By Jon Rothstein
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Mick Cronin was searching for ways to get Cincinnati’s attention.
His team wasn’t focused and it showed – through practices, games, and even film sessions.
The sixth-year Cincinnati coach needed something to get the attention of his team and it turned out to be something unexpected.
After the Bearcats nasty brawl at the end of their game with Xavier on December 10th, Cronin finally had found the right moment to connect with his team — even if it wasn’t under the best of circumstances.
“We needed something to rally us and the fight was it,” Cronin said on Wednesday. “If the fight didn’t happen, I was going to have to start throwing guys out of practice. We were sleepwalking and it was obvious.”
Without starting big men Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodji, who were suspended for six games following the incident against Xavier, Cincinnati has went to a quicker, four-guard alignment. The change has made the Bearcats a more prolific offensive team, something that’s only been made possible by the play of Jaquon Parker, whose been able to make a difference on the boards thanks to his toughness.
“He’s our big guard and people are looking at him and they’re seeing a 6-foot-3 guy getting seven or eight rebounds a game,” Cronin said of Parker. “He’s really filling the role for us that Rashad Bishop held down last year. It hurt our team that he wasn’t healthy to start the season.”
With Parker in place as this team’s dirty work guy, the rest of the Cincinnati perimeter has flourished. During the last four games — all wins, the Bearcats have averaged 93.7 points per contest.
Small ball? Sounds about right.
“It’s allowing us to play faster and that’s creating more scoring opportunities,” Cronin said of the smaller lineup.
And it’s also bringing out the best in junior point guard Cashmere Wright.
During the winning streak, Wright is averaging 17.75 points per game while shooting 51.6% from 3-point range and 57.7% from the floor. He’s also dished out 26 assists to only four turnovers.
“During our last four games, he’s been incredible statistically,” Cronin said of Wright. “He’s playing as well as any guard in the country right now.”
Whether or not this smaller lineup will work in the Big East is yet to be determined but Cronin will get a good indicator after his team faces a 9-1 Oklahoma squad tonight in the Queen City.
“We’ll be able to tell if we can rebound the ball with our size after this game,” Cronin said. “Oklahoma is obviously a well coached team and Stephen Pledger is scoring the ball as well as any guard in the country. It will be a good test.”
RICE: “FLORIDA IS FINAL FOUR GOOD”
Rutgers coach Mike Rice knows he’ll have his hands full with Florida tonight at the RAC — but beyond that, he sees the Gators as a team that has all the ingredients for a deep run down the line in the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re scary on film,” Rice said of Florida. “There’s no question if they get the right bracket, they’re a Final Four team.”
The Scarlet Knights will have an uphill battle with Billy Donovan’s team. While Rutgers’ youth on the perimeter has been exposed at times early in the season, Florida has two starters that went to the Elite Eight last year in Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton plus an extremely mature freshman guard in Bradley Beal.
“The thing I love about him is he’s beyond his years emotionally,” Donovan said before the season about Beal.
Highly touted freshman power forward Kadeem Jack could make his season debut for Rutgers against Florida while fellow first-year forward Malick Kone will likely return when Big East play begins for the Scarlet Knights Sunday at South Florida.