Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Preview of Cincinnati @ Villanova, the Pavilion, February 14, 2007, 9 PM

By Craig Dimitri

The Wildcats will face the Cincinnati Bearcats on Valentine’s Day, 2007, at 9:00 PM at the Pavilion. A comprehensive preview…

The Viewpoint on the Cincinnati Bearcats

Coach: Mick Cronin - 79-37 (4th season) career record at Murray State and UC, record @ UC (1st season), 10-14.

For those of you who were used to seeing the casually dressed Bob Huggins on the Cincinnati sideline (he of the notorious 0% graduation rate), there’s a new sheriff in town. An alumnus of UC, Cronin spent seven years at UC as a recruiting assistant coach, prior to being named head coach at nearby Murray State in Kentucky, where he spent three seasons.

Huggins, the long-time UC coach, resigned after being given an ultimatum to do so or be fired, on August 26, 2005. He had spent 15 years at UC, winning 399 games. Huggins’ Bearcats remained wildly successful, despite being stuck in a wildly volatile conference alignment, during the earthquakes of the last 15 years among conferences. UC is currently playing in its fourth conference, in the last 16 years. It formerly resided in the Metro, Great Midwest, and Conference USA, and finally, wound up in its current home in the Big East, now in its second season. (Villanova has been in the Big East for the last quarter-century, in contrast.)

With the coaching carousel at its normal late-summer halt, Cincinnati had to use stopgap measures, and so associate head coach (and recruiting assistant) Andy Kennedy was named interim head coach for the 2005-06 season. Kennedy had a decent season, going 21-13 overall during UC’s first journey in the Big East. They came close to making the NCAA tournament. Cincinnati ended up garnering a #1 seed in the NIT, and taking the Bearcats to the quarterfinals, where they lost to South Carolina, the eventual repeat champion of the tournament. (It was the first time since St. John’s did it during World War II, when the NIT was the premier tournament, that anyone had won back-to-back NITs.) Kennedy was young, a 1991 graduate of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), where he played for three seasons, after initially playing for Jim Valvano at NC State.

The 34-year-old Cronin was named head coach at UC on March 23, 2006; Cronin had coached the Racers at age 31, an incredibly young age for a Division I head coach. A search committee had been created, and Kennedy was publicly announced as a candidate to have “interim” removed from his position, but UC ultimately decided to replace Kennedy with Cronin (a Cincinnati native, in addition to being an alumnus).

At first, Cronin served as an assistant coach at Louisville, before becoming head coach at Murray State. The young coach was highly successful at Murray State, a perennial sleeper choice in NCAA tournament brackets – he took the Racers to the Big Dance twice in his three seasons there. However, the UC he left and the UC to which he returned do not resemble each other, as we shall see below. During Cronin’s seven years as a UC assistant, the Bearcats went 108-26, won the now-defunct Conference USA regular-season championship five times, in addition to winning the C-USA tournament twice. (It’s only mid-February of his first season, and he has already seen 14 losses – the Bearcats only had 28 for his entire seven-season apprenticeship).

2006-07 Season Analysis - 1-9 Big East – 16th place, 10-14 overall, RPI rank #166, as of the end of Sunday, February 11, 2007

Schedule and Results

Last season, 2005-06, the Bearcats were a good, solid team, becoming a NIT quarterfinalist team, and finishing 21-13 last year (including the NIT games). That was a decent team, especially for one playing in a new, unfamiliar conference. At the end of the regular season, the Bearcats finished a respectable 8-8 in conference play and 19-11 overall, and sat squarely on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. When the Bearcats lost by one point to Syracuse in New York, however, their NCAA hopes died with the loss. They won two games in the NIT before running into South Carolina.

Unfortunately, entering this season of 2006-07, the Bearcats were returning only one starter - and only two players who had seen significant minutes – from that 21-13 team of a year ago. Accordingly, Cronin brought in a gargantuan recruiting class of nine players, to try to build up some sandbags for what was widely anticipated to be a very difficult season for Cincinnati. These anticipations were correct – after getting off to a decent start in the remainder of 2006, the Bearcats nosedived around New Year’s Eve and have yet to recover.

