After grinding through hundreds of practices over the last several years, Cincinnati’s veteran players figured that they had heard every motivational tactic that Mick Cronin had in his bag of tricks. But he surprised them on Monday as they began preparing for Friday’s NCAA opener against Creighton.
“I told our guys that we have two goals for this week: Going 2-0 would be goal number two,” Coach Cronin told me. “And goal number one, which we can achieve regardless of outcome, is to have more fun that any other team in the tournament. In practice, in our travel, and with each other.
“They need to have fun. They’ve earned it. I want them to enjoy their accomplishments. It’s an accomplishment to make the tournament and I’m structuring things this week so that they can enjoy it.”
“What’s gotten into him?” said Sean Kilpatrick when I asked for his initial reaction to Coach Cronin’s remarks to the team. “We’ve never heard him say that. It’s good because it makes the players comfortable and reminds us that he’s with us. Not only does he want us to win, but he wants us to have fun.”
“He says a lot of stuff, so we were like, ‘I wonder how he’s going to act tomorrow,’ said Cashmere Wright with a laugh. “But it seems like he meant what he said and he’s following through on it.”
One way that Coach Cronin showed the players that he meant what he said was by opening Tuesday’s practice to the public. It virtually guaranteed a less stressful environment with no tirades from the head coach.
“We knew when the fans were here that practice wasn’t going to be crazy,” said JaQuon Parker.
“I’ve thought a lot about the whole event and I’m trying to make it the most memorable for our players,” said Cronin. “There’s no secrets this time of year anyway with the film and the scouting — everybody has everybody’s play calls and there’s nothing that’s going to go on at practice that people don’t already know about our team.
“We have to make sure that we’re fresh on Friday, so you won’t see World War III at practice.”
Of course, there’s a method to his (March) madness. Coach Cronin undoubtedly hopes that a relaxed team will perform well in Philadelphia.
“I think that’s been our problem,” said Parker. “We’ve been too uptight around here. Now in our last few practices, we’ve been loose and having fun. It feels good.”
“We’re our best when we relax and nobody worries about making mistakes and we’re just out there playing basketball,” said Wright.
But don’t get the mistaken impression that having fun and working hard are mutually exclusive.
“It will not detract from our preparation — I can assure you that,” said Cronin. “Our guys understand how hard you have to play to win games. We play in a league where if you don’t play hard you don’t even have a chance.”
“He’s telling you to go out there by any means necessary and get it done,” said Parker. “Just win and have fun doing it. That means a lot to us.”
“It’s my last go-round and I’m just enjoying every day, every practice, and getting ready for the game,” said Wright.
Of course, there are limits in the quest to have the most fun of any team in the field of 68. For example, the players do not expect to have their nightly curfew lifted in Philadelphia.
“We’ve got to have curfew,” said Kilpatrick with a grin. “That’s mandatory. If you leave some of our guys with no curfew, they might not come back.”
And while the players would undoubtedly be able to have fun if given free rein on the road, there’s nothing more enjoyable in the NCAA Tournament than advancing.
“At the end of the day, if this is going to be our last hurrah, let’s go all-out,” said Kilpatrick. “Especially for our seniors. This is their last shot and they deserve to have fun, so we’re going to try to make a run in this tournament.”
“Once you’re in you’ve got a chance,” said Cronin. “Now it’s time to win games.”
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