February 2013

Who Were Those Guys?

When Sean Kilpatrick watched footage of Sunday’s lopsided loss at Notre Dame, he felt like he was watching the wrong guys in the Cincinnati uniforms.

“It didn’t look like us at all,” Sean told me.  “It didn’t even feel right.  Honestly, it didn’t even feel like I had a Bearcat jersey on – it just felt like I had a shirt on.” 

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The Bearcats only scored 41 points – their lowest total in Mick Cronin’s seven years as head coach – and JaQuon Parker was the only Cincinnati player to finish in double digits with 12.  Kilpatrick scored a season-low 6 points, and Cashmere Wright failed to score for only the second time in his last 113 games.

“We’ve really played one bad game this year,” said Coach Cronin.  “Our three best players average 41 points a game and they got 18.  When that happens, you’re going to be in trouble. 

“We need to get our main guys healthy and playing well because they’re the answer.  I get a lot of questions about production from Cheikh Mbodj, or David Nyarsuk, or this guy or that guy – we have to make sure that we’re getting Cash, JaQuon, and SK open and getting the ball where they can make plays for us.  That’s the answer.  For every team in basketball – high school, college, or pro – your best players have to play well or you’re not going to win.  So that’s my focus.  I have to do everything that I can to help them play well.”

Kilpatrick’s scoring ability is especially vital to Cincinnati’s success.  Sean is averaging 19.4 points in the Bearcats’ wins this year, but only 13.6 in their losses.  The junior guard is fourth in the Big East in scoring at 17.6 per game, despite being the focal point of every opponent’s defensive scouting report.

“It can be frustrating but then again, I like it,” said Kilpatrick.  “It’s making me a better player and it means that people respect me for what I do on the court.  But it’s tough.  It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to overcome because this is the highest level of basketball that I’ve ever played and to have two or three guys guarding you is really difficult.”

Despite the constant defensive harassment, Kilpatrick has managed to deliver.  This week, Sean was named one of 30 candidates for the 2013 Naismith College Player of the Year award and ESPN’s Jay Bilas selected Kilpatrick among his six “most clutch players” in college basketball.   

(You can watch the Bilas clip here: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=espn:8989382)

“That’s a strong statement coming from someone like him,” Sean told me.  “I thank my team for that because they put me in those types of situations where I have the ball at the end of games.  I just try to make the right plays and whatever is open is open.” 

After dropping five of their last six games, the Bearcats are desperately in need of a win on Saturday vs. UConn to solidify their hold on a NCAA Tournament berth.  But Kilpatrick says he is not the least bit concerned with “bubble” talk.   

“All we can control is what happens in the next game and that’s what we’re focusing on,” said Kilpatrick.  “We’re not worrying about the tournament or anything like that.

“We know exactly what we’re capable of.  When things aren’t going right, a lot of people aren’t going to be behind us, but we have each other and that’s the best thing about this team.”

Hopefully, we’ll all recognize the guys in the Cincinnati uniforms on Saturday.

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Night And Day Difference For Frazier

I have urgent breaking news about Reds third baseman Todd Frazier.

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Fans at Great American Ball Park will not be hearing the same two Frank Sinatra songs (“Fly Me To The Moon” and “Come Fly With Me”) when he steps to the plate in 2013.

“I’m still going to have ‘Fly Me To The Moon,’ but I’m also going to have another song,” Frazier told me on 700 WLW.  “I can’t really tell you what it’s going to be right now, because I’m in the midst of choosing from a couple.”

Are we talking about another Sinatra tune or might Frazier be considering a different legend from his home state of New Jersey like Bruce Springsteen?

“I like him too, but I don’t get as relaxed and as fired up as I do when I listen to Frank,” said Frazier.

You’ve got to love a 27-year-old major league baseball player who gets fired up listening to Francis Albert Sinatra.

The most appropriate Sinatra classic for Frazier to add as a walk-up tune might be ‘Night and Day’ because Todd’s role with the Reds going into this season is as different as night and day from where it was a year ago. 

