"We don't know the status but the initial prognosis is not good. We are hopeful it's just a bad sprain."
That is the quote first-year Head Coach Andy Kennedy made after his 6-7 versatile swingman Armein Kirkland went down with a knee injury against UConn. However, to the chagrin of Kennedy, the Bearcat team/program, and all those fans that have sported the Red and Black through this dark time in the programs history, it was found out that Kirkland had endured a season/college-career ending knee injury.
Kennedy, who must be thinking that God himself has sent the seven plagues to punish him for wrong doings in the past, has seen his fair-share of cosmic injustice cross his path during his "audition season" to become the long-term answer to replace the legendary Bob Huggins. Not only has Kennedy had to endure the wrath of die-hard Huggins supporters, many of whom have still yet to return to the stands at Fifth Third Arena, but he has seen many of the names and faces he expected to count on during his first season as a head coach torn away from him in one way or another.
In a cruel bit of irony, versatile freshman DeAndre Coleman left the squad because of his inability to crack the lineup that saw Kirkland and James White eat up the majority of his minutes. Coleman, who was raw on the defense end and still lacked a true assertiveness to his offensive game, as well as a true foundation to his lanky frame, added size to a "short" changed UC lineup. Standing about 6-7, Coleman showed the ability to rebound and showed a hustle on the defense end that could have proven handy with a team that will now have for point guards and a 6-6 center. One must be wondering what the 18-year-old youngster must be thinking as he watches all this transpire in the Queen City.
The loss of Kirkland comes in the face of yet another crucial loss to the Bearcat lineup. Not too long after Erik Murray was released from the squad, a time when things were beginning to come together for the ‘Cats, Kirkland went down with an injury.
Despite his lengthy list of indiscretions that helped lead to the walk-ons official dismissal from the team, Murray proved to be far more dedicated when it came to his on-the-court transgressions. Though short, much like the rest of the current Bearcats in the frontcourt, Murray brought a toughness and defensive aura to the court in his limited playing time, which had been on the rise in recent weeks. Murray, a 6-foot-5 forward, had played in six games this season, including a career-high 11 minutes against Tennessee Tech last weekend. He had 2 points and three rebounds in that game. That performance tied a career-high in points and set a career-high in rebounds. Murray played in 22 games in 2004-05.
Murray is the third Bearcat to leave the team this season. Murray joins Coleman and fellow walk-on Ryan Patzwald, who left the team on Nov. 5 after a DUI arrest, to leave the team. Those three, while not playing major roles or earning major minutes, were still a part of the team and at least wore the famous Bearcat jersey. There has been a whole slew of potential ‘Cats that have seen their careers at Clifton cut short or delayed before they ever got to play a single minute inside Fifth Third Arena.
Adding to the diasporas of Bearcats from the campus at Clifton was JUCO recruit and power forward Ivan Johnson, and highly touted freshman big man Abdul Herrera. Johnson, who has currently endured some personal troubles, left the Bearcats for Oregon before ever arriving on campus. Herrera, while still on the "team", has been unable to participate due to problems receiving NCAA academic clearance. While the 6-10 import from Panama by way of Miami, Florida was raw in his skill and basketball IQ, his big body could have been used by a tiny Bearcat squad that now is more concerned about fielding bodies for the team.
Opting to look away from the what-could-have-beens and the glory days of the past, lamenting over things that our now out of UC's control, we will look toward the future for this Bearcat team. We will examine the what-we-will-dos in order to make sure the steps forward this team has taken to arrive at this point will not be undone by the giant steps backward the squad has seemingly endured with this most recent major blow to their 2005-06 chances.
For all we have lost, the Bearcats are lucky that they gained as much as they did during the off-season. Having James White decide to return for his senior campaign instead of opting for the NBA was a major coup. White brings, and has brought, leadership, scoring ability and a confidence to the court that enables him to get player, coach and fan alike into a game. White is a one-man home-court advantage. With one dunk, one chest bump, the 6-7 White can send the fans into a tizzy, helping his team overcome rough obstacles. Although, it does not hurt that he is a potential contributor on an NBA roster.
