick is the Bearcats’ leading scorer.  But if you had to identify one player who needs to play well in order for the Bearcats to advance in the NCAA Tournament, it’s point guard Cashmere Wright.

“When he plays well, we are at our best – I don’t think there’s any question about that,” head coach Mick Cronin told me.  “My biggest challenge is to get him to realize that he has tremendous talent and that he truly can be a great player.  He has to come in with that mentality every game.  I don’t think he realizes how good he is at times.”

“We tell him that all the time,” said Yancy Gates.  “We try to motivate him and pump him up and let him know how good that he is.”

Wright was outstanding in Cincinnati’s 65-59 victory over Texas, with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 turnover.  Foul trouble limited the junior guard to 26 minutes of playing time, and the Bearcats outscored the Longhorns by 13 points while he was in the game.  Cashmere will need to avoid foul trouble in Sunday’s game against Florida State.

“In the Big East, you can grab people while they’re running and when they try to get away, you can hold them,” said Wright.  “There’s not too much of that right now.  You actually have to stay away from them because every foul is a foul.”

“Dion Dixon can play the point for us, but that’s what Cashmere Wright is – he is a point guard,” said assistant coach Larry Davis.  “When he plays well, we are going to play well.  It’s no knock against Dion, but Cash understands that position the best.”

Coach Davis has known Wright for nearly 10 years and played a key role in getting the Georgia native to sign with Cincinnati in 2008.

“I actually saw him when he was a freshman in high school,” Davis told me.  “I was the head coach at Furman University and I was down there looking at another kid and the principal of the school said, ‘We have a freshman here who is really good.’  Cash was a skinny, long-armed, wide-eyed little guy.   You can ask him – the first recruiting letter he ever got was from me at Furman.”

Wright was part of the same recruiting class as Gates and Dion Dixon but had to sit out his freshman year after tearing his ACL in a preseason workout.  Even though Cashmere has another year of eligibility to look forward to, he shares a bond with the seniors who are trying to extend their college careers.

“I posted a thing on Twitter today about the original ’08 class,” said Wright.  “When we came here, our goal together was to go as far as we can go.  We feel like this isn’t as far as we can go.  We came here with a goal of at least getting to the Final Four and that’s what we are trying to achieve right now.  It ain’t about next year.  It’s about the original ’08 class and what we are trying to do for this team.”

Cincinnati’s destiny could depend on Wright’s intensity.

“He always plays hard – it’s not that – it’s more about being mentally intense,” said Coach Davis.  “When he does that, he is a very good player.  A very good player.”

“The thing about Cash is, when he is intense, he stays focused and makes the right plays,” said Gates.  “Sometimes he kind of fades away and makes plays where you think, ‘What’s he doing?’  When Cash is intense, he is just as good as anybody.”

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I talked to Wright on Saturday about the third-round matchup against Florida State.  Here’s a link to the video

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If you haven’t seen Florida State play this year, the Seminoles are HUGE.

Their five starters are 6’5”, 6’5”, 6’5”, 6’10”, and 6’11”, and two of their top four subs are 6’8” and 7’0”.

That’s a gigantic reason (no pun intended) why Florida State ranked 5th in the country in field goal percentage defense this year after leading the nation in each of the previous two seasons.

“It’s really hard to get a basket in the paint,” said Coach Cronin.  “That’s what Florida State is great at – they don’t give you anything easy.  Fundamentally, they are as good as you are going to see.  And it’s every year with them – they are in the Top 5 or 10 every year with their field goal percentage defense.  They can suffocate you.  We have to understand that when we are struggling to score, it is time to get fouled…it’s time to get a lay-up…it’s time to get Yancy the ball down low or beat our man off the dribble – it’s not time to settle for another jump shot.

“Hopefully our quickness can be an advantage for us.  We have to spread them out and try to make them play individual defense and not team defense.  They are a great team defensive team and we have to try to get some guys in some space where we can beat Florida State off the dribble.  But then we have to make the right pass, because when we did that against Louisville, we took bad shots because we didn’t make the right pass.  Our offense is going to be put to the test.”

