Expect anything, everything from Cincy's Stephenson

BY foxsports • December 16, 2009

It was all there to see for the 15 NBA scouts that came to the stuffed Cintas Center to watch Cincinnati freshman Lance Stephenson in his first prime-time rivalry game with Xavier last Sunday night.

The good, the remarkable and, of course, the unnecessary.

One minute Stephenson was sending Xavier defenders tumbling to the floor with his ferocious, lottery-pick crossover moves right-to-left or left-to-right, it didn’t matter. Once Stephenson decided he was bound for the rim, he was going, going, gone.

But just when you started to believe that the powerful 6-foot-5 kid who the world began hearing about when he was an eighth-grader in Brooklyn was finally figuring it out, well, there was Stephenson standing several feet from Xavier coach Chris Mack near the Musketeers’ bench, talking noise to the opposing coach in a loud and public violation of college decorum.

Players DO NOT trash talk to opposing coaches in their own arenas.

“He was just talking about New York and where he’s from,” said Xavier guard Dante Jackson, shaking his head.

No wonder Mack stood with his palms upraised and appeared to ask the officials if they were going to tolerate that behavior without a technical foul. Did Stephenson really woof at you, coach?

“Yeah, he did,” Mack said, icily. “That’s fine.”

It was no doubt a little more tolerable because Xavier survived the most remarkable game of Stephenson’s young college career to defeat the Bearcats, 83-79, in double overtime. It was only his eighth game since Stephenson arrived from Abraham Lincoln High School as the all-time leading prep scorer in New York City history. Make no mistake, Stephenson made certain that the 15 NBA scouts departed convinced that he has the skills to perform like the best college freshman not named John Wall or Xavier Henry.

Born Ready? That’s the nickname Stephenson brought from Rucker Park. And the kid has certainly looked ready while leading Mick Cronin’s 6-2 team back into the top 25.

He showed a soft, accurate 3-point jumper, especially from the top of the key. When Xavier tried to squeeze him, Stephenson went directly to the rim. There was one remarkable move down the lane when Stephenson seemed to go around or over every Xavier defender.

But a few minutes later, that move didn’t look nearly as remarkable after Stephenson slashed past a defender on the left baseline, knifed behind the backboard and soared for an easy right-handed reverse layup.

Credit Stephenson with 22 points, six boards and an assist while turning the ball over once in 42 exhausting minutes. No Big East freshman is averaging more than Stephenson’s 12.9 points, and he’s the only player who has been named the league’s Freshman of the Week twice.

“We knew he could play,” said Xavier guard Jordan Crawford. “He was good.”

“He’s got the total package,” Jackson said. “He’s a pro, no doubt about it. Absolutely.”

There were even moments when Stephenson showed several qualities that NBA teams will worry about before they invest a first-round draft pick in him. Like poise. And maturity. And laser focus.

A knot of Xavier students dressed primarily in blue body paint greeted Stephenson with this sign: “If you can read this sign, you’re not Lance Stephenson.”

His reaction? Stephenson topped the career-high 17 points he had scored against Miami (Ohio) three days earlier with another career high.

Xavier center Jason Love knocked Stephenson to the floor on a hard block that officials called an intentional foul. For a second, as players from both teams swarmed together near mid-court, it appeared the situation might get legitimately ugly. Stephenson walked away, came back to make a free throw, got the ball back and scored again.

“Lance played pretty well,” Cronin said. “He gives us a guy who can make some layups.”

But then the Lance Stephenson that some people wonder about, the one who danced in and then out of assorted trouble in high school, the one that Davidson coach Bob McKillop cut from the USA 18-and-under team in 2008, the one that Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona and several other schools lost interest in recruiting, reappeared.

It wasn’t enough for Stephenson to score seven straight points and block a shot to help bring the Bearcats from eight points behind to a 53-51 lead with less than seven minutes to play. After swatting the ball away from Crawford, Stephenson had to park his body several feet from the Xavier bench and remind Mack of what direction the momentum was flowing.

“It was bad,” said Xavier’s Jackson. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“I don’t remember that play,” Stephenson said.

Err, Lance, Coach Mack remembered it.

“What’d he say?” Stephenson asked.

That you were talking to him. The Xavier players heard you, too.

“I don’t remember that,” Stephenson said.

It was too bad because others will remember it and understand that with Stephenson, you will get the good, the remarkable and sometimes the unnecessary.

Because you never know what Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson will do next.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Louisville-Courier Journal. You can read his blog here.

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