As Dion Dixon and the Cincinnati Bearcats prepare for their final tune-up (Dec 22. Vs Winthrop) before opening up Big East play at home Dec. 30 vs No. 11 UConn (4 PST, ESPN2), Mick Cronin and his staff are hoping and praying that UC can start knocking down some shots.
The Bearcats have had an up and down non-conference experience. After knocking off two ranked teams and nearly winning the EA Sports Maui Invitational in November, UC then suffered a two-game losing streak in its first two true road games to Xavier and UAB.
The above paragraph would probably read simply, “UC blazed through a challenging non-conference schedule with its only loss at UAB,” if the Bearcats had been able to get some shots to fall.
The big problem has been free throw shooting in close games.
Against Gonzaga in overtime, UC missed five of its seven free throw attempts, including the front end of a one-and-one, as the Zags won by 2. In the Crosstown Shootout, the ‘Cats hit just 10 out of 22 from the stripe and again lost in OT*.
*Let’s point out for the record that Xavier rallied from a five-point deficit in the first overtime by benefiting from five free throws on three phantom (er, huge steaming bullsh*t) calls.
As it stands, Cincinnati sits at 7-3, with wins over Vanderbilt and Maryland and all three losses to likely NCAA Tournament teams.
The defense and rebounding have been phenomenal so far, as UC is tied for eighth nationally in rebounds per game. The long, quick Bearcats have held almost every opponent under 40 percent from the field as well.
The problem, though, has been UC’s offense. Shot selection, lack of strength finishing around the rim, and just plain cold ass shooting has hindered Cincy’s chances of extending leads in close games. Right now, the Bearcats check in at 27.6 percent from 3-pt range, 43 percent from the field, and only 61.4 percent from the foul line.
At this rate, UC could become the first team to shatter a backboard without dunking the basketball.
According to head coach Mick Cronin, the players are: “not letting the offense work. They grab it and shoot a 3 without a ball reversal, or grab it and try to drive through three people."
The UAB game, in particular, was a prime example of impatience and guys trying to be the hero. UC only accumulated nine assists as the well-rested Blazers dominated, 64-47.
The addition of future lottery pick Lance Stephenson has probably caused some inconsistency on the offensive end, as the rest of team has at times stood around and watched Lance try to roast his man (which he has done quite a bit, right, Matt Bouldin?).
Stephenson, however, has been as advertised. He is UC’s leading scorer at 13.0 PPG, and of late has begun to display an array of NBA-all-day type moves. His ability to pass the ball has also been nothing short of incredible. (Cronin told my dad at a meet-the-fans night that Lance is "the best player UC has had since Oscar Robertson.")
Another issue offensively has been the struggles of senior guard Deonta Vaughn. A preseason all-Big East selection, Vaughn has been arctic from long range—hitting only about 25% of his 3-pt attempts. It seems like DV has struggled with a bit of senioritis (trying to do too much) while seeking a balance between letting the game come to him and remaining in “attack mode.”
But, as Cronin will tell you, good teams need to be able to win when having an off-shooting night. The fact that UC’s depth and athleticism has allowed for rugged lockdown defense and superior rebounding bodes well moving forward.
When the offense begins to click (and it will begin to click, in case some of you Cronin haters on the message boards are doubting), this team will be a nightmare to prepare for.
Deonta Vaughn: Too many turnovers, hypothermia from downtown. C+
Dion Dixon: Great energy, eats glass, good defense. Nasty dunk against UAB. B+
Darnell Wilks: Decent on press defense, loudly creaming some threes, but has made a few awful passes. B
Yancy Gates: Strong in Maui, inconsistent effort since; 6.6 RPG for a man his size is not gonna get it done. Reluctant to dunk in traffic. C
Steve Toyloy: Bull in a china shop down low, decent rebounder and defender. Makes funny annoyed faces when he gets called for fouls. B-
Cashmere Wright: Has struggled with decision making and finishing. Came up big against Miami. C-
Lance Stephenson: An absolute beast. By far the team’s best player. Lost his cool against UAB. Can palm the ball like Otis Thorpe. A-
Jaquon Parker: Pleasant surprise. Strong defender and rebounder. Just a few bad decisions with the ball. B+
Larry Davis: Inconsistent on offense, but strong defense around the perimeter. "Get in that ass, Larry." B
Rashad Bishop: Best all-around player on the team. Makes shots, boards, plays superb defense, and can really pass the ball. A
Biggie McClain and Ibrahima Thomas: Incomplete
Best dunks: Wilks' reverse at Xavier (didn't count because of a weak foul call on the drive), Dion's down the lane right hander at UAB, Yancy's bunch of loud two-handers in Maui, Lance's steal and one-hander vs Maryland, and Rashad's big left-hand dunk tip vs Vanderbilt.
Enjoy the rest of the journey. Go ‘Cats.