John Fay: Suddenly, the Bearcats are an offensive force

The key? Players are taking shots they can make

CINCINNATI -- Don't tell Mick Cronin, but it looks like he has a good offensive team this year at the University of Cincinnati.

Cronin is a defense-first coach. And the players know that.

"That will never change," senior forward Gary Clark said. "He always reminds us of how they built this program with strictly defense. If you want to get on the court, you've got to play defense first."

Cronin loves his "deflections." That's a stat he's mentioned in pretty much every postgame press conference. If you're not getting your deflections, you're not going to get your playing time.

But, so far this season, the Bearcats have mixed Cronin's usual defense with some impressive offense. To wit: The Bearcats go into Thursday's game against Marshall averaging 80.1 points a game and shooting 49.6 percent from the field.

That's up from 73.3 and 43 percent from last season. And the defensive numbers are better so far as well. UC is holding opponents to 60.5 points and a 36.8 field goal percentage. Last season, it was 63.3 and 39.3.

The Bearcats rank 24th nationally in field goal percentage. You'd have to go back to pre-Cronin days (1996-97) to find a UC team that has shot at high as 49.6 percent from the field.

The offensive effectiveness bodes well for UC long-term. The Bearcats have made the NCAA Tournament six straight seasons. But their inability to score has kept them from making a deep run. They've scored 58, 66, 63, 57, 51 and 76 in their elimination games in those six trips.

The key to the offense this year? It's about as simple as it can get. Players are taking shots they can make.

"You get guys to understand the shots they can make a high percentage of," Cronin said. "It's the hardest thing in this day and age in basketball. A guy makes one 3, he thinks he's a 3-point shooter. He might be. He might make 15 of 100. That makes him a bad shooter. That's probably the biggest challenge offensively as a coach at any level -- to make them realize the shots they should be taking in a game."

UC has a long roster of scorers this year. Seven players average over five points a game. Seven players have scored at least 14 points in a game.

"It's guys making the right decisions, unselfish players," Clark said. "We're reading each other, reading the defense. We're scoring with the pass, the assist."

UC forward Gary Clark was chosen as preseason first team all-Big East. (Cooper Neill | Getty Images)

UC has a good combination of an inside-out game. The addition of 6-foot-9 North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington gives another insider threat to go along with 6-8 Clark. Tre Scott, a 6-8 red-shirt freshman, adds depth.

"A lot of people are going to struggle to handle Kyle and Gary inside. And Tre is starting to play a little better on the interior," Cronin said. "No matter who we play, we'll make people try to deal with the fact that we can score inside. A lot of people can't nowadays."

The threat of Clark and Washington inside opens things up for guards Troy Caupian, Kevin Johnson, Jacob Evans III, Justin Jenifer and Jarron Cumberland on the outside. Evans leads the team in scoring at 15.1 per game and is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.

Without the inside threat, that doesn't work. And vice-versa.

"The court is more spread," Caupain said. "You can kick it out or dump inside to give them one-on-one opportunities. You really can do a lot more, especially when the gaps aren't as loaded." 

Cronin thinks Caupain can bridge the gap between inside and out.

"He's trying to be more of  a scorer 15 feet in," Cronin said. "That's going to help our team."

That overall team concept has helped UC do what it's done.

"When you're not just worried about scoring, you're worried about your team scoring, it helps," Cronin said. "But importantly … as coaches you've got to get your guys to understand the shots they're going to make a high percentage of and look for those shots."

Cronin's sales job on that this year has been easier. The Bearcats start two seniors and two juniors.

"This team is extremely mature," Cronin said. "We've got a chance to be a really good team.  We've just got to make sure we're trying to get better.

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at johnfayman@aol.com.

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