It’s instructive to look at the big picture at certain times, and with the current 9-day layoff in the UC men’s basketball schedule, this seems like a natural opportunity to do so. With that thought in mind, we went on a hunt for a few key points that illuminates how this year’s team stacks up statistically after 20 games compared to where the 2011-12 Bearcats were at the same point in their season.
The records are comparable. Last year’s squad was 15-5 at the 20-game marker, while this year UC is at 16-4. The ’11-12 Bearcats were off to the best start in Big East play in the Mick Cronin era, with a 5-2 start, but pundits also harped on them having played a suspect schedule. In late January, UC was all the way down at No. 86 in the RPI ratings and had a strength-of-schedule of 168th in the country, leaving their NCAA at-large bid prospects clouded.
The Big East record is one game worse this year at 4-3, but the other numbers are much improved: No. 24 in the RPI with a strength-of-schedule of 13th in the nation. There’s little doubt that this team is currently tracking in the direction of an NCAA tourney bid.
One of the biggest question marks for this year revolved around how UC would replace a pair of graduated double-figure scorers in Yancy Gates (12.2 ppg at this time a year ago) and Dion Dixon (13.9 ppg at this time a year ago.) The answer so far probably isn’t very satisfactory to Mick Cronin and his staff.
While last year’s team had excellent balance at the 20-game mark with four starters in double figures and the fifth, JaQuon Parker, just below it at 9.5 ppg, this year’s scoring load is much less balanced. Star guards Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright have upped their per game averages by 2.4 ppg and 3.7 ppg, respectively, but other than Parker also upping his average to 10.9 ppg, there’s been a big falloff in secondary scorers. The other two starters have had trouble with scoring consistency, with Titus Rubles at 6.9 ppg and Cheikh Mbodj at 5.2 ppg. There’s not much support from the bench, either. Last year’s bench was chipping in just under 22 ppg at this point in the season. This year, that mark is down to about 17.5 ppg.
None of that is a surprise to anyone who has watched this team thus far, but it does point out how small a margin for error this team is operating with, considering seven games already have been decided by six points or less.
Despite the tougher schedule, UC’s scoring margin advantage per game has increased from an average of 10.7 ppg at this time in ’11-12 to 14.1 ppg this year. The reason why highlights the key strength that is supporting this team’s improved results.
UC this year currently ranks in the top 10 nationally in two statistical categories – sixth in blocked shots per game (6.7 per) and ninth in rebounding margin (+8.5 rpg). That compares to last year when UC was blocking 2.2 fewer shots per game and, in particular, in rebounding, where the Bearcats at this time a year ago actually had a negative rebounding margin number (-0.6 rpg).
While the tandem of Mbodj and David Nyarsuk in the middle are producing about 6.5 points and four rebounds per game less than Gates and Mbodj were averaging a year ago at this time, the defense by those two this year has them with 75 combined blocks, compared to just 21 at this time a year ago by Gates and Mbodj. The impact this threat is making can’t be overstated. UC isn’t scoring well on the interior, but the flip side of that is neither are opponents, and the net result from that has benefited UC’s overall bottom line. While UC is very close to the same shooting percentages it had a year ago at this time, opponent’s shooting percentages are down nearly three full percentage points at .373 per game.
UC as a team currently has 134 blocks on the season. Assuming something around 15 more games remaining this year, the all-time UC record of 226 blocks by the Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks’ led 2004-05 team could be in jeopardy.
Additionally, the presence of Mbodj and Nyarsuk plus the move from going from the 6-3 Dixon (3.7 rpg a year ago at this time) on the floor to a split between the 6-7 Rubles (6.1 rpg) and 6-8 Justin Jackson (5.3 rpg) has paid off with both of those players becoming significant contributors in rebounding. A year ago, no one else on the team other than Gates was averaging above five rebounds per game at this point in the season.
As it always has been in basketball, seemingly small differences statistically often add up to larger points in the end results.
An Achilles heel to keep an eye on going forward is turnover margin. UC is still positive in that statistic at +1.4 per game, but that’s down significantly from a +5.0 mark this time last year. Some of that is attributable to swapping Rubles for Dixon in the starting lineup – Rubles doesn’t generate steals nearly as often as Dixon did. Some of it, too, is distorted by the softness of last year’s pre-Big East schedule. Still, even small movement in this number will be significant in the possession-by-possession ground wars that most Big East league games turn out to be.
Until and unless more offensive help is found in the supporting cast, it’s probably not a reach to say that “As Cashmere Wright goes, so will go the Bearcats” for the remainder of the season, and that’s not just because the ball is in his hands more than any other Bearcat. While Sean Kilpatrick has played well in the last two weeks, it has been Wright who has been the bedrock of this team since opening night.
He’s the only one of the so-called Three Amigos who has increased his offensive efficiency over a year ago, with his shooting percentage up to .452 from .405 and his 3-point percentage up from .386 to .420. His free throw percentage is also markedly improved. His rebounding is reduced, but that’s primarily more attributable to the productivity of those around him. The only category he’s markedly down in is assists, from 96 a year ago at this point to 66 this year, and that is largely a byproduct of his increased role as a scorer.
The formula for how this team wins the rest of the year is coming into clearer view: Balance out the scoring, keep rebounding with tenacity and don’t let up with the defense. The ’11-12 Bearcats lost their final two games on January after reaching the 20-game mark, but then finished with a flourish, claiming 11 of their final 15 games through February and March. Finding ways to match or better that mark have been, I’m sure, a heavy focus during this unusually long mid-season break.