Shaky at times during the opening half of their preseason opener against Michigan's tiny Division II Hillsdale College, the University of Cincinnati responded with a dominant offensive performance against fellow tri-state university Northern Kentucky, 96-60.
Connecting on 67-percent of their field goals for the game (36-of-54) and 50-percent from behind the arc (10-of-20), the Bearcats proved themselves more than the hard-nosed defensive team they have become known for in recent years.
"Obviously, we aren't going to shoot 50 percent for the season, but we are a pretty good shooting team," said first-year Cincinnati Head Coach Andy Kennedy. "We shoot it pretty well in practice day-in and day-out, so I suspect we are going to shoot it well all season.
It was a balanced offensive attack for the Bearcats all game long, as everyone seemed to have "the touch" from the get-go. On the day, seven of UC's players connected on three pointers, with three of them connecting on multiple long-balls. In addition, all but two of 13 ‘Cats to take shots in the contest shot at least fifty-percent from the floor (Cedric McGowan and Dominic Tilford combined to go 1-for-6).
In total, 10 of UC's players scored on the night, with four players scoring at least 15 points. James White led the way 19 points, while veterans Eric Hicks (18) and Armein Kirkland (16) pitched in solid contributions in about 25 minutes of work.
SENIOR ARMEIN KIRKLAND
However, it was perhaps the 15 points from one of UC's newest ‘Cats that could prove to be the most important in the long run.
"He is pretty special offensively," said Kennedy about his dynamo from South Carolina who got the start Saturday night instead of Jihad Muhammad who was hindered by a soar groin. "He scored 37 points per game in high school, and I know you say, ‘that's high school,' but it says a lot. When you can go out there and score thirty one night, and then the next night and the night after that, it really says a lot about you as a player. He obviously still gets lost at times on defense, but offensively he is pretty polished for an 18-year-old kid."
FRESHMAN DEVAN DOWNEY
Though he missed on both of his three-point attempts on the night, it could very well be that Downey was as responsible for the Bearcats hot shooting as anyone was. Using his quickness in the open court and ability to get in the lane and kick-out to open teammates, the Bearcats have already seen their explosiveness and ability to get in the paint by the lead-guard position help to open up wide-open shots on the wing. In two preseason games, the Bearcats have connected on 24 of their 49 shots from distance.
"We've got guys that get in the lanes and can get the ball to guys in a position to shoot on the wing," said Kennedy. "Even if they are not scoring points, they are enabling guys to be successful by putting them in the right position to do so."
With four true point guards on the roster (Downey, Muhaamad, Chad Moore and Dominic Tilford), UC has been able to get some extra speed on the court at all times. Perhaps benefiting most from the addition of these two new point guards (three if you count the return of Chad Moore) will be Muhammad. At times struggling to lead the team from the one position, Muhammad (6-of-8 on threes this preseason) has been able to play off the ball thus far this season, becoming more a catch and shoot, or standstill three-point sharpshooter resembling a Steve Logan-like player.
One of the more impressive aspects of the Bearcats this preseason has been the helter-skelter style they have played with this lineup and playing styles at times on the offensive and defensive ends. Mixing and meshing lineups and positions in both games, going with all speed or trying out new guys in different spots on the floor, Kennedy is attempting to gain a feel of what style of play his roster is ready to adopt, but he also has deeper, "sneaky" goals in mind.
"I don't want to tip our hand as to what we are going to do on the floor to anyone before we start our real season in seven days," said Kennedy, who has yet to run any offensive sets that his team will presumably run during the regular season.
However, this is not only an effort to keep teams from seeing how they will play during the regular season. Kennedy's avoidance of conventional coaching is an attempt to which he will play, be able to "trust" when push comes to shove.
"I was putting guys on the floor in different situations in order to see how they would respond. I am changing defenses on pretty much every play to see which guys are paying attention and picking it up, so I can know who I can trust in crucial situations.
SENIOR JAMES WHITE
While for the most part Kennedy's new team has responded well to the changes, there is still one glaring weakness that his Bearcat team has exhibited all preseason that may be a little disconcerting to many UC fans.
In two games this preseason, the traditionally solid rebounding Bearcats have been out rebounded on the offensive end 26 to 13 by smaller lower-division schools.
"I'll learn that there are some glaring weaknesses in certain guys approach [this preseason], but I think some of the weaknesses we've shown are my fault, as a result of some of the things I set us up to do," said Kennedy. "But that is by design. I want to see how these guys respond and react to certain situations I put them in."
Freshman DeAndre Coleman
Mixing up lineups, putting guys on the floor that may not be comfortable playing in certain positions or with a particular player(s), Kennedy has certainly put his team in a "position to fail", as he, himself said after the Hillsdale game. However, there is certain glaring weakness in the way the Bearcats play that suggests that this may be more than a "system"-driven problem.
The Bearcats have shown a tendency to be overly aggressive on the defense end, especially when it comes to blocking shots. Blocking 15 shots in the first two outings of the 2005-06 season, UC has found themselves out of position to rebound time and time again as multiple defenders are overplaying the shooter in an attempt to block a shot. This overplaying style has hurt the Bearcats not only in terms of defensive rebounding, but has seen them allow many back-door/weak-side opportunities as well.
However, as Kennedy notes, this year's Bearcat roster will simply struggle with rebounding at times.
"We are not going to grow between right now and next Saturday. We are not a big team, and lack a lot of size, especially in the frontcourt. We have to rebound as a team, and be committed to securing the ball. If we don't have that mindset, we are not going to rebound the ball and will struggle; if we do, we'll be okay.
As simply stated as Kennedy put it, the Bearcats will have to make that choice, that commitment soon, as the 2005-06 season will be underway a week from now. UC will open up their regular season next Saturday at Fifth-Third arena.