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A Banner Year

Before the Bearcats team bus headed to Nashville on Wednesday afternoon, head coach Mick Cronin had something that he wanted his players to stop and look at.

“I huddled the guys on the court at the end of practice and made them look up at the banners on the wall because I don’t think they’ve ever paid attention to that stuff,” Mick told me.  “We’re in that gym every day, but nobody ever really looks up.  They said, ‘Man, there are a lot of banners,’ and I laughed and said, ‘I’m talking about the two big ones that say National Championship.’”

As a 6th-seed, Cincinnati is obviously a long shot (75-1 in Vegas) to bring home NCAA Championship banner number three, but two higher seeds — #8 Butler and #11 VCU –  made it to the Final Four last year and Coach Cronin wants his players to realize that winning six straight games is possible.

“If you turn on ESPN, you’ll see a bunch of guys that will tell you that the favorites are going to win and that you have no chance, but you can’t let people define who you are or what you’re capable of,” said Cronin.  “The team that stays focused right now, and plays team basketball, and is accountable to each other, and refuses to give in even though the sun is out and spring time is coming, those are the teams that are going to advance.  It’s not going to be easy.”

The road to the Final Four in New Orleans begins on Friday afternoon in Nashville against the 20-13 Texas Longhorns.  It’s the 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the Longhorns, but the first time during the streak that Texas has been a double-digit seed.

“My biggest concern is our opening round game against Texas because they are an 11-seed, and they haven’t gotten a lot of publicity this year,” said Cronin.  “They’re a very talented, well-coached team, so that’s my biggest concern.  I think if we get to Sunday and play Florida State, the guys already know how good Florida State is.”

For the second straight year, the Bearcats enter the tournament on a roll.  Last year, the ‘Cats won six of their last eight before a 15-point win over Missouri in UC’s NCAA Tournament opener.  This year, Cincinnati has won seven of its last nine, including victories over #17 Louisville, #13 Georgetown, #8 Marquette, and #2 Syracuse.

“You have to get your team ready but keep ‘em fresh,” said Cronin.  “It’s a fine line that you have to walk with that.  This week, our hardest practice was Wednesday.  On Thursday, it will be game prep and fine-tuning in order to be ready to play on Friday.  You can’t have long, grueling practices at this time of the year – guys just don’t have enough left in the tank.”

As the players looked up at the championship banners on Wednesday, they were reminded that they will have to “empty the tank” in every remaining game in order to advance.

“I wrapped it up by saying that we can win a championship, but there’s a price tag that goes with it,” Mick told me.  “There’s a price tag on everything when you go to the store and we want the most expensive thing in the store.  But I want my guys to know that in my belief, if we lose it’s our own fault.  If we bring toughness, togetherness, and do a better job of executing on offense, we can beat anybody – and we will beat anybody.”

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Another Chance After A Missed Opportunity

For Mick Cronin, losing the Big East Tournament championship to Louisville was painful because you never know when you’ll have that opportunity again.

Notre Dame has been in the league since 1995 and has never advanced to the Big East Tournament final.  Villanova went to the NCAA Tournament for the past seven years and made it to the Final Four in 2009, but the Wildcats have not made it to the final game of the Big East Tournament since 1997.

But as difficult as Saturday’s 50-44 loss to the Cardinals was for Mick to stomach, making it to Saturday night at Madison Square Garden seemed like a pipe dream in March of 2006.

“Six years ago when I got the job, my first team meeting looked like a golf team,” said Coach Cronin with a laugh.  “It was a foursome – Ron Allen, Branden Miller, Ced McGowan, and Connor Barwin.  I had a walk-on, a football player, a hurricane victim, and Cedric.  Six years later we’re playing for the Big East Championship, so yeah, we’re proud.  That’s what I was brought here to do, but the kids need to get the credit.”