While they might not grace the floors of NBA arenas with their presence, UC had a sterling series of events late this past summer that could prove to keep the ‘Cats from losing all nine of their lives this season. With the triumphant return of the injury-prone Chadd Moore to the lineup (who will start), the decision of freshman point guard Dominic Tilford to come to UC despite the enrollment of super freshman Devan Downey, and the unexpected blessing in disguise Ronald Allen, who came to UC because of the transgressions of Katrina from St. Xavier (LA), will help solidify a core group of talented players that will help the team through this rough patch.
These newcomers will be particularly key to the Bearcats' successes or failures this season. Most certainly, the play of Allen could dictate the direction of the Bearcats postseason compass will face. If he plays well, the ‘Cats could still contend for a relatively-high postseason nod. If the well-traveled Allen cannot adjust to major minutes under the big time lights of Big East basketball, then UC could be left out in the cold come March for the first time in what seems like an eternity.
Allen, who hovers around 6-10, is by far the tallest active player on Cincinnati's roster. While size alone does not warrant playing time, in the Bearcats' case it just might. With a pair of 6-6 power forwards and a wing-guard that could be mistaken for extremely tall coat rack, size is of vital importance to the Bearcats – especially when it comes to rebounding in a tall, hard-fighting Big East conference. The Bearcats, who uncharacteristically have been manhandled at times on the boards by bigger, stronger teams, will look to solidify their defensive rebounding efforts. Eric Hicks and Cedric McGowan, while inconsistent during the early-portion of the schedule, have really picked up the pace on the D-glass in recent games. However, with the loss of Kirkland (who admittedly was sluggish in his rebounding efforts for most of the season), a big body, the Bearcats will have to use Allen's size to help bring home rebounds.
The challenge for Allen, who has shown a knack from hitting from the outside will also being able to block shots in the paint, will be keeping his composure. Seldom used for long durations of time, in fact rarely seeing (if ever) double-digits in playing time, Allen has been hampered by his overzealous attitude on the court. Always wanting the highlight reel dunk or trying to send a shot into the seats has led to careless fouls, missed opportunities for UC, and numerous second-chance possessions for their opponent. If Allen does not allow his passion for the game (and the highlight reel) to get in his way, he could prove to pick up much of the slack Kirkland leaves behind.
UC has seen several of their other newcomers at their disposal this season that will help them cover for the loss of Kirkland, like McGowan and freshman dynamo Downey, who has exploded onto the college basketball scene. As stated earlier, McGowan is a tenacious rebounder with a mean streak inside that makes him a force on the glass. However, as with his offense, McGowan has seemed overwhelmed at times while on the floor, which has led him to seem timid. McGowan, who has also displayed an ability to block shots, must settle in at his role at power forward and get comfortable in his own skin before this team will be able thieve the way it is currently constructed. What the ‘Cats need from McGowan is rebounding and hustle/put-back points. They do not need 20 points a night from him, they just need a consistent effort on defense and an ability to stay at home and not over-commit on his man (leading to defensive rebounds and lay ups).
Helping to incite McGowan's efforts on the glass will be the play of Downey. Downey will have to look to score first now that Kirkland has gone to the bench. The new lineup Downey will head will look to him as more of a scoring guard then the lead variety. Downey has been obsessed with getting his team the rock in recent games, making that a major priority of his personal game plan, but the 5-8 speed demon will have to look to get points on the board for the ‘Cats, most of which will come on the run.
Picking up the point possession and the "assist" role will be veteran guard Moore. Moore, who missed much of last season with a chronic back injury, will start alongside Downey, allowing for the explosiveness of Jihad Muhammad to come off the bench. Moore, who is also a capable scorer in transition and the half-court game, is more deliberate when it comes to looking for his own offense. Moore looks to lead the team and connect on jump shots when the ball is placed in the right situation. Moore looks for the offense to come to him, which makes him the better fit to start. The ‘Cats can allow Moore to eat big minutes and not feel like he has to come out and score in the two or three minute stretches he would probably receive coming off the bench.
