Talent, Experience, Leading to Growth

It has been a rough patch of years for University of Cincinnati basketball fans. In the time following the school's separation from once beloved head coach Bob Huggins in 2005, the Bearcats experienced a fall from both grace and national prominence, directly coinciding with the university's inclusion into the Big East conference, arguably the toughest college basketball league in the nation.

The past two seasons have seen head coach Mick Cronin at the helm. The one time Huggins assistant returned to the Queen City prior to the 2006-2007 season, and with a team quickly pieced together with junior college recruits, transfer players, and even a UC football player the Bearcats struggled to an 11-19 record, including a poor 2-14 mark in Big East play.

Year two under Cronin would begin with higher expectations. The team had a year of Big East experience under their belts, sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn was looking to blossom and University of Texas transfer Mike Williams, a six-foot-seven, 240-pound forward, was expected to come in and be a dominating big man for the UC team.

But disaster struck before the season would even get underway. Williams ruptured his Achilles tendon during preseason workouts and would miss the entirety of the 2007-2008 season. Vaughn, a six-foot-one, 190-pound Indianapolis native, led the team with 17.1 points and just over four assists per game en route to being named to the All-Big East first team at the end of the season.

The team, however, still struggled. Seven straight losses to end the season gave the Bearcats a meager 13-19 record overall on the year.

"We needed Mike last year to come in and be our best player," said Cronin October 27 to members of the media. "Quite frankly Deonta wasn't ready to be our best player. He was only a sophomore, he hadn't been around college basketball that long, and he needed Mike."

However, there was reason to celebrate following the sour season. After earning just two conference wins in Cronin's first year, the Bearcats finished the '08-'09 season with an improved 8-10 record in the Big East, including two particularly important wins.

The first would come on January 1, 2008. The opening day of a new calendar year and the opening day of Big East play for Cincinnati. Freedom Hall was the setting and the Louisville Cardinals were the opponent. Cronin would go on to collect a nail-biting 58-57 win over one of his former bosses and mentors, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino.

January 30. The Bearcats traveled to Morgantown, West Virginia for a match up with the West Virginia University Mountaineers. Huggins, now manning the WVU bench, got dressed up for the occasion. But even his mustard yellow suit couldn't keep Cincinnati from defensively holding West Virginia to their worst shooting effort in school history (10-of-50, 1-of-22 from three), on there way to winning 62-39. In just two chances, Cronin had picked up a win against each of his former bosses, mentors, and teachers.

While the '07-'08 campaign would end with first round exits in both the Big East tournament and the inaugural College Basketball Invitational, coach Cronin was ultimately happy with his team's season.

"We've had a fun season; we've been through a lot," said the coach near season's end. "It's been a tough year… but we've hung in there and made the most of it."

Enter year three. Coach Cronin has brought a nationally-ranked recruiting class to Cincinnati, and again expectations are high for the Bearcats to return to prominence. Featured in the class, among others, is Cincinnati native Yancy Gates, a six-foot-five, 255-pound forward out of Withrow High School. Gates was ranked as the number 13 power forward in the nation according to Scout.com. Factor in the return of a healthy Williams to a talented crop of young players including Gates and this will be a totally new-look Bearcats team. Vaughn has said this year's squad is a lot more talented than last year's team, which should translate into him not having to carry as much of the scoring load as he was used to doing last year.

"For us to have the kind of season we want to have, we're going to have to be able to get points from different places and not rely on Deonta to carry us every night," said Cronin before his team's practice November 17. "It's a slippery slope when you have to do that, because he can do it on some nights but he can't do it every night. Great teams truly have balance from the scoring standpoint."

Cincinnati fans and players hope that the team's new talent and scoring balance can result in a return to the NCAA tournament come next March, and while coach Cronin realizes that, his number one goal is just to see his team improve overall.

"We improved in year two; we've got to make sure we improve in year three," said Cronin. "You shouldn't limit your expectations, but we don't really talk about wins and losses. Obviously our players want to play in the NCAA tournament, but it's all irrelevant if you don't become a good defensive team and a good basketball team, so we just worry about trying to improve everyday."

However, the players may be disappointed in anything other than an NCAA tournament berth. Vaughn says that this is the year the team is going to get the program "to where it needs to be."

"I know that everyone wants to make it to the NCAA tournament," said Williams November 17.

Unfortunately for Vaughn, Williams, Cronin, and the rest of the Bearcats, all that stands in-between them and the NCAA post season they desire is the Big East conference.

"I can't imagine a conference ever being deeper and tougher and more competitive than it's going to be this year in our league," said Cronin of this year's Big East. Eight of the conferences 16 teams received votes in the AP top 25 preseason poll, with three ranking in the top five. Louisville's Pitino has called this year's Big East the best basketball conference he's ever seen. Cronin worries that so many teams beating each other up could prove hurtful to the league in the long run.

"It doesn't matter who you are. You could be the best team in the league and if you don't play well you're going to lose," said UC's head coach. "It happened to a lot of people last year and it's going to continue to happen. That's my biggest fear for our league, is that that's going to cause us to maybe really struggle to ever get a number one seed in the NCAA tournament because teams in our league are going to take losses."

With only one of his team's 30 regular season games this year officially in the books, Cronin and company have plenty to worry about and work on before they can start thinking about the post season. And while the team's 77-46 victory over the University of South Dakota on November 16 especially showed what his young players can do offensively, it also showed Cronin their need for work on the defensive end, something they'll be sure to focus on throughout the non-conference portion of the team's schedule.

Many fans may be hesitant to allow themselves to get too emotionally attached to this year's basketball team after the heartbreak felt by so many over the past three years. But with an influx of new, young talent, a healthy Williams, and the return of scoring leader Vaughn, this team's growth and improvement will be just the cure most Cincinnati basketball fans needed.

Premium Members can read more quotes from Vaughn and Coach Cronin by clicking the following link.

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