The sting of Saturday’s loss would be far worse if Cincinnati was not headed to the NCAA Tournament.  The 6th-seeded Bearcats are headed to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville where they will face 11th-seeded Texas on Friday afternoon at 12:15.

“We’re probably most happy that we don’t play until Friday, and also that it’s in Nashville where our fans can get to the game,” said Cronin.  “Texas is a big-name team and that will get the attention of my players.  My biggest concern was if we were a 5 or a 6 seed and played a team that wasn’t a big name.”

The Bearcats enter the NCAA Tourney with seven wins in their last nine games, highlighted by Friday’s 71-68 upset over #2 Syracuse.

“It was a great run in New York by our guys,” said Cronin.  “We got a little emotionally drained by having to do what we had to do on Thursday and Friday, but we learned two lessons:  When we’re at our best we can beat anybody – (the Syracuse win) was not an aberration and we beat Georgetown when we were not at our best.  But we understand what happened against Louisville.  We understand why we win and why we lose.  So we have a chance to get rested up and get ready for Friday.”

It’s been a wild year.  The highlights include a school-record seven wins over ranked teams and a trip to the Big East final; the lowlights include a loss to Presbyterian and the brawl with Xavier.

“The kids had great resiliency to hang in there this year,” said Cronin.  “We needed to develop as a team that lost five seniors and it was going to take us some time.  It was a little more eventful than we had hoped, with injuries and suspensions and what we had to go through and some tough early losses, but I think our togetherness was the key for us.  I’m just really proud of the kids.”

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I hope you’ll join us on Monday night at 8:00 at the original Montgomery Inn for the Mick Cronin radio show.  We had our biggest crowd of the year last week and hope to top it tonight.  If you can’t make it, you can tune in on 700 WLW.

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

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Mick’s Perfect Day

At 7 o’clock tonight, Mick Cronin will sit down next to his father Hep in the front row of the team bus to head from the InterContinental Barclay Hotel to Madison Square Garden to play in the Big East Championship game against Louisville.

The trip is roughly 20 blocks, but it represents the light years that the program has traveled since Mick signed on in March of 2006 to rebuild the Bearcats.

“I’m happy for the kids,” Mick told me.  “We’ve been through a lot and our togetherness has been tremendous.  I know they’re excited and I’m like a proud parent.  We know we’re in the NCAA Tournament and the real running begins next week, but there’s nothing like a Big East Championship.  My kids have worked really hard to get into this position.  I’m hoping for them that they play well individually because it would be great for their careers.  It’s stuff they would never forget and boost their stock as individuals because they’ve done so much to elevate our program.”

After Friday’s stunning 71-68 win over Syracuse, I couldn’t help but think of my first in-depth interview with Mick after he took the job six years ago.  Here was my final question:

Describe the perfect day?

 

“I wake up in a hotel in New York City and prepare to play in the Big East Tournament championship game. Win the game and have dinner afterwards at some great restaurant in New York with friends and family. That would be…that’s going to be a great day.”

 

That day is here.

“The Big East is the granddaddy of all conference tournaments,” Mick told me last night.  “The electricity at Madison Square Garden is second to none.  You turn on some of the other tournaments and nobody is even at the games.  It’s going to be the experience of a lifetime.”

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Now time for another Big East Tournament Top 10 List:

1…Yancy Gates. 

The big guy has been phenomenal in New York, scoring 23 points in the double-overtime win over Georgetown and 18 (15 in the second half) in Friday’s victory over Syracuse.

In his first Big East Tournament in 2009, Yancy went 3-11 from the floor in a stunning loss to a DePaul team that did not win a regular season league game.  Now he’s one win away from a tourney title and possibly being named the MVP.

“I’ve been through a lot of different things over my four years and this is an unbelievable feeling – to know that I will be playing in the Big East Championship,” said Gates.

There’s no way the Bearcats would have rallied to beat Georgetown in the quarterfinals if Gates didn’t score 10 straight points in the last five minutes of regulation.  Coach Cronin called it the best game of Yancy’s Cincinnati career.

