First of all, Happy New Year in advance!
Second of all, do not be fooled because Cincy has not made much noise in the Big East since Bob Huggins left. This is the best Bearcats team that Mick Cronin has had at Cincinnati. Do not be led astray by the absences of Lance Stephenson and Deonta Vaughn. The Bearcats were regarded as a potential sleeper in the conference, and with an unblemished resume so far, even the casual fans can see why- they play hard, and play as a team.
The full report:
2010-11 record: 13-0
2009-10 record: 19-16 (7-11 Big East, 2nd round NIT)
Key Losses: Lance Stephenson, Deonta Vaughn, Steve Toyloy
Key Returnees: Sean Kilpatrick, Yancy Gates, Ibrahima Thomas, Rashad Bishop, Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, Justin Jackson (freshman)
As I was saying, this is possibly the best TEAM that Cronin has had at UC, and it starts inside with Yancy Gates. The 6'9" junior is slimmer this year, and it has helped him tremendously on the court. He's averaging 11.7 PTS and 6.6 REB with 1.7 BLK on 48% shooting, providing an anchor down low for the Bearcats.
Another reason for the fast start is redshirt freshman Sean Kilpatrick. At 6'4", Kilpatrick has provided the Bearcats with another scoring option, and he's shooting 40% from deep this year.
The team's corps of guards is not spectacular, but very solid. When I talked to Cronin at Big East Media Day, I asked which of his players that no one is really talking about would contribute most, and he quickly said Dion Dixon. Boy, was he right. Dixon is the team's leading scorer at 13 PTS, while also getting to the line (56 attempts, most of any Bearcat) and making the deep shot (38% on the year). This versatility makes him dangerous, even at 6'3". The Pirates need to recognize Dixon's ability and defend accordingly.
Other contributors from the guard positions are Cashmere Wright, who is finally injury-free and playing very well, and a vastly improved Larry Davis. Wright is 9.5 PTS and almost 4 AST a game, more than double the number of any other Cincinnati player. But while Wright is a true point guard, he has a shot that teams must respect (48% from the field, 41% from deep). Larry Davis couldn't make a shot in the ocean standing on the beach last year, but this year he's shooting 48% from both the field and from deep (only 33 attempts from beyond the arc, though).
Justin Jackson is a high- energy freshman forward who Cronin is a big fan of, while 7-footer Ibrahima Thomas is a solid rebounder down low. Rashad Bishop is a player who does a little bit of everything while shooting a very efficient percentage from everywhere.
The Bearcats are a deep team, with 8 players averaging over 14 minutes a game and no one player averaging more than 27 minutes a game. The Pirates will see several different looks on the defensive end, and as always, must have a team-wide focus and commitment to defense. The Bearcats' bigs are athletic and will run the floor if the Pirates let them. Unfortunately, that means that the Pirates must make shots in order to properly set up their defense to prevent those run-outs by the bigs (this means NO THREES, J-ROB). The Bearcats' size up front also makes them tough to box out, so the Pirates will also be tested down low.
Cincinnati is a good three-point shooting team (36%) that has shot only 4 less threes than the Pirates have this year. The Pirates' matchup zone will be tested by the many capable 3-ball makers.
These Bearcats are undefeated for a reason, but there is a glimmer of hope for Pirate fans. The Bearcats' next game after this is the Crosstown Shootout with in-city rival/arch-enemies Xavier. With the Pirates coming to town, this fits the definition of "Trap Game." If the Bearcats lose their focus, Seton Hall could sneak up on them and emerge with a needed quality win on the road.
PIRATES WILL WIN IF:
- Keon Lawrence continues his solid play from the USF game
- Jeff Robinson stays in and around the paint
- Herb Pope can stay out of foul trouble. With the size that Cincy has, Pope's availability will be critical
BEARCATS WILL WIN IF:
- They make threes against the Pirates' matchup zone
- They continue to play team basketball
- They avoid the mental letdown (the "trap game") before their big matchup with Xavier.