Last season, Frazier led the Reds during spring training in HR (5) and RBI (15) only to get sent to Triple-A Louisville one day before the season opener when the team claimed pitcher Alfredo Simon off of waivers.

“It was tough and I’d be lying to you if I said that it wasn’t,” said Frazier.  “Not many people get to experience something like that.  I’m just lucky to have family and friends behind me that helped me understand that it was not the end of the world.  They said, ‘You’re going to get called up and you’ve got to believe that.’  I certainly did.”

The call-up came in 13 days and Frazier spent the rest of the season in Cincinnati, batting .273 (.331 OBP/.498 SLG) with 19 HR and 67 RBI to finish third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote.

“I was certainly disappointed that we didn’t make it farther in the playoffs, but for me personally, I was happy with my season,” said Frazier.  “I thought that I could have done better, but at the same time, for my first season I thought that I did pretty well.”

So well, that he’s not fighting for a job this spring.  Even before Scott Rolen retired, the Reds made it clear that Frazier would be their primary third baseman this season. 

“I went into spring training last year and put a little pressure on myself because you want to be ‘that guy’ and get up to the big leagues,” Frazier told me.  “But for me this year, everything is good.  I’m happy and I’m more comfortable understanding that I do have that job.  It feels good to even hear that come out of people’s voices.  I can’t wait – it’s going to be fun.”

Frazier’s expanded role with the team goes beyond the field as he’s been named the captain of the Reds Heads Kids Club featuring autograph sessions and other members-only experiences for fans that are 14-and-younger.

“I remember when I was young, I sent letters to famous people and tried to get as many autographs as I could and I know how it feels,” said Frazier.  “I might have sent out about 15 to 20 letters.  I had this book that had everybody’s name and address in it.  It was pretty silly to think about it now.  I only got one back.  I can’t remember all of the people that I sent letters to, but I remember Cal Ripken sending something back.

“I think that giving back to little ballplayers like that is pretty cool.  I can’t wait to see them happy and excited and to be the face of the ‘Kid’s Club’ this year is pretty exciting.”

Perhaps he can even get the Reds youngest fans to start listening to Sinatra.

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

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Getting Cash Back

Before hurting his right knee against DePaul on January 15th, Cashmere Wright was playing as well as any guard in the Big East.

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The senior from Savannah, Georgia had scored 20-or-more points in three of his previous four games and for the season was averaging 15.1 points on 47% shooting – including 44% from 3-point range.

Since returning from the injury, Wright has been mired in the worst shooting slump of his career, going 23-for-95 overall (24%) and 12-for-60 (20%) from 3-point range, while averaging 8.0 points in nine games.

In Sunday’s loss at Notre Dame, Wright did not attempt a shot in the first half and finished the game 0-for-2 in 23 minutes.

“He’s lost his confidence,” said Mick Cronin on his weekly radio show on Monday.  “If you go five, six, seven games and shoot 20%, you would lose your confidence too. 

“It’s a mental thing and I have to do a good job of making sure that his mind is in the right place.  Internal pressure that players put on themselves and external pressure that players feel from family, friends, and fans – some let it affect them more than others.  He’s a sensitive kid and there’s no doubt that he lost his confidence.”

So how does Cronin plan to help Wright get it back?  By reminding Cashmere that he doesn’t have to make every shot to help the Bearcats win.

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“I have to do a better job of making sure that his mind is on defense and leadership,” said Cronin.  “He’s got to lose himself in the game and give us everything that he can with his steals.  He’s not the all-time leading scorer at Cincinnati.  Or the all-time assists leader.  But he is the all-time steals leader and he can give us that.  That’s what he has to focus us because if he doesn’t give us that we’re in trouble. 

“My goal is to get him to realize that he did have a great game (after the injury).  He was 3-for-14 from the field in that game, but he had a great game.  It was the Villanova game.  He had 14 deflections and his energy and defense inspired his team to get 46 deflections and beat a NCAA Tournament team by 18 points.” 

