Since the brawl between Xavier and Cincinnati put a black eye on each team’s season, the two teams have gone different directions. Xavier is 1-3, with the lone victory coming against 3-8 Southern Illinois. On the other hand, Cincinnati has won four in a row, racking up its four highest point totals of the season.
The biggest change for the Bearcats? Head coach Mick Cronin has gone to a four-guard lineup with Yancy Gates suspended for six games.
It started against Wright State, when Cronin inserted junior JaQuon Parker into the lineup. Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright were already entrenched on the perimeter. Justin Jackson has been the lone frontcourt player in the starting five.
“It’s easy to get a shot in a four-guard offense,” Cronin told reporters at the time. “If you can get away with it on defense and get away with it rebounding, it’s a lot easier. You can just let these guys play.”
Cincinnati won that first game, 78-58, and has been rolling since. They topped 100 points in back-to-back games against Radford and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, then went for 95 against Chicago State last week. They are averaging 1.35 points per possession in those four contests, which would rank No. 1 in the country – by about 0.14 PPP – if the Bearcats had done it all season.
Cincinnati is shooting better, taking care of the ball, forcing more turnovers and even rebounding the ball better on the defensive end of floor.
Kilpatrick is averaging 17.3 points during this stretch, while Wright has also relished the new up-tempo style, averaging 17.8 points and 6.5 assists, with only four turnovers total. Parker has provided yet another dimension on the perimeter, using his strength to be a factor on the boards.
The Bearcats are taking better advantage of their athleticism along the perimeter, getting better spacing in the half-court offense and utilizing better ball movement to get open shots. Moreover, Cincinnati is averaging better than 70 possessions per game in the last three contests – the only three games Cincinnati has reached that level this season.
“It’s allowing us to play faster and that’s creating more scoring opportunities,” Cronin told Jon Rothstein recently.
Can Cincinnati continue to use this lineup in Big East play? That remains to be seen, as the Bearcats’ numbers have been inflated by terrible competition recently. Justin Jackson is suited for transition basketball, due to his ability to run the floor and bring energy on a consistent basis. His motor is terrific, but he’s not a legitimate option in a half-court offense. Once Gates returns, it is likely he will take Jackson’s spot in the lineup. Gates’ strength will be necessary against Big East foes, but he would also prefer a half-court system to the up-and-down style.
The Bearcats face Oklahoma on Thursday night, and then go against Pittsburgh to start Big East play on New Year’s Day. Gates returns against Notre Dame next Wednesday. It will be interesting to see what Cronin does going forward.
Either way, the brawl was clearly a turning point in Cincinnati’s season – in a good way.
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