After starting the season 7-0 for the first time since 2004 the Cincinnati Bearcats are in the middle of a week off of game action, but have still been going hard on the practice court and in the classroom as the players finish up the quarter by taking finals.
When playing in a conference like the Big East, there has to be a delicate balance when making out the non-conference portion of the schedule. Because of existing contracts in place when head coach Mick Cronin took over the job 5 seasons ago, he knows all too well about over extending early in the season. Much has been made about the lack of strength in the OOC portion this season, but Cronin feels it was just an untimely decline in the programs expected to challenge the team before league play begins on December 28th.
“Obviously the Dayton game didn't work out the way we thought it was going to work out,” Cronin said. “We thought it would be a nail biter and they didn't play well in that game. We scheduled Toledo 3 years ago, we didn't know they were going to have a coaching change and the whole team was going to transfer. You try to strike a balance. For us, some of the teams we've scheduled have maybe not had the best season. It seems to be one way, but we're going to get all we want out of our schedule with the two road games (Oklahoma and Miami) as well as 18 Big East games.”
Finals Break Before Unrestricted Practice
While the team has been working hard in the gym during finals week, Cronin knows it's important to take advantage of not having a game this week to get his guys some rest when the opportunity presents itself.
“It's always good to get freshened up,” said Cronin. “College basketball is a long season, so I'm trying to keep these guys fresh and in the right frame of mind. When we get to January it becomes a grind like no other. Modern Big East basketball is almost like a 3-month version of the NBA. It's just night in and night out and you can get beat any night so you've got to make sure you're fresh going in.”
Starting on Saturday the players will be on winter break and during that time they can practice as much as they see fit. With the regular season starting so close to the official opening of practice in the middle of October, coaches use the extra time in the gym to make sure their squad is ready for the grind to March. Cronin knows this 3 weeks stretch is an important step in leading this team to the NCAA Tournament.
“It's nice to get their full attention for a 3 week span, and you have to improve at this time because teams come out of this different teams,” Cronin said. “Some teams really fall apart during this time because they may suffer a couple tough loses and they lose their chemistry. Other teams improve over this time and improve their confidence. We need to make sure we're going in the right direction.”
Eyes Set On Big East
Cronin's players have talked since the open of practice about having their eyes on Big East play, as the veteran group knows their fate will be sealed in brutal 18 game conference schedule.
Junior forward Yancy Gates finds himself watching league rivals on television and thinking of how his team will stack up.
“I think about it every day. I watch a game like Syracuse vs. Michigan State and I wonder, you know, if we'll be ready for those games,” Gates said. “It's hard to really tell with some of the games we've played.”
Redshirt freshman Sean Kilpatrick is off to a hot start in his Cincinnati career, but the New York native grew up on Big East basketball and knows how tough the league can be. He gathered with his teammates on Wednesday night to watch Notre Dame take on Kentucky with his eyes lock in on the Irish.
“Yesterday we had a little team bonding and everyone was in a room watching Kentucky and Notre Dame,” said Kilpatrick. “We tried to figure out what our strategy can be to win against them (Notre Dame). There are a lot of things we can do to help us win, but there's a lot more work we need to do on our end. When it's time to play those other Big East teams you've got to come to play or you'll get embarrassed.”