Over the next month, Wright is almost certain to set Cincinnati’s all-time record for games played.  After watching his senior point guard play through knee and shoulder pain for much of his career, Cronin wants to see Cashmere relax and finish strong. 

“He’s a conscientious kid who wants to play well,” said Cronin.  “He’s unlike me, because I am oblivious to other people’s opinion.  If I have one gift, it’s that I have tunnel vision on doing my job.  Whether your opinion of me is great or whether your opinion of me is poor, it doesn’t really affect me.  Unfortunately, kids can be affected a lot more than you think this day and age.  He is a very conscientious kid who is putting a lot of pressure on himself. 

“He’s trying as hard as he can to help his team and I just have to make sure that he does two things:  Worry about defense and stay aggressive.  You can’t worry about making mistakes.  I have to get him in an aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor, and whatever mistakes he may make we have to live with.  But he has to be on the attack and he has to be aggressive or we’re not going to be a very good team.

“I’d like to get us to where we’re playing well, and helping Cash get his confidence back is probably the number one thing that I have get done as a coach.”

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

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The Never-Ending Search For The Next Tim Duncan

You probably know the basic details of the Tim Duncan story.

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Grows up a competitive swimmer in the Virgin Islands…eventually takes up basketball as a teenager…gets discovered by Wake Forest…becomes one of the greatest players in history.

But here’s a nugget that you might not know:  The coach at Wake Forest that found Duncan was current UC assistant Larry Davis.

“We had a kid abruptly leave that was starting at center for us as a freshman,” Davis recalled.  “He walked in one day and said that he was homesick and we couldn’t talk him out of it.  Going into the spring, we had no guy on our roster that was bigger than 6’8”.  So (head coach) Dave Odom called all of the assistants in and told us to turn over every rock because we had to find a center.  So I started making calls.  I had met a guy by the name of Holman Harley who was working for an agent at that time, and I called him and said, ‘Do you know of any big guys anywhere?’  And he said, ‘Yea, there’s a 6’10” kid in the Virgin Islands.’  He gave me Tim’s name so I tracked him down, got him on the phone, and asked who he was being recruited by and he said, ‘I got some letters from Delaware State and one letter from Providence.’

“About the fourth time that I called Tim on the phone I asked him if he had ever been to the United States.  He said, ‘Yes, I have a brother-in-law in Ohio and I went to Ohio State’s basketball camp last summer.’  I said, ‘Is Ohio State recruiting you?’  Tim said, ‘No.’  I got off the phone and immediately called Holman Harley and said, ‘Are you sure this kid can play?  He’s 6’10”, he was at Ohio State’s basketball camp and they’re not recruiting him.  How can that be?’  Holman said, ‘Larry, I’m telling you – the kid can play.’ 

“I went in to Coach Odom and told him that I might have found a kid and he said, ‘Where is he at?’  I said, ‘The Virgin Islands.’   It wasn’t hard to talk him into making the trip.  So Dave went down to see him and I’ll never forget – he calls me on the phone and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this guy.  He’s 6’10”, he can run like a deer, he’s got great hands, and we’re bringing him in.’ Tim ended up visiting Providence and Wake Forest.  It was 45 degrees when he visited Providence and 80 degrees when he visited us.  That’s when I knew that we were getting him.”

And that’s how Larry Davis helped sign perhaps the greatest under-the-radar recruit in college basketball history.

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While the former head coach at Oak Hill Academy (1983-85) and Furman University (1997-2006) hasn’t landed the next Tim Duncan at Cincinnati – at least not yet – his relentless recruiting efforts have been instrumental in helping Mick Cronin rebuild the program.

“I’ve never been around a guy that loves recruiting, evaluating, and working like he does,” said Cronin.  “Most guys his age become the resident veteran coach on the bench, but he loves recruiting like a 25-year-old.  He can’t get enough of it.  He loves it.”

