It was early February. The Cincinnati Bearcats had just suffered a demoralizing home loss to West Virginia, dropping their Big East record to 5-4. In the midst of a grueling practice, Yancy Gates lost his cool. He mouthed off, was thrown out of practice and did not make the trip to Pittsburgh for UC’s next game.
Up until that point of Gates’ career as a Cincinnati Bearcat, UC fans had been clamoring for the local product from Withrow High to “use his size,” “attack the rim” and “be tougher.”
If you looked up “prototypical NBA power forward” in the encyclopedia, the picture wouldn’t be much different from Gates. The man in the middle for Mick Cronin’s Bearcats has the ideal size for that position at the next level, checking in at an agile 6’9”, 260 pounds.
Unfortunately for Gates and Bearcat Nation, “prototypical” and “potential” are usually the only positive words scouts utter.
The website NBADraft.net constantly updates its mock draft for 2012—and for a while, Gates was spotted in the late second round (you can attribute the fact that he was on the board at all to an e-mail I sent to the site’s Aran Smith last winter).
When I checked the site this week, Gates was nowhere to be found. I sent another e-mail to Smith, pleading my case. In his response Smith said, “I watched Yancy at Nations in LA this summer. He doesn't use his strength! He should dominate with that body inside but he just floats to the perimeter and jacks fadeaways. Also doesn't hustle. Slow...We'll see. I'll keep an eye on Yancy. I know he's a talent. Let's see him turn it up as a senior.”
The rap on Gates has been that he’s soft, he shies away from contact and he’s not enough of a leader.
That was, until Cronin booted him out of that practice last February. Gates seriously considered leaving the team. The pressures of being a local kid trying to revive the city’s beloved basketball program had gotten to him. But, Gates did not give up. Two games later, with UC’s NCAA tournament chances dwindling, Gates played a strong game against Louisville, leading the defensive charge as the Bearcats knocked off the 16th-ranked Cardinals, 63-54.
Down the stretch, Gates was a force. He anchored a stingy Bearcats defense, leading his squad to a 5-1 finish to the Big East regular season and an unlikely 11-7 finish in conference play. The tournament bubble was now in the rearview mirror.
In those final six games, Gates grew up. He became much more aggressive on offense and on the glass, posting hard-fought double-doubles in key road victories at Marquette and Georgetown.
What sparked the newfound toughness around the rim? Something to consider would be the lack of free-throw attempts for Gates up until that superb stretch.
“When you’re not making free throws, you don’t want to get fouled,” Cronin said on a recent Friday media day. “It’s embarrassing to go out there and shoot 48 percent. But once they start falling, everything changes.” Gates, a career sub-60 percent free-throw shooter, shot 27-of-34 (79.4 percent) in those final six contests, culminating in a magnificent 10-for-10 on senior day against Georgetown.
But that was last year. This year is all that counts for Gates. This is his senior year, his chance to show people at the next level he is worthy of a chance to prove himself against the best of the best.
To be one of the 60 players drafted each year, it’s all about value. What value does this player bring to my team? Thus far in Gates' career at Cincinnati, most of what we’ve heard centers around potential and NBA size—but little else. However, if you’ve been following closely from February—when the light finally clicked on for Gates—until now, you’ve seen a whole lot more than just potential.
You’ll see the ability to move his feet and talk on defense—without fouling. You’ll see a polished offensive game, including the ability to step outside with ease and a soft touch around the basket. And, now that the free throws have been falling, you’ll see Gates be 10 times more aggressive making moves toward the rim (something UC fans have begging for since Day 1).
You should see better rebound numbers (Gates has always been under seven per game) now that the big ox is focused on going to the rim instead of floating around the perimeter. And finally, you’ll see a young man ready to lead.
It’s taken a little longer than Bearcats fans had hoped, but the development has taken place.
This is it for Gates. He knows it and Cronin knows it. “I’ve got him right where I want him,” Cronin said. “This is the year for him.” And, with the lack of big men across the landscape of college basketball, if this does happen to be the year for Gates, the 21st-ranked Bearcats will challenge for the Big East championship.