UC Bearcats looking like Big East contenders

UC Bearcats looking like Big East contenders

Published Jan. 20, 2012 8:11 a.m. ET

It's pretty hard to believe Cincinnati lost at home to Presbyterian and Marshall within a one-week span in November.

Cincinnati didn't look like a likely NCAA Tournament team then. Now, though, the Bearcats aren't only looking like a lock to get back to the NCAAs for the second year in a row after a five-year absence but are stacking up as a serious contender for the Big East title.

Cincinnati improved to 15-4 overall and 5-1 in the Big East, good for second place behind top-ranked Syracuse (20-0, 7-0), by beating No. 13 Connecticut 70-67 on the road Jan. 18.

Off to its best start in Big East play since joining the conference for the 2005-06 season, Cincinnati will take a three-game winning streak into its game at West Virginia (14-5, 4-2) on Jan. 21 and has also won 10 of its last 11 games. West Virginia beat Marshall 78-62 in a non-conference game Jan. 18 for its fourth win in the last five games.

Senior forward Kevin Jones is having a big season for West Virginia, averaging 20.4 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots a game. Senior guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant is scoring 18.1 points a game and junior forward Deniz Kilicli is averaging 11.0 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.

West Virginia can be an intimidating place to play but Cincinnati has shown in Big East victories at Georgetown and Connecticut that it can win at any venue. The Bearcats are 5-1 on the road this season.

Cincinnati has lost three straight games to West Virginia, including 66-55 at home last season. Guard Cashmere Wright had 24 points but was the only Bearcats player to score in double figures. Jones had eight points and nine rebounds for the Mountaineers.


Gates focusing on defense since return

Yancy Gates returned from his six-game suspension with renewed purpose. He rejoined a Bearcats team that is playing some of its best basketball to date, largely due to a guard-oriented approach necessitated by the suspensions of Gates, Cheikh Mbodj, and Octavius Ellis in the wake of the brawl with Xavier.

So now the pressure is off Gates to score. He's become more focused on his interior defense, but when he does post-up, UC's perimeter shooting surge has given him more freedom to maneuver.

"Every time I touched the ball someone was digging or someone was coming over to double," Gates said. "Now ... they are so worried about the guards driving and making threes that once I do touch it down there, it is a one-on-one. It makes it easier to score."

Gates was averaging 12.3 points per game entering the week, but just eight points in the first three games since being reinstated. But it's the 6-foot-9 forward's defensive performance that has drawn raves from head coach Mick Cronin.

"If you were to say, 'What are you asking him to do most?' It's to be a great defender," Cronin said.

Gates, who's been maligned at times during his UC career for a perceived lack of effort, was at the forefront of the brawl for punching Xavier center Kenny Frease in the eye. Gates served a six-game suspension and publicly apologized for the incident. Now Gates is back, leading a Bearcats team that started 6-1 in the Big East Conference for the first time since joining the league.

There will be days when the 3-point shots aren't falling, as evidenced by a 57-55 loss to St. John's on Jan. 7. So Cronin isn't completely pulling in the reins on Gates' offensive production. As the season progresses, there will be games in which Gates will need to increase his scoring output.

"Everybody is more on the same page," said Gates of the resurgent Bearcats. "It's definitely a different feeling."

--The Bearcats tied a school record by committing just three turnovers in last week's win over Villanova, matched three times previously (Ohio State on Mar. 25, 1961 in the NCAA championship game, Louisville on Jan. 24, 1985, and vs. Boston University on Mar. 15, 2002 in the NCAA Tournament).

--Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis served six-game suspensions for their roles in a brawl with crosstown rival Xavier on Dec. 10. Guard Ge'Lawn Guyn was suspended one game for his role in the fight. Gates, Mbodj and Ellis returned for the Jan. 4 win over Notre Dame.

BY THE NUMBERS: 177 -- Number of turnovers the Bearcats forced in their previous 10 games entering this week.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm proud of our guys. Anytime your team is able to respond to adversity, which our team really has for the last month, you've got to be proud." -- UC head coach Mick Cronin.



--at West Virginia, Jan. 21

KEY MATCHUPS: Former Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins faces his old team, and former assistant Mick Cronin. The Bearcats will have to contain Kevin Jones, who averaged 20.1 points through 18 games. Darryl "Truck" Bryant is the Mountaineers sparkplug averaging 17.8 points with 50 assists. The Mountaineers are prone to turnovers which could play into the Bearcats' hands.

TRENDING: Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Cincinnati beat No. 13 Connecticut 70-67 on the road Jan. 18. The Bearcats have won six of their last eight games against ranked teams. Cincinnati, which seems poised to move into the top 25 itself, has four games remaining against ranked teams this season as it hosts No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 23, visits No. 21 Marquette on Feb. 11 then plays at home against No. 23 Louisville on Feb. 23 and Marquette on Feb. 29.

FUTURES MARKET: Dion Dixon was doing what seniors are expected to do at this point of the season. The Bearcats' dynamic guard matched a season-high in consecutive games, scoring 22 points in wins at Georgetown and against Villanova. Dixon scored in double-figures in 16 of the Bearcats' first 18 games. He entered this week tied for 43rd on the school's all-time scoring list.


--Sophomore G Sean Kilpatrick was the hero against Connecticut as his 3-point field goal with 2.7 seconds left broke a 67-67 tie and gave Cincinnati the victory. He also led the Bearcats with 16 points. Though he shot just 5-of-15 from the field, Kilpatrick did make 4-of-9 from long range. Since scoring a season-low nine points in a win over Notre Dame on Jan. 4, Kilpatrick has averaged 19.5 points a game in his last four games.

--Senior F Yancy Gates had 13 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double since returning from a six-game suspension imposed by the school for his role in a brawl with Xavier on Dec. 10. He is averaging 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game in five games since being reinstated. Gates has started the last three games and averaged 12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game during that span. He also held Connecticut's Andre Drummond to four points and six rebounds after the center had become the first Huskies freshman to have three consecutive double-doubles since Corny Thompson in 1978-79.

--Highly touted four-star recruit Shaq Thomas was ruled ineligible due to alleged academic discrepancies at NIA Prep in New Jersey. Thomas, a 6-foot-7 forward, was practicing with the team.