Following Cincinnati's loss at number four-ranked Pittsburgh on Valentine's Day, the Bearcats welcomed having a full week off before taking the floor again.
"It's always good to get a couple days off to let your body rest up, get some cold tub time, and get ready for the next week of practice and playing," said UC big man Yancy Gates Tuesday. "I think it helps us get prepared a little more. Instead of having two days to prepare, it gives us a couple extra days to go over what we need to to be ready to play Louisville."
Being ready to play seventh-ranked Louisville will consist largely of disrupting the balanced scoring attack the Cards will bring into The Shoe Saturday. Cardinals Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels, and Terrance Williams are all averaging more than 12 points per game. Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin knows the importance of a strong defensive presence.
"We've relied too much on making shots. We're shooting 38 percent from the three point line in out last five games, and it's a slippery slope when you rely on shot making and offense," Cronin said. "We didn't get to this point where we have a chance for the postseason relying on offense. We're a program that knows that defense wins and rebounding's important and you have to play with tremendous toughness, and we've got to make sure we get back to that."
The Bearcats know that taking heed of what they're learning in practice this week will be of key importance come game time Saturday.
"We've got to just listen to what coach wants us to do, execute, and go out there and take control of the game," said UC leading scorer Deonta Vaughn. Vaughn led Cincinnati with 13 points on 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc in last season's thrilling one-point victory in Freedom Hall on New Year's Day.
"One thing I exactly remember is in the game (last year) I wasn't shooting as much because they were taking away the shot. Coach Cronin told me just go out there and ‘"do you" and shoot the ball. If you don't shoot the ball I'm going to take you out of the game,'" Vaughn said Tuesday. "I was getting myself in positions where I could shoot the ball and we were getting it inside and out and that's what helped me get the open shots."
Vaughn expressed worry that his young UC teammates, nearly half of whom have yet to play Louisville, don't yet understand the magnitude and importance of the Bearcat's rivalry with the Cards, but that they should understand once practice and preparation began.
One young Bearcat that may have a grasp of what the UC/UL game means is local product and Withrow High School alum Gates, who grew up watching his hometown Bearcats face Louisville year in and year out.
"Whenever Louisville and Cincinnati came on, faces were glued to the TV," said Gates. "Now to actually be playing in a (UC/UL game), it's exciting getting ready to play in one after growing up watching it a lot."
While coach Cronin realizes the game's importance to the schools and their fans, he's trying to not allow one game in a long season draw too much importance over the rest of his team's conference games.
"You can't put too much stock in one game, because it could be too mentally devastating to the players if they lose that game and therefore it could send them into a tailspin," said the coach.
UC's next two games should be an interesting stretch for Cronin, as he'll face Louisville's Rick Pitino Saturday then West Virginia's Bob Huggins in Cincinnati's game Thursday night. Cronin again says his team will not be putting more importance on these two games.
"The magnitude of every game in the Big East is the same for us. I've been looking forward to playing Louisville and West Virginia thereafter in games where the story is not the coaches and all our relationships," Cronin said. "For us the story is our season and where we're at and what we need to do to get to the postseason. That's our focus."
While fans and media alike enter a frenzy on Pitino and Huggins coming to town, the opposing team's coach doesn't seem to have much interest from the players.
"We don't think about coaches, we just worry about the players on the court," said Gates. "We let the coaches worry about the coaching strategies against other coaches. We just worry about going out there and executing what the coaches want us to do."
The truth is this game is of seismic importance in more ways than just who's coaching against whom Saturday. The Bearcats are in need of a big time signature upset in order to tip the scales in favor of the team making the NCAA tournament for the first time in Cronin's time at UC.
"We look at (Saturday) as yes a must-win in order for us to make the postseason, which is our goal. That's the way we're looking at it right now, as a must win," Gates said. "We don't talk about where we sit; we're just talking about how we feel to perhaps have a chance to make (the NCAA tournament). Really we're still just focusing on our games one by one, but we know what's at stake with each one."
For Vaughn, Saturday's game is less about trying to put together a tournament resume as it is about holding serve at home and winning a big game.
"We've got to protect our home court, that's how we feel. So far we've been doing a pretty job of doing it playing in the Big East and protecting our home court," Vaughn said.
Vaughn, Gates, and the rest of the Bearcats will take the floor against Pitino's Cards Saturday at 2 p.m. Cincinnati will be wearing their red jerseys and encourage fans to wear red as well.
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