“A lot of colleagues knock recruiting, but I like it,” the 56-year-old Davis told me.  “I like meeting people, I like travel, and it’s a challenge.  It’s competition and I like competition – what can I say.

“It can drive you nuts because kids make decisions based on some of the craziest things that you could ever imagine, and there are always hidden land mines out there.  You have to figure out who is on your side and who is not on your side and sometimes, somebody that you don’t even know is in the background either helping you or killing you.  So when you get a kid to commit and sign, it’s a great feeling.”  

Cronin became aware of his colleague’s zest for recruiting nearly 20 years ago when Davis was an assistant coach at Ball State.

“We met when I was a high school coach at Woodward and he was trying to outwork people for Eric Johnson,” said Cronin.  “He ended up at Louisville, but Eric would tell you to this day that the best job that was done in the recruiting process was by Larry Davis.  He loved Larry Davis, but it was hard to turn down Louisville for Ball State.”

Observing Coach Davis’s recruiting persistence made a strong impression on his future boss. 

“My dad taught me to be smart enough to listen to older guys and Larry helped to guide me in the business,” said Cronin.  “I’ve tried to pattern myself after his effort in recruiting.”

The key word in the last sentence is effort.

“Young assistant coaches in our business need to spend a week with him in July,” said Cronin with a laugh.  “When you’re out there in July, he’s watching games from 8 am until midnight.  He’s not a guy that will watch a few games, get a workout in, and go out to dinner.  He’s in the gym when the first game starts and the last game ends.  He’ll tell me who I need to see and I’ll say, ‘Where are you going?’  And he’ll say, ‘Well, I’m going to see a half of this game and a half of that game and then I’m going to go check on this kid.’  If he lays eyes on 10 kids he might find that guy that wasn’t highly-rated – whether it’s a Sean Kilpatrick or a JaQuon Parker.”

While Davis has inked his share of big-name recruits over the years such as 11-year NBA veteran Bobby Jackson when Larry was an assistant at Minnesota, his ability to find lesser-known recruits has been invaluable at Cincinnati.  

“What I’ve learned is to be able to rate his tone of voice,” said Cronin.  “He call and say, ‘I think I’ve found one,’ and I can tell by the way he says it how good that he thinks the guy is.  I can tell by his excitement level that we had better hurry before too many people see the kid.” 

“Scouting services and ratings are great, but I’ve always been taught from the first day that I got into this that you should judge with your own eyes,” said Davis.  “You try to see what a guy’s potential is down the road.  Some of it, quite honestly, is a little bit of luck, but you have to have an eye for it too and know some of the characteristics that you’re looking for.  I take pride in trying to do that and I work for a boss who could care less about the ratings.  Mick wants to know if the guy can play or not – that’s the most important thing to him.” 

“What Larry understands is that good players don’t have to be highly-rated,” said Cronin.  “He believes in out-working the opponent.  He doesn’t just go to a city and see one practice.  He’ll talk somebody into working out at six in the morning, so that he can see another kid practice at three, and another kid play at seven.  It’s sheer numbers.  In sales, the more people that you get in front of, the more sales that you’re going to have.  In recruiting, the more guys that you see means that you’re eventually going to see somebody that can play.  That’s how you find Hasheem Thabeet in a back gym when nobody else was recruiting him at the time.”

The 7’3” Thabeet was a late signee in Coach Cronin’s first year at Cincinnati who chose UConn over UC and ultimately became the 2nd overall pick in the NBA draft – unfortunately in recruiting, you don’t always get the guy.  But Davis has won his share of battles and landed Troy Caupain and Jamaree Strickland in this year’s early signing period.  According to Rivals.com, Caupain is a 3-star recruit while the 6’10” Strickland received 3 stars from 247sports.com.

But before you put too much stock into the scouting services, you should consider the Wake Forest class of 1993.