It did not help matters that the two tallest players in that nine-man recruiting class were declared ineligible - one of whom can never be eligible and a second who will only be eligible after sitting out the 2006-07 season. These ineligibility issues contribute to Cincinnati's problematic lack of depth.

In light of the team’s near-total lack of experience – and playing in one of the toughest conferences in America - Cincinnati played a reasonably difficult non-Big East schedule. Jerry Palm currently rates their strength-of-schedule – SOS – at a respectable 53.

The Bearcats’ season started well enough, easily winning the Jim Thorpe Classic, an eight-team tournament in November. The quality of opponents – Howard, Tennessee-Martin, and High Point – was extremely low, as is indicated by the fact that Cincinnati won all three games by double-digit margins. But three wins are still three wins and something upon which to build.

The season began to unravel with a one-point loss to Wofford at home in the fourth game. Cincinnati managed to get past two easy home games against Central Michigan and Oakland and stood at 5-1 entering December, albeit against six cupcakes.

When Cincinnati began facing the serious part of its nonconference schedule, the team’s record started to erode. The Bearcats took on a half-dozen reasonably competent opponents: UAB (a loss to Kennedy’s alma mater), Temple and Xavier (wins over both Atlantic 10 schools, the latter coming in the Crosstown Shootout against the Jesuit school in Cincinnati), a pounding at the hands of ranked Ohio State in the Wooden Tradition, and wins over NC State and Miami/Ohio. The victory over the “other” Miami on December 27 was the high point of the Bearcats’ season – their record stood at 9-3 overall, with nonconference games against Memphis and Ohio University remaining before Big East play.

However, the roof caved in on the Bearcats, from that point forward. They have a solitary win, over the course of their last dozen games. The game @ Memphis was a disastrous 33-point loss, followed by a stunning 13-point loss to the “other” Ohio. Big East play has been an utter nightmare for the Bearcats. The season opening games, at home vs. Rutgers and @ South Florida, resulted in a dozen-point defeat to RU (in what were probably the two easiest conference game they’ll have all year), in which the Bearcats managed to score only 42 points, and a 15-point loss @ USF.

There was a brief revival of quality play during the following week in January. Within four days, they played Syracuse surprisingly tight at the Carrier Dome, but lost by a single point – and defeated a quality opponent in West Virginia, in a rare double-digit OT win, 96-83. There might have been some reason for optimism at that point. Their record was 1-3 Big East, 10-8 overall, and with some luck they might manage to finish in the top 12 and make the Big East tournament.

Unfortunately for the Bearcats, that window in January slammed shut as quickly as it opened. They have lost every game since the OT win over WVU on January 20 – a six-game losing streak which has sunk them to the dank abyss of the Big East standings at 1-9, 10-14. One bright spot – after four blowout losses, the Bearcats played competently in their two most recent games. On February 6, they threw a scare into the Friars @ Providence, losing by one, and in the rematch @ the RAC on February 10, Rutgers won by just four. How such a terrible team could go into those places – among the toughest homecourts in the league – and almost win is inexplicable.

However, they have no prayer of reaching the Big East tournament at this point. They are three full games behind Connecticut, the current 12th seed, with six games remaining, and three other schools to jump over as well. In addition, there is only a single game left on their schedule, that they could be considered to have even a 50/50 chance of winning. Their remaining games are @ Villanova, hosting nationally-ranked Notre Dame and Georgetown, @ DePaul, and the rematch @ West Virginia, which just toppled UCLA in Morgantown. The home game against Seton Hall – February 28, Senior Night - is probably the only winnable one, and the Bearcats will still be an underdog. Also, by then they’ll have been mathematically eliminated from the BE tournament, anyhow.

In summary, Cincinnati has lost 11 of its last 12 and hasn’t won a true road game the entire season, Big East or otherwise, although they did come close @ Syracuse, Providence, and Rutgers.

