Bearcats, Musketeers still searching for right mix

Cincinnati Bearcats forward Jermaine Sanders has scored 25 points in his two starts after replacing Shaq Thomas.

Aaron Doster/Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Mick Cronin used the phrase "work in progress" to describe the University of Cincinnati Bearcats basketball team so many times during preseason and the first few weeks of the regular it became more a guess of when and how many times he’d use it during a media session than if he’d say it.

Xavier coach Chris Mack knew he had as talented of an overall roster as he’s had in his six seasons but with only two seniors on the team and the majority of that talent being either freshmen or sophomores there would be some time needed to make things work.

The Bearcats and Musketeers are still seeking that right mix as they move deeper into the second halves of their seasons. They’ve juggled their starting lineups, used different rotations either out of necessity or planned in an effort hit the right buttons at the right time of the season.

Xavier (12-7, 3-4 Big East) hosts surprise conference co-leader DePaul Saturday at noon, while UC (13-5, 4-2 American) travels to Orlando for a game Sunday at Central Florida in a matchup the Bearcats can ill-afford to lose from the standpoint of their postseason resume.

Home has been good to Xavier. The Musketeers are 10-0 at Cintas Center but Thursday night’s 69-66 overtime loss at Providence dropped them to just 2-7 on the road, including 0-4 in the ultra-competitive Big East. Seven of the conference’s 10 teams are ranked in top 43 of the NCAA’s Daily RPI as of Friday. Xavier is No. 36, the fifth highest team from the Big East.

That’s of little consolation to Mack. Senior point guard Dee Davis and senior center Matt Stainbrook are the only two players to start every game. While juniors Remy Abell and James Farr, and freshman Trevon Bluiett have been starters the majority of the season, Mack has used sophomores Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds as well as freshmen J.P. Macura and Larry Austin, Jr., in the starting lineup at least once each over the last six games.

It’s come with various degrees of success as Xavier has gone 2-4 in those games, including a 71-68 loss at DePaul on Jan. 3.

"We haven’t won, so we’ve got a lot more work to do," said Mack Friday afternoon. "Who cares how they fit into their roles if we’re losing games. We have to win."

Bluiett is one player Mack would like to see return to the form he showed earlier in the season. The freshman averaged 14.2 points a game through the first 11 games, including eight double-figure games. His averaged has dropped to 11.8 in the last eight games as he’s scored in double digits just twice. Bluiett came off the bench for the first time this season Thursday at Providence. He took a season-low three shots despite playing 25 minutes and scored just five points, all from the free throw line.

Myles Davis scored 16 points in his first start of the season.

"(Bluiett) needs to be a player we can count on for scoring," said Mack. "He’s better than he’s playing right now. He’s much better. And we need him to play better. I think he recognizes that, our team recognizes that. We’re not asking him to be our one and only option. We have other guys that are playing well offensively… but we need more."

UC has turned to senior forward Jermaine Sanders the last two games, switching him out with junior Shaq Thomas in the starting lineup. Sanders has responded by scoring 25 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 49 minutes in wins against Temple and Houston. Thomas had 10 points in 19 minutes off the bench against Houston.

It was the first time Thomas had scored in double-digits since he had a season-high 15 points in a 76-60 win at North Carolina State on Dec. 30. It’s a different role for Thomas, who started all 34 games last season and 15 of the first 16 games this season.

"He practiced the past couple days like his life depended on it," said associate head coach Larry Davis Wednesday night after the win against Houston. "The thing that motivates players the most isn’t a speech, it’s (sitting on) the pine. When they get benched, that’s the biggest motivation. And when you want to play, that pine will motivate you really quick. He wanted to play and he’s practiced like he wanted to play."

Sanders is the lone healthy senior on the team at this point after Ge’Lawn Guyn suffered a finger injury in a late November practice and hasn’t played since. He had made just one start in his first three seasons, and aside from Thomas and Guyn, no one else on the UC roster had started a game at the Division I level before this season.

Sanders said on Wednesday that he’s preferred coming off the bench because it has allowed him to get a different sense of the game, but he’s not telling the coaches to change back. Sophomore guard Kevin Johnson has been in the starting lineup since Guyn’s injury, while sophomore point guard Troy Caupain, junior forward Octavius Ellis and freshman forward Gary Clark have started all 18 games.

It’s a slight mix of chemistry that’s worked well the last two games. Davis is hopeful the effect will be more than just what shows up on the game stats.

"Anytime your upperclassmen display leadership and attitude in those sorts of things, it’s only going to help your team," said Davis on Friday. "The young guys are always looking at the old guys. What are they going to do? Shaq came with the right attitude. It’s hard for a young guy who’s not getting to play as much as he wants or is in and out of the lineup, it’s hard for him to say (anything)."

While Xavier will have repeated opportunities at quality wins within the Big East, UC won’t. The Bearcats were No. 30 in Friday’s RPI, second in the AAC behind No. 14 Southern Methodist (15-4, 6-1). UC owns a win over SMU and still must travel to Dallas for a return game against the Mustangs on Feb. 5. Both teams trail surprising Tulsa (13-5, 6-0) in the league standings.

Central Florida is ranked No. 206 in the RPI, one of four teams in the American with a RPI of 200 or greater. UC’s lone loss to a team outside the current top 100 is their 56-55 double overtime defeat at Nebraska (No. 104) on Dec. 13.