“When the recruiting rankings came out that year,” said Davis, “we had signed three or four other guys so it listed their names and how many stars they received and ended with, ‘and Tim Duncan.’  No comment, no rating, just ‘and Tim Duncan.’  In the end, he was the number one guy in the country.”

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

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Searching For A Few More Buckets

It’s become blatantly obvious to me that the Bearcats really miss one of the seniors from last year’s team.

No, not Yancy Gates.

I’m talking about Dion Dixon.

You haven’t thought about him in a while have you?

Dixon and Gates

Oh sure, they miss Yancy too, but Cincinnati’s recent offensive woes have made me appreciate how difficult it has been to replace Dixon’s production.

Dion was UC’s second-leading scorer last year at 13.0 points per game and got to the free throw line a team-high 166 times (Gates ranked 2nd with 106 FTA).  Furthermore, Dion was a key barometer in Cincinnati’s wins and losses as Dixon averaged 14.7 points in UC’s 26 victories and only 9.0 points in the ‘Cats 11 losses.

When the Bearcats thrived in a 4-guard “spread” offense last year, it was because all four guards could score.  UC does not have a consistent fourth perimeter threat this year.

So what’s the fix?

Obviously, an end to Cashmere Wright’s shooting slump would be a godsend, but Mick Cronin knows his personnel better than anyone and that’s why he keeps talking about defense when his team is struggling on offense.

“Obviously I’m concerned about putting the ball in the basket, but when you play great defense and have high deflection totals, you’re going to create easy baskets in transition and you’re going to score points off of turnovers,” said Cronin.

Let’s face it:  Cheikh Mbodj and David Nyarsuk are not suddenly going to morph into dominant low-post scorers and Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson are not magically going to start burying three pointers.  But they can block shots and help create turnovers.

Here is a look at Cincinnati’s top five wins (by RPI rating) and how many points the Bearcats scored off of turnovers:

Marquette (#15 RPI) – 19 points

at Pitt (#32 RPI) – 8 points

Oregon (#38 RPI) – 24 points

Iowa St (#51) – 26 points

Villanova (#57) – 21 points

In those five quality wins, the ‘Cats averaged 19.6 points off turnovers.  In their seven losses this season, that number drops to 9.1.

“Our steals have to go up and our turnovers have to go down,” said Cronin.  “That was something that we were really good at last year – we were one of the best teams in America at getting more shots than our opponent.  We have to get back to that.”

That doesn’t mean that Cronin is ignoring the Bearcats struggles on offense.  He’s trying to find a way to get a guard-oriented attack as many easy shots as possible.

“You want to get layups, free throws, and wide-open three point shots,” said Cronin.  “You don’t want to take contested shots.  I would also say that you have to get more shots.  We need to get more steals and generate more offense from our defense.  That’s the number one thing that we’re capable of and need to do a better job of.”

Cronin also believes that focusing on aggressive defense will lead to stress-free shooting.

“When you have great hustle and intensity for loose balls, rebounds, and steals, it translates into offense,” Mick told me.  “You have to get lost in the game with your hustle.  I tell the guys that they have to play so hard that they don’t think about missing shots.  Basketball is a marathon and you go through hot streaks and cold streaks.  Your constants have to be togetherness, hustle, rebounding, and defense.  Those are the things that will carry you through a season.

“We can’t try any harder to make shots.  When you try too hard – that’s the problem.  You have to be aggressive as an offensive player and you can’t worry about missing.  No good offensive player in the history of the game would argue that point.”

All seven of Cincinnati’s losses are to teams that are in the RPI Top 100 and four of the losses were by four-or-fewer points.  All the Bearcats need are a few more baskets a game…who says they need to come from their half-court offense?

“Here’s our defensive philosophy.” said Cronin.  “When they have the ball, we’re trying to get it.  Don’t just try to be solid and make them shoot over us – get the ball.  If a guy drives anywhere near you, take it from him.”

