CINCINNATI — Mick Cronin and Larry Davis don’t want to hear about any excuses. Cronin won’t be on the bench or at practice for University of Cincinnati basketball team the rest of the season as his personal health is forcing a semi-sabbatical. Larry Davis is taking over Cronin’s role of running the team on a daily basis.
Their styles will differ to a degree. Their message won’t.
What the Bearcats do this season won’t be dictated by who is calling the shots on the sidelines but rather by the five players who are on the court at any given time.
UC adhered to that message Saturday as it beat SMU, 56-50, at Fifth Third Arena. The Bearcats were horrendous offensively in the first half but kept their defensive composure throughout and eventually found their rhythm on offense in the second half to knock off one of the preseason favorites in the American Athletic Conference in front of a season-high crowd of 10,013.
Junior guard Farad Cobb scored 18 points, while junior forward Octavius Ellis scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds and had three of UC’s 10 steals. UC’s style is never pretty or smooth — it never has been — but the Bearcats were at their ugly best in the second half on Saturday.
"Today our guys exemplified what coach Cronin has built this program on from day one — supreme toughness," said Davis. "One of the things I wrote on the board before the game was whether if we missed shots, if we made shots, no matter what we did on the offensive end, we had to keep defending and rebounding. If we did that we’d have a chance to win the game."
That’s exactly what UC did as it beat SMU in its conference opener for the second straight season. The Bearcats are now 10-3 overall and 3-1 since Cronin’s health issues came to light. They lost by 21 points at home to Virginia Commonwealth two weeks ago after learning about an hour before tip-off that Cronin would be sideline indefinitely with what at the time was described as an unruptured aneurysm.
Cronin and UC announced on Friday that he would step back from coaching and act only in an advisory role as he deals with an arterial dissection. He will help in recruiting, game analysis and game planning but will stay away from coaching the team. That will be the domain of Davis and the rest of the staff.
"We had to still go out and play," said Ellis. "If we let that stop us there’s no telling, we probably would’ve lost by 50 today. Our first conference game against a good team. We don’t let that bother us."
The fact that Cronin’s prognosis for recovery is good, that he is in good spirits and that Davis has been with the program since Cronin took over in 2006 has made this transition easier. The Bearcats have won three straight since the loss to VCU.
"Without (Cronin) it’s difficult but it’s not difficult," said sophomore guard Troy Caupain. "The same goal is to bring back the conference championship. We still see him around. He still runs things from the office and he still makes the final call. We’ve still got to win for him even if he’s not on the sideline. We’ve got to win as a program, as a unit."
The Bearcats had twice as many turnovers (12) as made field goals (six) in the first half but trailed by just three points, 22-19, because they were able to hold SMU scoreless for the final 5:04 of the half.
The offense caught up to the defense in the second half. UC cut their turnovers in half and shot 59.1 percent from the field after halftime, making 13-of-22 field goals, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range. Cobb had 15 of his 18 points in the second half. He scored the first nine points in an 11-0 UC run that turned a 30-26 deficit into a 37-30 lead the Bearcats would never relinquished.
UC led by as many as 10 points, 49-39, with 4:01 left and SMU got as close as three points, 51-48, with 27.6 seconds left but the Bearcats made 5-of-7 free throws in the final 37 seconds to seal the win. Caupain made all four the attempted.
UC’s defense forced 17 turnovers. Even though the Bearcats had 18 turnovers themselves, they did a better job of converting SMU’s mistakes into points, outscoring the Mustangs 20-11 off turnovers.
"We had a couple open threes that might have made it a little interesting late but I think we lost the game late in the first half when we were a little careless," said SMU coach Larry Brown. "When they made a run we got careless and gave them an opportunity to make some plays late in the clock."
Cronin wasn’t at the game Saturday. That’s one of the restrictions his doctors have placed on him. He doesn’t want any restrictions for his team’s expectations. That’s how they played Saturday.
"The circumstances aren’t the issue," Cronin said on Friday in a press conference. "I want to eliminate my health situation. It’s about our season from here on out."
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