Cincinnati Starters/Rotation

Cincinnati uses only six players (of the rest of the team, nobody else averages more than 9 minutes/game). And so the half-dozen-man rotation is really all we need to consider.


#5 Deonta Vaughn - 6-1 - Freshman - Guard - 14.3 points/3.5 rebounds/3.6 assists/2.3 turnovers/1.7 steals/32.2 min per game (Indianapolis, IN)

The team’s point guard and minutes leader, who takes more shots from the floor than any of his teammates. In particular, Vaughn takes a boatload of three-point shots every game (he averages over seven 3FGA per contest), but unfortunately for Cincy, he’s not all that accurate: he shoots only 31.8% from that range. Has a decent assist-to-turnover ratio.

#33 Jamual Warren - 6-2 - Jr - Guard - 8.7 points/3.9 rebounds/3.3 assists/2.4 turnovers/2.0 steals/29.5 min per game (Springfield, MA)

For a guard, he’s a terrible free throw shooter (59.3%) and perimeter marksman (14%!?!), although fortunately for Cincinnati, he doesn’t attempt many threes. He can dish the ball as well as steal it, and does OK, “rebound-wise”, for a guard, which compensates somewhat for his inaccurate shots.

#10 Marcus Sikes - 6-8 - Jr - Forward - 10.5 points/5.2 rebounds/1.5 assists/30.4 min per game (Richmond, VA, via Mt. San Jacinto College)

Sikes, along with John Williamson, is one of two Bearcats to start all 24 games, and also one of three Bearcats to average in double figures, is the team’s only significant perimeter threat, making 42.7% of his shots from that distance. As with Williamson, below, he averages three fouls a game.

#45 - John Williamson 6-6 - Jr - Forward- 12.8 points/7.3 rebounds/1.0 assists/30.8 min per game (Columbus, OH)

Has started all 24 games. An effective rebounder, he averages over 3.4 just on the offensive end. Also has a tendency to fall into foul trouble, averaging over three fouls a game, and since the Bearcats have no depth, that’s a significant weakness. He’s a poor foul shooter, connecting on only 56.7% of his attempts – another weakness because he’s the Bearcat who most often reaches the foul line.

#30 Cedric McGowan - 6-7 - Sr - Forward - 8.3 points/5.2 rebounds/0.6 blocks/29.2 min per game (Miami, FL )

McGowan is the only senior who plays significantly. A good rebounder and interior defender, as well as a good foul shooter (75.5%), for a frontcourt player. Also can block a shot occasionally.

Off the Bench

#1 Marvin Gentry - 6-3 - Jr - Guard - 7.9 points/2.7 rebounds/1.3 assists/25.2 min per game (Ft. Worth, TX via McLennan JC)

The team’s sixth man and only significant bench player, Gentry has also started seven games this season. A junior-college transfer who was undoubtedly brought in to bolster Cincinnati’s virtually nonexistent bench.

Overall Analysis of the Bearcats

With only one senior in the rotation, the Bearcats will probably be better next season, particularly since after this one is over, there will be nowhere to go but up. This game, along with the Senior Day game against Rutgers on February 24, is one of only two that could be NCAA-tournament-fatal for Villanova with a loss. A home loss to a team ranked #166 in the RPI – in February – would be devastating for the Wildcats’ tournament hopes. Even winning the game will probably lower VU’s relative standing in the RPI, as UC’s #166 is then added into the formula as an opponent. Nonetheless, the Bearcats’ surprising ability to be competitive on the road, in three tough environments (note the narrow losses @ Syracuse, @ Providence, and @ Rutgers), means that the game cannot be taken as an automatic “W”, even when facing the 16th-place team in the conference.