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

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The Coaching Life Takes Its Toll

As I watched an angry and frustrated Mick Cronin barely touch his postgame meal after Wednesday’s loss at Providence, I was reminded of the advice he used to get from his mother.  As the wife of a long-time basketball coach, the late Peggy Cronin didn’t necessarily want her son to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“My sister has multiple degrees and is highly educated and my mom – God rest her soul – told me to do better in school,” Mick told me recently.  “I should have gone to law school and then I would be able to eat and sleep at night.”

Cronin fists (296x440)

But as a huge fan of the Godfather movies (the theme song is the current ringtone on Mick’s cell phone) he is also quick to quote the fictional mobster Hyman Roth in The Godfather: Part II by saying, “This is the business that we’ve chosen.”

Business has mostly been good for Cronin and the 17th-ranked Bearcats, but they came up short against a Providence team that is no pushover.  The Friars are in the Top 100 of the RPI rankings and were coming off of a road win at Villanova on Sunday.

“People get the schedule at the beginning of the year and they go through it and say, ‘There’s a win,’” said Coach Cronin.  “My brother loves to do that.  I always tell him, ‘I don’t want to hear it, and I guarantee that it won’t be close to what you think.’  You can’t think about March right now and you can’t think back to November and December.  You’ve got to try to get better each and every day and know that the minute you let up, you’re going to lose in this league.

“That’s how we clawed and scraped our way to rebuilding Cincinnati basketball.  It’s not because we have five NBA draft picks running around.  We did it by staying focused on just winning the next game.  My job is to make sure that the guys are focused on that and nothing else because if you go into a game thinking you’re supposed to win, you will lose.”

The Bearcats scored a season-low 50 points in Wednesday’s defeat and have averaged just 54 points in their five losses this season.  While UC has limitations on offense, ESPN’s Jay Bilas says that the Bearcats are deserving of their national ranking.

“I think that Cincinnati is one of the Top 20 teams in the country and they grade out that way from an efficiency standpoint,” Bilas recently told Mo Egger on ESPN 1530.  “Defense is primarily carrying it for them.  Cincinnati is an excellent defensive team and a really good rebounding team.  Where the Bearcats can get into trouble is when they turn the ball over.”

Bilas made those comments one day before the Providence loss and proved to be prophetic when Cincinnati committed 15 turnovers against the Friars.

“That really hurts us in a lot of ways,” said Coach Cronin.  “You can’t score if you turn it over, and you might get an offensive rebound if you get a shot off.  The turnover also fuels the other team’s fast break and eliminates our defense.  Just don’t throw it to them and we might score.  We have some guys that can play.”

“Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are their two best offensive players, but JaQuon Parker does a terrific job when he gets the ball in the right spots,” Bilas told Egger.  “A lot of basketball comes down to ball movement and player movement.  We can sit and talk about running this play or that play but it’s not plays – it’s players.  I know that Mick Cronin tells his guys, ‘Be a player, don’t just run the play.’  The plays that he runs are all really well-designed.”

Wright vs Rutgers (440x429)

For the Bearcats to operate at peak efficiency on offense, they need Wright to play as well as he had before spraining his knee against DePaul.  In four games since the injury, the senior point guard is 9-for-41 overall (22%), 5-for-24 from three point range (21%), and has as many turnovers as assists (9-9).

“He’s been banged up and just can’t catch a break,” said Cronin.  “He may not look as tough as (former Bearcat) Bobby Brannen, but he’s every bit as tough.  He’s every bit as tough as any guy that I’ve ever been around as a coach.

“For him, it’s just a matter of staying healthy and getting his rhythm back.  The more he practices and plays games; he’ll get back to being his normal self.  If he can stay healthy, he’s going to play well.”

Wright and his teammates certainly don’t have time to rest and recover.  They begin a critical stretch of three tough home games in seven days on Saturday night against Pitt.

“The longer you’re in this business – and this is my 10th year as a head coach – you come to realize that this is a game of survival,” said Cronin.

His mother tried to warn him.

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

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