Coach Cronin started his second unit against St. Francis Thursday night. After they ironed out the kinks "Team Two" broke away courtesy of a Sean Kilpatrick 5-0 run. SK nailed a three-pointer to extend the early to seven, 13-6 UC led.
"If you are going to talk about being a team and togetherness tonight was a chance to give those guys a chance to hear their name called in the starting lineup," said Coach Cronin. "They make the sacrifice to come off the bench. It was good to give those guys to give a chance to start tonight."
The customary starters stalked onto the floor and instantly put the game out of reach. Within 21 seconds Gates, Dixon, Wright, Bishop, and Thomas caused two turnovers and ultimately forced a St. Francis' timeout.
Directly after this stretch the Bearcats converted the unquestioned play of the game.
Yancy Gates poked a steal loose at midcourt, immediately hit Dion Dixon at the three-point line. Like a thankful guard, Dixon fed his fleeting big man. He doled out a splendid alley-oop. Showing a new acrobatic nature, Gates pounded it home one-handed.
Running the floor and contributing to the press are two welcome additions to Gates' broadening arsenal.
Gates finished with 18 points and 6 rebounds.
Minutes later Ibrahima Thomas hit just his second three-pointer of the season and shook his head in frustration. He knows he can hit that shot and plans to return to it in the months to come.
Cashmere Wright barely played tonight and UC is being a little evasive about the particulars of his injury.
"He has a sore (left) shoulder," said Coach Cronin. "He will be ready for DePaul."
Interestingly, if Cash is not ready to go then Dion Dixon becomes the starting point guard. Coach Cronin has come to the realization that Jaquon Parker is better off the ball. Wright's shoulder needs to stay locked in for the Cats do to the same.
"It catches on him a little bit," said Coach Cronin. "There has been times in practice where it has happened to Cashmere. "It is one of those things we are going to have to deal with all year. Hopefully it doesn't get worse."
Eleven minutes in the game got downright goofy. Gates throwing a scoop alley-oop, Dixon trying a 360 degree jumper, and Ibby after another three-pointer. The Bearcats were bored.
And who can blame them?
Cincinnati aims to play in the NCAA Tournament this year but hasn't played one reigning NCAA participant. And they won't until the Crosstown Shootout. What's more UC has only left the state of Ohio once. One time in their first sixteen games. The schedule is a joke. At the same time the Bearcats convincingly defeated all of the nonconference opponents Coach Cronin put in front of them.
Only two teams finished within single digits all year. Every day Coach Cronin tests them, pushes them, and tries to convince them to improve. But human instinct is to relax, settle in once victory becomes assured.
Complacency. The only creature capable of challenging Cincinnati.
"Time to handle business now," said Kilpatrick. "Time to get down to the nitty gritty."
UC has not seen any tough teams up close, but they have been watching BIG EAST talent on the television.
"As a team we watched Pitt last week," said Kilpatrick. "We saw how hard they play. If we can match their intensity, and we should, we shouldn't have any troubles in the BIG EAST. Everyone in the BIG EAST plays defense. I can tell they play extremely hard."
Last season the Bearcats struggled to run a fluid offense. This appears to be an area of significant improvement with several scoring options on the floor at any given moment.
Four players average 9.0 ppg or more and outside shooting has taken a gigantic leap forward. If this trend continues postgame shot charts will stop looking like the configuration of a hornet's nest.
"We have to make sure we can get good shots against very good defenses," said Coach Cronin. "We have worked very hard on that. The true test is coming soon. Tonight we got Yancy Gates as many touches as we can in the paint. It requires him to set up shot physically every time."
Undefeated at Christmas time is an accomplishment no one can diminish however meek the schedule has been. These are all wins that will add up. An average BIG EAST season would still see the Bearcats at 20 total wins. Any team in the BCS Conferences would be satisfied with that plateau coming off a postseasonless campaign?
"I feel better about this team because I see a lot of maturity," said Larry Davis.
At the end of the day this compilation of players is playing better than a year ago. Every starter outside of Gates has improved their shooting percentage, some by as much as 8-12%. But Coach Cronin knows a difficult road lies ahead. Finally we will get to see just how much better this driven group of Bearcats is.
"Halfcourt offense is going to be important in BIG EAST play," said Coach Cronin. "It is a lot harder to score in January and February than it is in November and December."
BIG EAST play is nigh.