Performing like the Armein Kirkland the Bearcat faithful across the tri-state (and country) were expecting to see all season long when the then junior removed his name from the early-entrants list for the NBA Draft, scoring 14 points in 12 minutes of action, the 6-7 swingman went down with an apparent twisted knee injury about midway through the first half.
"We don't know the status but the initial prognosis is not good," said first year head coach Andy Kennedy, who has seen his share of dramatics plague his "audition season" to become the long-term answer to replace the legendary Bob Huggins. "We are hopeful it's just a bad sprain."
Perhaps in a cruel bit cosmic irony, after scoring 14 of their first 18 points, UC lost the services of one their most disappointing surprises of the 2005-06 when the versatile Kirkland seemingly injured his knee when driving hard to the basket in a congested paint-area.
To the chagrin of those in attendance at recent UC home games, and to the dismay of those calling in to local talk radio, Kirkland has been criticized for his under-whelming performance during the early-portion of his senior campaign. Though having performed better in recent weeks, including a season-high 15-point outing against a tough Vanderbilt team on the road, Kirkland is averaging only 9.8 points per contest (35-percent from the floor).
While some attribute his slow start to the change in his role on the team since the loss of Jason Maxiell to the NBA, others have noted a seemingly absent presence of intensity in the play of Kirkland. Fans and critics of Kirkland have seen a lack of enthusiasm on the court, not seeing him dive for loose balls, hustle or get angry or physically frustrated on the court with his poor play. This thesis is further evidenced by the fact the native of Tyler, Texas and three-year letter winner has only collected nine steals in 16 contests, and is averaging fewer than four rebounds per outing in his 28 minutes of work.
Being that Kirkland is one of the biggest players on the Bearcat roster, in terms name recognition/talent and sheer size, the team has heavily relied on his big body to help in the low-post area with the obvious absence of depth in the pivot position this season.
UC has relied heavily on their pair of 6-6 "big" men to handle the play in the pain for most of the season, the Big East "Beast" Eric Hicks and JUCO transfer Cedric McGowan, but have needed the services of Kirkland and rail-thin James White, along with Ronald Allen, to eat-up minutes and boards down low. Unfortunately, due in part to the sluggish efforts of Kirkland and the fast-break nature of White, along with the sheer size-differential UC faces game-in and –out, the ‘Cats have been manhandled for much of the season on the defensive glass.
Rebounding has been and will be a crucial area for the Bearcats all Big East season long, especially due to the size and athleticism of their new-Conference foes. In tonight's battle, the Red and Black of the UC uniforms were white out by the tall trees wear the UConn home jerseys. The Huskies three frontline players are 6-11, 6-10 and 6-9. Without the services of Kirkland the already much shorter/skinnier frontcourt was unable to stop the scoring efforts of UConn, while their counterparts nearly scored at will. Connecticut tallied 34 points from the paint and won the rebounding battle, 52-32.
However, for some reason, Kirkland appeared to be turning the corner in the recent surge of games that saw the Bearcats reel off 10-consecutive wins since enduring their first-ever losing streak at Fifth Third Arena (Dayton/Memphis). Kirkland was putting up double-digits on the nightly basis, despite the clamoring from the crowd to play little-used Ronald Allen more minutes in his place. Including tonight's short-lived effort, Kirkland has posted double-digit scoring figures in six of his past nine games. Perhaps not coincidentally coinciding with Kirkland's "turn around" (pardon the play on words), the Bearcat team picked up its level of play during the streak.
UC has seen some of their newcomers like Cedric McGowan and freshman dynamo Devan Downey explode onto the college basketball scene. Helping to incite McGowan's efforts on the glass and Downey's all over the floor, Kirkland's play has somewhat been matched by the play of equally maligned backup guard Jihad Muhammad, who has seen his output increase in recent weeks.
The 28-stretch saw the ‘Cats knock off the likes of the aforementioned Vanderbilt squad, LSU, and a quality Marquette team (that handled this Huskie team quite handedly) on the road, a conference win over DePaul at home, and picked up a payback win over Dayton and interstate rivals Ohio and Miami (OH) during the stretch.
Cincinnati does not have much time to decide about the playability of Kirkland, as the Bearcats will see their second recent National Champion and big time Big East on Saturday, as the Syracuse Orangeman come into town, before their crosstown clash with Xavier on Thursday.
While not massive by any stretch of the imagination, Syracuse will take advantage of an already short UC bench and frontline if UC is without the services for Kirkland for very long. Similarly, Xavier, a team that is basically two-deep at every position and has a ton of bulk in the middle, is a team that likes to work inside out, and the versatility of Kirkland could be very well utilized by coach Kennedy – especially on the likes of Justin Doellman, who is as apt outside as he is inside.
For all those associated with the Bearcat program, despite their earlier chants run him out of town, while giving him explicit directions on some place else he could go (if you know what I mean), they will long for the return for Kirkland with the tough schedule that faces their team in the coming days.