Jackson, Rubles refocus game for Bearcats
CINCINNATI – Mick Cronin raised a couple of eyebrows in the media crowd this month when he brought up the name of Eric Hicks. Cronin was describing what Justin Jackson could be this season for the University of Cincinnati basketball team.
“Hicks was a beast,” was one reply from a reporter, making a statement that inferred the question: “Mick, what player have you been watching the last three years?”
It’s not the player Cronin has been coaching the last three seasons but the direction Cronin sees that player going. If UC is going to be at its best this season, the Bearcats are going to have to have more of an inside presence on offense. Cronin sees Jackson and fellow senior forward Titus Rubles as the key components to achieving that goal.
The Bearcats had no inside portion to their offense last season, unless you call hoisting up three-pointers and hoping for an offensive rebound if it missed an inside game. UC had just 10 double-digit scoring games from Rubles (seven), Jackson (one) and Cheikh Mbodj (two) all of last season.
The guard trio of Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker was the UC offense. Wright and Parker were seniors last season, leaving Kilpatrick as the lone holdover from the trio. He won’t be able to do everything by himself.
“Obviously you’re going to try to get SK open as much as possible but we’ve got to finish a lot better around the rim,” said Cronin. “We’ve got to throw the ball inside a lot more than we did last year. We practiced a lot on that early because it’s not something we really did as part of our offense last year. Not necessarily that we’re going to throw inside to shoot it every time but to throw it inside and then play from there because we’ve got some forwards that are really good passers.”
Jackson has added 25 pounds to his 6-8 rail-thin frame, pushing him up to a listed 230 pounds with the idea that he stop focusing on his perimeter game –which was never much to speak of – and get down to doing the dirty work inside that not only the Bearcats will need him to provide but will also make him a better player.
“As you evaluate what I was able to do with him over three years in our program, development-wise, I wasn’t pleased,” said Cronin. “Some people may say that with this team you need it but the truth of it is that if I had it to do over again this is what I should have done with him from day one. Just certain guys are not cut out to be perimeter players. You don’t have to be 6-10 to be an effective inside player.”
Jackson has bought into Cronin’s vision, and he’s definitely okay if he can end up anywhere near the production that Hicks provided. Hicks was a power forward who went from leaving the team for spell as a freshman when he and Bob Huggins weren’t seeing eye-to-eye to being named third team All-Conference USA as a junior and first team All-Big East as a senior in 2006.
Hicks is now playing professionally overseas.
“Eric and I are close and we talked a couple times about how I have to attack the game,” said Jackson. “We are a smaller team now so I had to gain weight to play the five (center). Also he was giving me advice to perform at the five and he has just been a big brother to me.”
Cronin has taken the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament three straight seasons, resurrecting the program from the sinkhole left behind following the acrimonious departure of Huggins prior to the start of the 2005-06 season. They lost to eventual champion UConn in 2011 in the third round of the tournament. They lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in 2012 and had high expectations going into last season. Those expectations looked good when they got off to a 12-0 start and were ranked as high as No. 8 nationally.
The Bearcats went 10-12 the rest of the way, including losing to Creighton, 67-63, in their opening game of the tournament.
UC was picked fourth in the American Athletic Conference coaches’ preseason poll behind defending national champion Louisville, UConn and Memphis.
“We know there are a lot of expectations from the fans and the media because this is a basketball school and this is something everyone around here expects from us,” said Kilpatrick, who has increased his scoring every season from 9.7 points per game as a freshman to averaging 17 points last season. “When we step on the court, we all have certain expectations for each other and that’s something that is really important to us.”
Rubles was a highly-touted junior college transfer last season. Now he’s believes he’s settled into the UC program. At 6-7, 220 pounds, he and Jackson are working more on their offensive games from 15 feet and in. Instead of working on 3-pointers at the start of practice, Rubles and Jackson are working on bank shots and angles from in and around the lower blocks.
UC’s freshman class is highly regarded, particularly guards Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain and forward Jermaine Lawrence. But as Cronin has noted, freshman can get you fired. The Bearcats know what they have in Kilpatrick. What they’re going to need this season is something they believe they can get from the likes of Jackson and Rubles.
“It’s a different feeling because as a senior I have to embrace it and last year we looked up to Cashmere (Wright) and JaQuon (Parker) when we were down,” said Rubles “I know they will be looking up to me, Sean, and Justin and it’s a different goal for us.”