“He put his team on his back and made them win,” said Coach Cronin.  “That’s the mark of a great player.  There have been times in the past where Bearcat greats have done that – Steve Logan, Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin – I think that’s something that everybody has wanted Yancy to do and he maybe wasn’t ready to do it.  It shows his evolution as a player.  He’s still growing as a player and his best basketball is ahead of him.”

2.  New York Newspapers.

I was up at 6:00 this morning to see what the local papers would have to say about the shocker over Syracuse.  Here are two of the headlines.

I was disappointed that none of the papers took my suggestion from Friday night’s postgame show.  At the time of the year where we often hear the phrase “one and done,” I thought a great headline (in reference to Syracuse’s record) would be “31-and-1-and-Done”

3.  Bulletin Board Material.

When the Bearcats got to their locker room after beating the ‘Cuse, freshman Jermaine Sanders picked up a marker and wrote “1 More” on a dry erase board.

“That’s our mindset,” said Gates.  “We came here to try to win the Big East Tournament and tonight we get that opportunity.  Everybody is happy that we beat Syracuse, but not because of their record or ranking.  We’re happy because we beat them to get to the championship.  Winning tonight would be even bigger than beating Syracuse for us.”

4.  Fatigue Factor.

After a double-overtime game on Thursday, Coach Cronin stayed with his starters for most of the game against Syracuse.  Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon played 37 minutes apiece, and Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick logged 38 apiece.

Of course, Louisville had to play three games to get to the championship, but Gates doubts that either team will feel sluggish tonight.

“Honestly?  I couldn’t believe how fresh my legs felt when I walked into the gym last night,” said Gates.  “Bob Mangine is a great trainer and we’ll all get together with him to make sure that we feel the same way tonight.”

5.  The Call.

I received several requests on Twitter for the radio call at the end of the Syracuse game.  Here is a link to the audio, courtesy of WLW radio.

6.  Record Breakers.

With one steal against Syracuse, Cashmere Wright is now Cincinnati’s single-season record holder with 67 steals, breaking the mark shared by Puffy Kennedy (1979) and Brian Williams (1977).

Dion Dixon played in his 133rd career game and needs two more to tie the all-time Cincinnati record held by Steve Logan.

7.  Bagel Heaven.

Kudos to Bearcat superfan Greg Miller for turning me on to Ess-A-Bagel on Third Avenue.  It’s about three blocks from the team hotel and people line up out the door for their wide variety of fresh (and gigantic) bagels.

If people are lining up for a bagel in New York City (where there is a bagel shop on every block), you know they have to be good.

8.  Prime Time Exposure.

The Bearcats are likely to add a couple of recruits in the spring signing period, and tonight’s prime time ESPN telecast certainly can’t hurt.

“It’s a huge recruiting tool and our players tell the recruits all of the time that there’s nothing like playing in the Big East Tournament,” Coach Cronin told me.  “It’s the ‘neatest’ thing that you’ll do as a college basketball player.”

9.  The Freight Elevator.

One of the unusual things about Madison Square Garden is that the court is actually a couple of stories about ground level.  It’s always somewhat amusing to arrive with the team because everybody piles into a gigantic freight elevator to go up to the court level.

I guess it an elevator is big enough to lift the elephants in the Big Apple Circus, it can handle a basketball team.

10.  In Bed In The City That Never Sleeps.

Under normal circumstances, I would have loved celebrating at a pub near Madison Square Garden with Bearcat fans after the last two games, but I have been under the weather and have gone straight to bed.  Brutal!  I think I am the first person in history to travel to New York City on an expense account that hasn’t gone out to dinner for two days (you’re welcome WLW).  I am hoping that if the ‘Cats win tonight; I will be able to join the festivities.

So Who Is Next Year’s JaQuon Parker?

Last week, JaQuon Parker scored 39 points in wins over Marquette and Villanova.  Last year, Parker scored 35.

All year.

JaQuon is one of several players on this year’s team who has made huge strides during his UC career.

