The Cincinnati Bearcats fell to 18-4 (5-4) on the season after a 66-55 loss to West Virginia.
Head coach Mick Cronin has talked all season about the benefits of having a veteran team for the first time in his tenure at Cincinnati, but tonight those advantages were out the window as the team struggled to follow the game plan, and as a result suffered their first home loss of the season.
The scouting report for WVU was simplified with long-range shooter Casey Mitchell back home in Morgantown serving a suspension. With no real perimeter threat to stretch the defense, Cronin and his staff wanted the team to focus on keeping the Mountaineers out of the lane, off the free throw line and off the glass. The numbers show they weren't able to do any of the three.
WVU point guard Joe Mazzulla spent all night attacking the rim and either finding open teammates when the defense collapsed to help, or drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. The senior scored 16 points on 10-12 shooting from the charity stripe and also dished out 8 assists as he dissected a defense that had been excellent at keeping guards out of the lane all season. Cronin felt Mazzulla was far and away the driving force in the final outcome.
“Joe Mazzulla single handedly won the game for them,” said Cronin. “They have other guys that played well. Great leadership and dribble penetration killed us. We didn’t do a good job of containing him.”
While Mazzulla was the main culprit at the free throw line, it was a collective team effort for the offensive challenged Mountaineers. They got to the line 30 times and connected on 24 of the attempts for an 80% clip that masked 14 turnovers and losing the points off turnover battle 17-8.
It is no surprise that WVU had an edge on the glass with UC missing 39 of its 60 shot attempts, but the killer was the Mountaineers pulling down 15 offensive boards on 26 missed shots on their own end. In fact, WVU had more offensive rebounds at 15 than defensive boards for UC at 14.
While playing on the offensive end has been a struggle against top notch opponents since entering Big East play, the Bearcats have been able to keep grinding on the defensive end to keep things going until they could get on a run. The run never came tonight, and as a result the missed shots and one and done possessions caused a let down on the other end. Afterwards Cronin wasn't sure exactly what caused the lapse, but he knows it must be corrected immediately.
“It’s a dangerous thing when you let your offense affect your defense,” Cronin said. “That’s one thing we hadn’t done all year. Maybe our guys were over confident. I don’t know why they would have been except that we were undefeated at home. It was inexcusable what we did on the defensive end and it is a direct result of our ineptitude on the offensive end.”
One thing that really hurt the team on the offensive end was Cashmere Wright being forced to the bench due to foul trouble all night long. He went to the bench with 2 fouls after playing only 6 1st half minutes and only played 11 2nd half minutes after quickly picking up his 3rd and 4th fouls while he was heating up on the offensive end.
In those 17 minutes of action Wright scored 24 points, going 9-13 from the floor and 4-6 from distance. If you take out his offensive numbers the rest of the team went 12-47 (25.5%) and the Cats floor leader knew his extended clock on the bench was a huge part of the offense struggling as bad as it did without him.
“It hurt the team,” Wright said. “When I’m not out there, the offense struggles. Not only did I pick up a foul but I hurt my team. I have to get better and stop doing that.”
With the loos at home Cincinnati let the chance to move in to a tie for 3rd place in the conference slip away, and the road has become much tougher in attaining the 10 league wins that would likely send them to the NCAA Tournament. Up next for UC is a trip to Pittsburgh next Saturday to try and avoid falling to .500 in the conference against one of the elite teams in the country. Cronin knows one opportunity slipped away tonight, but the chances to land a signature win come at a rapid pace in the Big East.
“In our league, you are only as good as your next game,” Cronin said. “Syracuse hasn’t won since they beat us; welcome to the BIG EAST.”