Series History

This is Cincinnati’s first road trip to the Philadelphia area to play Villanova, in any of the assorted venues (Jake Nevin Field House, the Palestra, the Pavilion, the old Spectrum, the Wachovia Center) that the Wildcats have called home, over the decades. Villanova and Cincinnati have only played each other twice, which is not surprising since they aren’t near each other and played in different conferences until last season. The Wildcats have won both meetings, both in Cincinnati, by two points. The first took place on December 20, 1947, in Cincinnati, with the visiting Wildcats – under Alexander Severance – won 70-68. (That was a real shootout in that era, with no shot clock and no three-point line.)

The schools’ paths wouldn’t cross again for another 59 years, until Cincinnati joined the Big East. However, Wright and the Wildcats remember all too well what happened @ Cincinnati last year, when the high-flying, #2 Wildcats sailed into the Bearcat lair at Fifth Third Arena (the highest-ranked team ever to play there). In the schools’ first and only Big East meeting thus far. took a brilliantly conceived Dante Cunningham layup with 3.2 seconds remaining, to escape with a 74-72 victory and extend the team’s winning streak to 11 games.

Philadelphia Big Five fans may remember this oddity:

During the 1990s, a bizarre, de facto rivalry began between Temple and Cincinnati. There was no logic to it, as to why they would meet so often, but the teams kept doing so perennially. The Owls and Bearcats faced each other no fewer than nine times, from December 1992 through February 2000, including three NCAA tournaments in a five-year span. Two of those were consecutive tournaments - 1995 and 1996. Moreover, in both of those years, they had already faced each other, during the regular season. This took place in spite the NCAA Selection Committee’s generally-observed bracketing rule, which stipulates attempts to avoid both regular-season rematches, as well as rematches from the previous year’s NCAA tournament. (Remember, UC hadn’t played Villanova since 1947, while all of this was going on.)

And in what is probably even more unusual – Cincinnati swept the first six of those nine games – the Bearcats won every meeting from December 1992 through the 1996 NCAA tournament. At first, the Bearcats dominated the rivalry (granted, they were ranked #1 in the polls at one point during that span), even though Temple had some great seasons during the 1990s. Naturally, after being defeated six straight times by the Bearcats, former Temple coach John Chaney vented publicly about “how I’m sick of losing to Cincinnati.” The Owls did turn the tables, eventually, winning the last three games against the Bearcats, which took place in January 1997, the 1999 NCAA tournament, and February 2000. The teams hadn’t met since then, until this season, battling in Atlantic City, NJ. It was much closer to Temple, obviously, just 60 miles from Philadelphia, but it was officially on a neutral court. The Bearcats broke their skid against the Owls, with a victory in December 2006.

Cincinnati is one of the most venerable institutions in college basketball, a generation older than Villanova’s program, which started in the 1920-21 season. Cincinnati began its program at the dawn of the twentieth century, fielding its first team in the 1901-02 season, and so its program is an incredible 106 years old. That 1901-02 team went 5-4, paving the way for a winning tradition which has included a slew of All-Americans and NBA players, with the most famous being “The Big O”, Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest players of all time.

What to Expect

Jay Wright would undoubtedly love to build up a big lead, getting Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, and Scottie Reynolds out of the game early – thus giving some of his bench players (especially Bilal Benn and Casiem Drummond) a chance for some minutes, should they be needed in games of more significance. With snow looming over the Philadelphia area, it’s very possible that the Pavilion will be far more student-dominated than usual and the Bearcats will be facing a tougher home crowd than that which would ordinarily greet the Big East’s cellar-dwelling team on the road.

This game is a tune-up for what will be an extremely difficult three-day span over the weekend, facing two formidable teams: Georgetown arrives at the Wachovia Center at noon on Saturday – after which, the Wildcats must immediately board a plane to Milwaukee and take on the Golden Eagles at 7:00 PM in a Big Monday matchup on ESPN.

Villanova Update

The Wildcats (5-5 Big East, 16-7 overall, RPI rank #13) are coming off an unattractive road victory at unimpressive Seton Hall, one which they made unexpectedly uncomfortable after building a sizable lead at halftime. They have won their last three games and are developing momentum in February, as we enter the stretch run of the season.

I’ll have a full recap after the game.

Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri by e-mailing

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