White will move from his usual shooting guard position over to the three spot. White will take on many of the defensive and rebounding duties vacated by the absence of Kirkland. This could to be a major challenge for White, as to this point he has been able to have the other team's best offensive weapon played by Kirkland, while he mainly concentrate on offense. I for one will be interested to see how White responds to the more grueling effort he will have to put forth on both ends of the court (for at least 35 minutes per contest).
White, who has been knocked for his tendency to leak out on the break after a missed basket, will be required to stay back and help with rebounding duties. In addition, White will be forced to move his game more to the wing and to the post more freeing up the key more for the guards. Kirkland, while struggling for much of the year, had an above average back-down game that allowed players to get open on the wing and at the top of the key. Already having stepped up his scoring role this season over seasons past, adding a more consistent outside game to his already explosive open-court play, White must further take it upon himself to score an additional three to five points per contest. While Moore is a competent scorer, he is not likely to go for double-digits particularly often. Perhaps most importantly, White (along with Hicks), will have to take the role of team leader on the court to new levels. At times overly critical of his teammates while lacking and true constructive criticism of his teammates, White must help be the team leader that Kirkland was while he was on the floor.
With the heavy burden of offensive, defensive, and leadership responsibilities added to the list of nightly responsibilities White has to get done in order to keep the Bearcats afloat, he will need the assistance of another wingman to help take some of the pressure of his narrow shoulders. This role will most likely be handed to (notice I did not say earned by) up-and-down point/off guard Muhammad. Muhammad is a player who, like Kirkland, started his season in a very poor fashion. Struggling mightily for most of the first part of the season do to poor shooting and losing his starting job, Muhammad, who has seen his output increase in recent weeks, will be able to adopt the run-and-gun mentality that many of the Bearcat faithful have condemned him for in the past. Before he did not know if he would play five minutes or twenty-five just a few days ago, but now Muhammad can settle into his role, aware of the fact he will get an opportunity to perform.
Muhammad is a more natural scoring guard Moore. Often questioned for his shot selection, Muhammad has never seen a shot he has not liked. While this could be seen as a negative, a balanced distribution of Moore's passive point guard play, the drive-and-kick style that Downey adheres to and the sharp-shooting efforts from the outside by Muhammad could be a nice compilation of skills, if they are used wisely. In fact, this new bench role for Muhammad could also allow Downey to get back to more of his pass-first agenda that he has seen come over him in recent weeks, as #13 will give him another constant outside scoring threat. In addition, however, Muhammad has the ability to be able to come off the bench and adopt either role, contributing big minutes with either Downey or Moore on the floor. This is a role Muhammad has filled for most of the season, however, there was perhaps a potential personal blessing in disguise for Muhammad came when Kirkland injured himself. Because of the injury, Muhammad will guarantee himself consistent minutes and Coach Kennedy will have a much more difficult time looking to the bench come his first (or second miscue).
While I am apprehensive to suggest that you will see the trio of Muhammad, Moore, and Downey on the floor at the same time, the Big East is a conference that have proven three guards on the floor can work. With the success of Villanova's four-guard attack, Coach Kennedy, will probably hesitant to use it, could very reasonably use the three guard attack on offense should a combination of White, Hicks or McGowan be faced with foul/injury trouble. Going into a 3-2 defense and spreading the floor on offense could be positive for Kennedy's squad, which has shown an ability to get in the open floor. A combination of the Bearcat's on the run, and their cat-like quickness on defense in a trapping zone could prove to be a deadly combination against bigger teams in the conference – at least for short duration of time.
However, there may be another, mostly forgotten member of the Bearcat team that could see some playing time, especially in the scenario that was just outlined. It will be interesting to see how freshman Dominic Tilford will not only be utilized, but how he will react when called upon. While he most certainly will not go from his sparsely used role to 25 or 30 minutes of action per game, it is undoubted that he will see in active role in the team's game plan for the rest of the season. Tilford, who had great success early on in the season, hitting crucial shots during the non-conference schedule while Moore sat during a NCAA suspension, has seen very little action in recent weeks. However, Tilford has already displayed an ability to hit shots, pass the ball, and seems to be comfortable running a half-court offense. While he is still bothered at times by some lapses in judgment on the court, and appears to be overwhelmed at times by the situations that face him, he has the talent and the ability to help the Bearcats try to salvage the season as best they can.