The 2012-13 Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team were built with a different identity than those of the past. For the first time in the Mick Cronin era UC would no longer run their offense through their post players, instead utilizing their talent at guard to overwhelm teams with speed and depth. Guys like Cheikh Mbodj, Justin Jackson, and David Nyarsuk would take a secondary role to Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick, and JaQuon Parker.
We got a glimpse of this offense after the Crosstown Punchout in 2011 when Cronin was forced to use 4 guards/wings and just 1 big by virtue of the fact that he was down his best post players. After reeling off 7 straight wins, most fans wondered why it had taken Cincinnati so long to roll it out. Mick later admitted that was the type of offense he has been wanting to run all along but wasn’t comfortable doing so with the personnel he had on hand.
Despite the focal point of the offense being the perimeter players, UC’s big men are still asked to perform two simple but critical roles:
1) Pick up garbage rebounds
2) Score quick points off of those rebounds
That’s it. That’s all.
At the end of the day, Mick Cronin is asking his big men to do just about the exact minimum that any coach would ask of his post players. Sure the guards will feed the post occasionally but not nearly to the extent as when the offense ran almost exclusively through Yancy Gates. Again, in the current scheme, the bigs are placed in a secondary role focused on rebounds and putbacks. But recently Cheikh Mbodj, David Nyarsuk, and Justin Jackson haven’t been doing that. It’s this drought on offense that cost Cincinnati the game against New Mexico and nearly again this past Monday against the Pitt Panthers.
In the last five games in particular, Mbodj, Nyarsuk, and Jackson are collectively averaging a hair under 2 offensive rebounds per game. Mbodj is on the high end with 2.8 and Nyarsuk, with the least time on the floor of the three, is on the low end with 1.4. But they’re only shooting 51% from inside the three-point line and considering most of their time is spent within 10 ft of the basket this number looks even worse. And on the scoreboard they’re averaging just 4 points each per game which simply isn’t going to get it done.
At this point in the season I’m beginning to realize how much I’ve missed Yancy Gates. Say what you want about his work ethic and conditioning, but the man knew how to throw his weight around. So much so that opposing players wouldn’t dare face him in the paint for fear of being embarrassed. As a result the offense as a whole improved with Gates picking up garbage of the boards and turning them into easy points, taking loads of pressure off the guards.
When Gates returned from suspension both his minutes and points per game decreased as he was no longer the focal point of the offense. But even though he lost 3.1 minutes on the floor each game and was scoring 1.8 points less, the Bearcats were scoring almost 4 points per game more with the new offense. And against Big East opponents no less, which is all the more impressive.
This issue with Cincinnati’s current post players is that they aren’t playing nearly as aggressive around the basket as Gates did. Despite Nyarsuk towering over most opponents at 7’1″ and Mbodj not too far behind him at 6’10” they aren’t asserting themselves around the basket. Even the ever energetic Justin Jackson who is such a menace on the defensive end of the court, seems lost and confused when the ball is in his hands. It’s rather mind boggling how soft they play underneath the basket. Not only would it establish a presence inside for the Bearcats and take pressure off of the guards if they started to go cold but it would get Mbodj, Nyarsuk, and Jackson to the free throw line. And having the opportunity to score uncontested points is always a good thing.
I think the most frustrating aspect about Cincinnati’s interior offense is that they aren’t living up to their potential. Nyarsuk and Mbodj are giants and Jackson is one of the most, if not the most, athletic players on the team. If they were just 20% more aggressive in the paint the Bearcats’ offense as a whole would see a noticeable boost on the scoreboard. I don’t want to come off as completely doom and gloom, though. David Nyarsuk put on quite a show for 7 minutes late in the 2nd half of the Pitt game on Monday that gives me hope that a light bulb finally turned on in his head. Hopefully he and Cincinnati’s other bigs can play like that over the course of an entire game.