“That’s player development,” head coach Mick Cronin told me.  “JaQuon is an interesting guy because he only played three years of high school.  Then we brought him in and played him at the point out of necessity with Cashmere’s injury.  He did it because he’s such a team guy.  It doesn’t surprise me now that he’s on the wing and attacking the basket that his game is developing.  The more minutes he gets the more success he is going to have.  His early-season injury is the only reason why you didn’t see this earlier.  When a player has a groin injury, you have to completely shut him down.  He wasn’t even practicing during that injury.   Playing at this level is so much harder than a lot of people realize, and it takes guys time to develop.  For Park, it’s taken him some time, but now you are seeing it.”

Parker was named to the Big East weekly honor roll for his outstanding performances last week and is averaging 9.2 points and 5 rebounds this season.  Of the six Bearcats who have attempted at least 30 three-point shots, Parker has the best 3-point percentage at 42.7.  Last year, he was a woeful 3-for-20 (15%) from beyond the arc.

So who is next year’s JaQuon Parker?  In other words, the most likely candidate to make a quantum leap in offensive production.

“The answer to that is whoever works the hardest,” said Coach Cronin.  “You’ve seen different guys improve over their careers.  Dion Dixon is a great off-season guy…Sean Kilpatrick is a great practice player…JaQuon had a really good off-season.  I like all of our young guys and I think they are all going to get better.  I think the key for all of our freshman – including Shaq Thomas and Octavius Ellis who are redshirting – the time that they put in is going to be the most important thing.  That’s going to be the key for us as a staff.  We are a player development program – that’s really what we are.  One-year guys are an aberration for us.  The truth for us is to get four-year guys and develop them into really good players.  We have to make sure we’re on top of them in the off-season.”

Watching JaQuon Parker play a key role on an NCAA tournament team should provide plenty of motivation for his younger teammates.

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Kudos to my fellow GoBearcats.com blogger Paul Dehner Jr. for researching a question that I posed on Twitter after Saturday’s win at Villanova.

While broadcasting the game, it seemed like Cincinnati completely dominated the action while Cashmere Wright was on the floor.  In just 27 minutes of playing time, Wright had 9 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 7 steals and no turnovers.

So after the game, I sent out the following tweet:

“I’d like a plus/minus stat for Cashmere Wright today.”

Thanks to Paul, I now have one.

The Bearcats outscored the Wildcats by 21 points while Wright was on the floor.  A performance that’s even more impressive when you consider that the junior guard’s knee has been acting up.

“People probably don’t appreciate his level of toughness,” said Cronin.  “I have the same issue of having no cartilage in my knee and there are days where you wake up and for no rhyme or reason you’re just sore.  We have to manage that with Cash.  Some days when he feels fine, he doesn’t need to go 110% at practice.  But that’s easy for me to say when you have a young kid who is chasing a dream.  When he feels great he wants to play.

“The double bye in the Big East Tournament will be huge.  Cash was playing on one leg (on Saturday).  He needs rest – there’s no other way around it.  That’s why not playing until Thursday helps us a lot.  It really helps us.”

The Bearcats did not practice on Sunday and Wright was given most of Monday off as well.

**********

One of the most positive developments in Cincinnati’s strong regular season finish was the fan support in the ‘Cats critical late-season home games.

The Bearcats averaged 12,498 fans in their final three games at Fifth Third Arena, providing a significant home court advantage in badly-needed wins over Seton Hall, Louisville, and Marquette.

“Our home crowds carried us down the stretch,” Coach Cronin told me.  “They gave us the lift that we needed to win six of our last eight.  It makes the guys feel like they are playing for the fans.”

The big crowds could also pay future dividends.

“We had a recruit here for Louisville, and we had recruits here for Marquette and great crowds make a difference,” said Cronin.  “You want us to recruit great players?  Then keep coming to the games because they pay attention.  And it affects winning.  When you have a guy like Rick Pitino saying that we had the best home court advantage that he has seen in a long time – that affects winning.  We sent that quote out to all of our recruits.”

