The Cincinnati Bearcats (20-8 10-5) return home for Senior Night against the Marquette Golden Eagles (24-5 13-3) on Wednesday at 7 pm inside 5/3 Arena.
As the media convened Tuesday afternoon to speak with seniors Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon along with head coach Mick Cronin, I was still thinking through what angle I would write about to best portray the legacy that will be left behind by the duo that will exit the program in a few short weeks.
Shouldn't be that tough of a task, right?
Both are members of the 1,000 point club with Gates sitting at #17 with 1,381 points scored and a chance to move above the 1,400 mark and into the top 15.
Dixon sits at #28 in UC history at 1,183 and can pass the likes of Rick Roberson (1,196), LaZelle Durden (1,219), Eric Hicks (1,231) and Kenyon Martin (1,279).
Both have cemented a solid home in the UC history books, and it doesn't stop there for Gates.
With 19 more points he can join names like Oscar Robertson, Jack Twyman, Jason Maxiell and Danny Fortson as only the 7th Bearcats to finish with 1,400 points and 850 rebounds.
Gates will also finish as the first player in UC history to lead the team in rebounding for 4 consecutive years.
Going through the numbers, it seems easy enough.
They came to UC in the middle of a massive rebuild, helped return the program to the NCAA Tournament as juniors, and have them knocking on the door once again with two regular season games remaining.
That's where this gets tricky. Knocking on the door isn't enough. Their legacy will be cemented one way or the other depending on if they can help lead this team in to the NCAA Tournament.
As Gates and Dixon talked to the media, it was clear they felt the same way. The emotion of senior night tucked away because the task at hand is much more important.
“Because we know how big of a game it is, it kind of eases the Senior Night thing because you're really just focused on getting a win you need,” Gates said when asked about his final regular season home game. “I think we'll feel it more when we get on the court tomorrow, but right now our focus is so much on we need this win.”
Dixon echoed that sentiment. Nothing at this point is more important that beating a Marquette team that has clinched a double bye in the Big East Tournament and could be seeded as high as the 2 line on Selection Sunday.
“I don't know how we'll feel tomorrow,” said Dixon. “We're just trying to focus and get this win tomorrow. That's the main thing.”
The Golden Eagles enter on a 5 game winning streak, including a 95-78 home victory over UC on February 11th. That game saw UC storm out to a 16-4 lead before the fast paced opponent started forcing turnovers and bad shots on the way to blowing out the Bearcats.
“We turned the ball over, they got it going,” head coach Mick Cronin said of that performance. “We've got to take care of the basketball. They're a team that penalizes you for your mistakes and you can't throw gas on the fire with them.”
Golden Eagle seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder scored 23 point a piece in the win by being opportunistic as Cincinnati made mistakes.
“You throw gas on the fire by turning the ball over or taking bad shots,” said Cronin. “They make you pay as good as anybody in the country as far as conversion on the break.”
For the duo of Bearcat seniors to cement their legacy it will be important to set their own pace. Letting Marquette run up and down the floor clearly didn't work last time around as the 95 points allowed was the most against the Cats since the spring before Gates and Dixon got to campus in March of 2008.
Tempo was obviously a concern for Cronin as well. The defensive minded coach was none to pleased with allowing that many points in Milwaukee.
“We had a lot of things working against us in that game, but most importantly it was what they were doing to us,” Cronin said. “We've got to do a better job of controlling the tempo of the game. We can't just let them run up and down the floor and score 90 points or whatever.”
So the warm and fuzzy Senior Night story turned into a bit of a game preview. That's the tale of Gates and Dixon as they take the court on Wednesday night.
Win and the NCAA Tournament debate is over. Their legacy will be cemented as continuing to place the program on solid ground.
Lose and there is still more work to do before we remember them for the good, or perception swings the other way.
Memories of Dixon dribbling the ball off his foot against WVU in the Big East Tournament as a sophomore or Gates connecting a right cross to the eye of Kenny Frease in the Crosstown Throwdown trump a lot of otherwise positive over the last 4 years.
Both Dixon and Gates spoke as if they knew what was at stake for them when the ball goes up. This time there is a lot more on the line than just showing appreciation 20 minutes before live action.
“It's our Senior Night,” said Dixon. “We don't want to take a loss on our Senior Night and going out that way.”
The other alternative is clearly much more attractive.