Eric Hicks, the most critical player for the Bearcats, said after the team's first exhibition that "nobody was getting cussed out or yelled at" by the new head coach. "Everybody noticed that." While Mr. Huggins had a reputation for "tough love," Kennedy is described as "laid back" by local newspapers such as the Columbus Dispatch. Kennedy's attitude is even more impressive given his situation.
Huggins' departure turned the Cincinnati basketball program into a rather chaotic mess. Committed newcomers to the program, such as Ivan Johnson, were surprised by the development and reconsidered their decisions – Johnson decided to play for Oregon instead of taking his probable role as starting center for the Bearcats. Even as late as September, the head coach did not know exactly what his roster would look like. However, the players who decided to stay believe in the new coach, and they form a solid unit with a core group of five seniors – Hicks, Armein Kirkland, James White, Jihad Muhammad, and Chadd Moore.
Huggins' program at Cincinnati was built on a tenacious physical presence, whether rebounding, defending, or scoring. Last year, the Bearcats were able to physically push the Commodores around, but with the loss of Jason Maxiell and the departure of expected newcomer Ivan Johnson, Cincinnati is a much smaller team than they might have otherwise been.
The most critical player for the Bearcats is 6'6" senior forward Eric Hicks. Hicks averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds last season, and is considered to be the heart and soul of the team. Hicks will have to pick up some of the production left behind by Maxiell, but he will also face more double-teams and fewer scoring opportunities without his older counterpart. This season, Hicks is averaging nearly 13 points and 10 rebounds a game.
James White, a 6'7" shooting guard, is Cincinnati's leading scorer and assist man this season. According to Coach Kennedy, White is also the team's best perimeter defender. He has a great mind for basketball, and he will be asked to help "quarterback" the offense while Cincinnati's true freshman starting point guard, Devan Downey, adjusts to Bearcat basketball.
Downey leads the team with 11 steals on the season, and has taken over Jihad Muhammad's starting job. With nearly 12 ppg, Downey has started stronger than even the Bearcat faithful had hoped. Muhammad's departure from a starting role may have something to do with his low efficiency – his shot selection left much to be desired last season.
Rounding up the starting lineup, along with Hicks, White, and Downey, are 6'8" swingman Armein Kirkland and 6'6" forward Cedric McGowan. Cincinnati is one of the few teams in the country whose starting wing players are taller than both starting post players. Kirkland is a returning senior, averaging 7.4 ppg and 3.2 rpg. He is a quick, athletic player who brings a spark of energy to the team. McGowan, a junior, played two seasons at Kilgore Junior College, receiving an Honorable Mention to the All-American JC team. McGowan is cut from the Cincinnati mold of toughness and physicality.
Last year, the Dores dropped an 88-72 decision to the Bearcats on their way to a 4-4 start. Kirkland and White led the Bearcats with 19 and 14 points, respectively. Vanderbilt came out strong with a 19-10 lead fueled by three pointers, but 23 turnovers later, Cincinnati came out with five players in double figures and a solid victory over the Commodores.
This year, the story should be much different. First, the game is not at Cincinnati but in Memorial, where the Commodores have a 28 game non-conference winning streak. Also, the departure of Maxiell, who scored 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Dores last year, leaves Cincinnati low on depth and without their most talented player from last season. Finally, much of last year's loss could easily be blamed on Commodore miscues. The Dores lost the turnover battle 23-7, allowed 23 freethrow attempts, and lost Julian Terrell to foul trouble for much of the game. This year, the Commodores come into the home game after a long stretch without a game, giving Coach Kevin Stallings an opportunity to rest and refocus his team after the dramatic victory over Oregon.
Cincinnati and Vanderbilt play two dramatically different styles of basketball. Vanderbilt plays a relatively slow-paced game, with an elaborate half-court offense and very solid defense both in transition and in half court. Cincinnati plays relatively fast-paced basketball. Because of their physical play, they are able to get a great amount of offensive production out of free throws. This season, 25.1% of Cincinnati's points have come from free throws, while free throws account for only 16.4% of Vanderbilt's points.
The Commodores enter the game as seven point favorites, and if they take care of a few potential problem areas, they should be able to handle the Bearcats:
(1) Do not unnecessarily foul. Cincinnati relies on free throw shooting, as noted above. If the Dores remain disciplined and quick on defense, they can neutralize a large chunk of Cincinnati's scoring offense. The Bearcats create many fouls, and they also make a high percentage of their free throw attempts.
(2) Prevent the big play. Cincinnati's game revolves around momentum-shifting plays, whether they are fast break dunks or heartbreaking three-pointers. The Bearcats will try to take the Memorial crowd out of the game, and they will use "streetball" style moves to energize the two busloads of fans reportedly on their way from Ohio. The Commodores can do their part to neutralize these tactics by hustling back to the defensive end of the court and playing solid, fundamental defense.
(3) Stop Hicks from playing a decisive role in the game. While White has been the Bearcats' leading scorer so far this short season, Hicks is the player who (much like Oregon's Malik Hairston) could become a big matchup problem for the Dores. He has the potential to take over a game, and the rest of the team looks to him for leadership. If Hicks gets hot, the effect could spread to the entire Cincinnati squad.
Vanderbilt will not stray much from their basic gameplan for this matchup – expect the Stallings option-motion offense to be relatively unchanged. The Commodores might speed the pace of the game somewhat to take advantage of the Bearcats' lack of depth – Cincinnati only has 6 players who average more than 9 minutes per game. Finally, expect DeMarre Carroll to see more minutes than in any other game so far this season. He is a more physical player than Shan Foster or Derrick Byars. Given the Bearcats' lineup, DeMarre will be an asset at the small forward position as well as his normal post role, and could play over 30 minutes. Carroll's role will be, in part, to prevent Cincinnati's perimeter players from getting as many offensive rebound opportunities as Oregon's guards did.
In the end, I think that Vanderbilt and Cincinnati will both settle in to a relatively quick tempo, and the ‘Dores will outlast the ‘Cats down the stretch. Look for Hicks to get into foul trouble, and expect Julian Terrell and Ted Skuchas to challenge their counterparts in the post. Vanderbilt will play good enough defense (without fouling) to stifle Cincinnati's big play potential and limit their free throw opportunities.
Vanderbilt 81, Cincinnati 74
Vanderbilt MVP: DeMarre Carroll
Cincinnati MVP: Eric Hicks