Cincinnati ready to pick up pace

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Mick Cronin (USATSI)
Mick Cronin thinks his Cincinnati team should be more athletic, and better defensively. (USATSI)

Cincinnati has won 74 games in the past three seasons and advanced to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

The Bearcats are now a perennial contender for the field of 68 under eighth-year coach Mick Cronin and should be one of the better teams in the American Athletic Conference during the league's inaugural season.

Cincinnati's brand is simple. Play hard, be relentless on defense, and force the opponent to compete in a rock fight rather than a college basketball game.

For Cronin, the formula has worked. And now, it may get even uglier.

The Bearcats have been terrific defensively since Cronin arrived from Murray State in 2006, but they've never had the type of length they're going to have this season. In an effort to be more active and agile on defense, Cincinnati is going to use three forwards across its front line and only play with a traditional center when 7-1 reserve David Nyarsuk is on the floor. 6-8 senior Justin Jackson, one of the great energy guys in the sport will likely start the game for the Bearcats in the pivot.

The move should create more turnovers, speed up the pace of the game, and potentially give Cronin the best defensive team he's ever coached.

"As a coach every year you look at your team and try and figure out the best way to play based on who you have," Cronin said recently. "Justin Jackson's not that tall but essentially he's at his best dominating on the interior. Blocking shots, rebounding, stuff like that. Hopefully he's going to be able to finish a little more this year. He'll be a bit of an unconventional five-man for us but he's got me excited right now. He's put on 20 pounds."

The combination of Jackson, senior Titus Rubles, sophomore Shaquille Thomas, and highly decorated freshman Jermaine Lawrence should fill most of Cincinnati's frontcourt minutes.

"We've still got shot blockers," Cronin said. "We don't have a Yancy Gates-type low post scorer, but we're long and athletic. We'll block shots from two through five. It's the most athletic team I've had in terms of recovery speed, shot blocking, and ability to switch."

Cronin said he's hoping the 6-6 Thomas will have a breakout season after finishing last year with a 12 point, four rebound performance against Creighton in the NCAA Tournament. Junior guard Jermaine Sanders will also be another pivotal piece on the wing for Cincinnati. A cerebral player at 6-4, Sanders only made 13 three-point shots last season for a team that's desperate for reliable outside shooting. The Bearcats need him to take a step forward and make open shots.

As for the 6-10 Lawrence, Cronin says it's just a matter of physically maturing.

"He knows he needs to get a lot stronger," Cronin said of the 6-10 Lawrence. "I'm just happy now with his competitiveness right now. I've got to develop his game as a scorer. Everything else -- deflections, blocking shots, running the floor, he's all over the place with that stuff. He's a great passer but I've got to make him a better finisher. His mid-range shot, his short bank shot, stuff like that. That all comes with strength."

Cronin feels the arrival of the highly skilled Lawrence and the rest of Cincinnati's freshmen class -- guards Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, and Deshaun Mormon -- should ease some of the potential offensive burden on Sean Kilpatrick, a fifth-year senior who averaged 17.0 points per game last season.

"Our freshman class gives us some shot makers and some play makers," Cronin said. "We're going to be quicker off the bounce and be able to create more for each other. Once Cashmere Wright re-injured his knee last year for the second time in January, he became just a three-point shooter that brought the ball up the floor. We really lacked somebody that could get the ball into the paint and beat his man off the dribble with quickness. We've brought in three guys who can do that with our three freshman guards and I also think Jermaine Lawrence can do that as well. Deshaun Mormon is the quickest of our three first-year guards and I think Troy is the best passer and Kevin is the best shooter. All those guys are better one-on-one, get-by-their-man guys than we've had. All of that should help Sean Kilpatrick. Ge'lawn Guyn should also be a much improved player for us as a junior."

The Bearcats will have a new point guard, and still have question marks surrounding their offense. Cincinnati was always in games last year because of its defense but regularly struggled to score.

Cronin hopes augmenting the pace and creating expanded opportunities will help remedy that deficiency.

"We're hoping to have a lot more possessions in our games because we're going to be able to sustain our press" Cronin said. "The biggest change for us is going to be pressing and the ability to bring full-court pressure the entire game. We're going to play 10 or 11 guys."

 
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