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

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Coombs Departs, But His Sales Pitch Remains

Shortly after Urban Meyer was hired as the head coach at Ohio State, I ran into Kerry Coombs on an elevator at the Lindner Center.

“Has Urban called and offered you a job yet?” I asked.

The answer at that point was no, but I wasn’t shocked when the news broke on Thursday that Meyer was trying to add Coombs to his coaching staff at OSU.  I’ll admit to being mildly surprised when I heard that Kerry had accepted the job.

Kerry Coombs loves the city of Cincinnati as much as anyone I know.  He turned down multiple opportunities (with significant salary increases) to join Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame and I’m sure he struggled with the decision of whether to leave this time around.

I wish him nothing but the best.

It’s no secret that Kerry would like to be a college head coach and having Ohio State on the resume won’t hurt.  While I doubt that he made the decision for money, a bump in pay doesn’t hurt either.  I thought UC head coach Butch Jones showed tremendous class with the mments that he made about Coomb’s departure to Bill Koch in the Enquirer:

“I will always be indebted to him,” Jones said.  “He helped me with the whole process of coming to Cincinnati.  He brought me along.  He introduced me to the right people, taught me different things about Cincinnati.  This isn’t just a relationship that started when I came here.  I knew Kerry for years prior to coming here.  He made for the transition to be very smooth.”

Kerry will be missed, but I have complete confidence that Butch Jones will find a capable replacement.  As for recruiting, the head coach sets the tone and Coach Jones wakes up thinking about recruiting as much as any coach that I know.  Cincinnati signed its highest-ranked class ever this year, and I expect that success to continue under the current staff because they have a great product to sell.

I once asked Kerry to give me the sales pitch that he made to Cincinnati-area high school recruits.  I didn’t write it down verbatim, but the basic spiel went as follows:  There are several schools where you can play for championships, maximize your ability, and get a great education.  But there’s only one school where you can do all of that in your hometown in front of your friends and family.

That message hasn’t changed, even though a spot on the coaching staff has.

**********

One aspect of Cincinnati’s 72-61 win over Marquette that didn’t get enough attention in my opinion (although my man Mike DeCourcy mentioned it in The Sporting News) was Mick Cronin’s decision to play zone defense for the entire game.  It was the biggest change in strategy that the coaching staff made after a 95-78 loss at Marquette on February 11th.

“I thought I made a calculated error in our first game against Marquette,” Cronin said.  “We played zone in the first half and they made six three-pointers, but the reason why were down by 12 was they had 16 points off turnovers.  We went man-to-man in the second half and we never got our bearings.  They had 45 points in the second half on layups and free throws.  Marquette is the fastest team I’ve ever coached against and the zone makes them take their time – it forces them to run offense.  So we were going to stay in the zone no matter what.  If they made 10 three-pointers in a row, I was staying in a zone.  I told the guys, they can only win if we turn the ball over and let them run it down our throats.”

UC only committed 7 turnovers and Marquette finished with 3 points off turnovers and 5 fast break points (total of 8 combined).  The Golden Eagles had 56 points when you added those two stats in game one.  As a result, the ‘Cats won by double digits on a night where they were 4-for-24 (17%) from beyond the arc.

“That just shows you that defense is where you have to hang your hat,” Coach Cronin said.  “You won’t always make shots.  Your defense is your constant.  When you have a really good team and you make shots, you should win easily.

“When we are at our best, we take care of the ball and get shots.  That’s who we are.  We don’t shoot the highest percentage, but we get more shot attempts than nearly anybody in the Big East – I think we’re ranked 1-2 with Louisville in field goal attempts.  Shooting percentage isn’t as important for us as some other teams because we get so many attempts.  We don’t turn the ball over and we’re a pretty good rebounding team even though we’re small.  We just get more possessions than our opponents.”

The Bearcats attempted 9 more shots than Villanova in an 82-78 win on January 14th.  It’s a stat to watch on Saturday afternoon in Philly.

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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