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December 27, 2011Currently the only available scholarship senior Dion Dixon has accepted some additional leadership responsibilities.
Never the vocal leader Dixon is trying to morph his personality to more greatly benefit the team.
"I got Dion Dixon on the side helping me when I am down," said Kelvin Gaines. "It means alot. I never really had it. It shows they care."
The UC roster is evenly split between veterans and rookies. A beautiful merging of experience with youthful fire could develop. Promising play from Kelvin Gaines and Jermaine Sanders exhibits growth on their part as well as improved leadership from the top.
A guy like Sanders is not going to shoot three outside shots let alone bury them without encouragement from Dion, Cash, and SK. That the older players are willfully escorting freshmen to contribute shows a maturity unfamiliar within the UC basketball program.
When Coach Cronin started there were no veterans. For years the oldest players were also new, transfers in the case of Ibrahima Thomas, Mike Williams or JuCo guys. When everyone is trying to "get theirs" intangibles like leadership and teamwork take a backseat.
Dion has learned from two of the greatest Chicago stars in recent memory. Two players he looked up to, but also competed against are Kansas Jayhawk great Sherron Collins and reigning NBA-MVP Derrick Rose.
Collins won 130 games with Kansas during his National Championship tenure (2006-2010). Sherron was a senior when Dion was a sophomore at Crane Tech on the near West side of Chicago.
When Dion was entering his final year of high school he requested tips from Sherron on handling box-and-one defenses.
More impressive, Dixon has spent personal time with Rose. The relationship started in high school when Dion played AAU for Derrick's older brother Reggie Rose.
"I know Derrick," said Dixon. "Me and him are realy close. He came to our practices (AAU) and we played together or whatever."
Christmas Day Dixon was watching Rose and the Chicago Bulls play just like every other basketball fan. When asked if he watched the Bulls beat the Lakers he simply smiled.
"When we went to Adidas Nations I actually went to his house," said Dion. "We played some video games."
Though Collins and Rose are point guards they both possess one quality Dion continues to work on. Deference.
For UC to thrive this season the Bearcats need Dion to play hard even when he isn't scoring points.
"That has been an issue for him," said Coach Cronin. "For a guy like SK that has never been an issue. For a guy like Dion that has been an issue his whole career. He has not always been a self-starter. That is where Cash has really helped the guys. You can't just say, 'Well that is just Dion.' No we have to have him playing hard."
Where it was plenty two years ago for Dixon to hit a few shots and check out now they need more. They need him to "raise" the Baby Bearcats.
"There is going to be a day where he is going to have pull another guy along that isn't playing well," said Coach Cronin. "To make sure we are all playing hard all the time."
In the newly-implemented four guard offense Dixon spends even more time playing without the ball in his hands. SK and Cash dominate the pill, dispensing it at will.
"In the last four games because of the situation we have been put in it has helped all of the guys," said Coach Cronin. "We have to play unbelievably hard or we are going to lose, or our season is going to go down the drain. And it is a sense of urgency that has helped him. We have to keep that mentality, to keep playing for each other. If Dion does that he will finish up and have a great senior year."
Much has been made of the new UC offense. Finally the Cats appear to be having fun on offense. They are no longer inhibited and robotic.
Coach Cronin actively made the choice to change when his depleted roster necessitated it.
"He changed the offense around," said Dixon. "He said we are going to play four guards. This is the way we are going to do it. All it is a dribble weave basically. That is the way I want to play. It is fun for me."
Dixon feels more comfortable within the current style.
"In high school I played more like this," said Dixon. "I was more of an attacker. Here I was more of a spot-up shooter."
Over the summer Coach Cronin contemplated utilizing the four guards at once. He knew he was going to start SK, giving him three guards in SK, Cash, and Dion.
"If you are running set plays teams can take you out of it," said Coach Cronin. "We practiced this way earlier in the year with JaQuon at the four. Then he got hurt."
Oklahoma Thursday and Pittsburgh Sunday unofficially marks the legitimate portion of the UC schedule.
"We have some real games coming up," said Coach Cronin. "We are a decided underdog. We can't defend the post. Kelvin is a freshman. Justin is small."
And that is it. UC has two bigs, maybe 1.5 if you discount JJ. Combined the pair of Kelvin and Justin have a single conference season under their belt.
According to Kelvin his basketball career began just four years ago. Encouraging teammates are vital to his development in this embryonic stage.
"We are going into conference play," said Dixon. "These are high major teams. We haven't played any high major teams. I was telling the young guys you guys haven't played in games like this yet. Every game is important. I am just trying to be a leader. Let them know what is at stake right now."