No. 24 Cincinnati wants to use depth, hustle back toward top of Big East
CINCINNATI – Point guard Cashmere Wright thought about Cincinnati's offense last season — a half-court approach that revolved around power forward Yancy Gates — and shuddered.
"Dreadful," Wright said. "Horrible."
The Bearcats are done with it.
"I'll tell you what: If we see that, it's a bad season going on," the senior said. "Something ain't right."
The 24th-ranked Bearcats don't intend to dally when they get the ball, a new approach that they think can turn their breakthrough season into an even better one. Last season, Cincinnati went 26-11, reached the title game of the Big East tournament for the first time and went on to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Bearcats have three starters back and one of the league's best backcourts with Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and JaQuon Parker. Ten players return overall, giving Cincinnati one of the deepest benches in the league. Coach Mick Cronin plans to take full advantage.
"We have guys that are more ready to play off our bench than they were last year," Cronin said. "So I would expect those guys to play a lot more than they did at the end of last season when our bench got too short and was really our demise in the Big East championship game and the Ohio State game in the Sweet 16.
"For us to be the best team in the Big East, we're going to have to do it with 10 guys. We're not going to do it with five guys."
The plan: Use 'em all, and make 'em go fast.
Cronin emphasized speed during preseason practice, trying to get his offense to attack as soon as it gets the ball. Instead of waiting for Gates to set up in the post and run the offense through him, the Bearcats are going to spread out the floor and take the first opening.
"He started this thing called 'blitz,'" Wright said. "Once the other team scores, you've got 1 second to take the ball out and get it going. There's no more 'take the ball out, walk up the floor.' You've got 1 second to get that ball out of the net, to the point guard and to whatever guard is right there and get down the floor.
"Even after they score, the point guard is supposed to be right there and we're going. So we're supposed to beat them down the floor even if they score."
While the players like the new approach — especially those three guards — Cronin reminds them it'll work only if the Bearcats' defense remains their signature. They had to reinvent their offense last season after Gates got suspended following a brawl with crosstown rival Xavier, but never changed the man-to-man defense that turned them into one of the Big East's best teams down the stretch.
"A big part of what we do is trying to get 40 deflections every game and wear our opponents out," Cronin said. "But you're not going to wear the opponent out unless you're putting pressure on — not necessarily trapping on every possession, but the cumulative effect of having someone that is athletic in your face wearing you down. That's new for this team."
One thing won't change: Cincinnati will be led by its guards.
— Kilpatrick led the Bearcats in scoring last season at 14.3 points per game. His 92 3-pointers were the most in the Big East.
— Wright set a school record with 74 steals and averaged only 2.2 turnovers per game last season.
— Parker averaged 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds over the last eight games and led the Bearcats in rebounding during tournament play.
The biggest loss is Gates, who was Cincinnati's only consistent front-line scoring threat. Six-foot-10 center Cheikh Mbodj and 6-foot-8 forward Justin Jackson will be counted on to provide defense, rebounding and a little scoring when teams lock in on the guards.
The Bearcats have equaled or topped their win total in each of their six seasons under Cronin, who rebuilt the program from the fallout of Bob Huggins' ouster. After finishing fourth in the Big East last season — their best such finish — and getting to the tournament title game before losing to Louisville, the Bearcats' outlook is better than it's been in a long time.
"When you make it that far — the Big East championship, the Sweet 16 — it definitely raises your expectations," Parker said. "You expect to get to that point or further. So the expectation's there for us."
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay