SCOUTING THE BEARCATS
Mick Cronin is back with another physical, defense-first and exterior-offense-optional offering, this time led by shooting guard Dion Dixon (6-3, 190 lbs.) and potential All-Big East pick Yancy Gates (6-9, 265 lbs.). Dixon, a junior, is averaging a team-best 12 points per game and hits relatively well from three-point range at 35.4 percent. The Chicago native moved into the starting line-up this season after playing as a sixth man last year and has added instant offense. He can get into the lane, put pressure on the hoop and get to the line. He has a solid build, but won't be the biggest or quickest guard WVU faces this season. Dixon is making 42 percent from the field overall and 74 percent from the line. His 36 assists are second on the team, so he will pass it as needed, but this is a score-first player. The Mountaineers need to stay in front of Dixon and force him to take reasonably defended outside shots.
Gates, by far the team's first choice on offense, is netting 11.6 points per game with a team-best seven rebounds. He has very good length and the power game Cronin likes. Gates' weight distribution is excellent, and he can attack the rim and plow past opposing players. He is quicker than Deniz Kilicli, and a difficult match for Kevin Jones, who is a better shooter but likes to play with finer finesse than Gates. The UC forward won't shoot it from the outside, and isn't much better than 50 percent from the line. Normally, fouling would be a solid choice through key parts of the game except for the Mountaineers' depth issues. West Virginia must body up here and try to at least limit Gates' productivity around the rim, as there doesn't seem to be much way short of a double team to completely slow him. On offense, Jones should be able to drag him away from the bucket – depending upon if Cronin likes that defensive match. If so, the WVU junior must connect with more regularity than he has been in recent games. Gates has 28 blocks on the year, though, and should alter some drives and inside field goal attempts.
Point guard Cashmere Wright (6-0, 175 lbs.) is a solid scorer at eight points, but his main game is distribution as the sophomore has a team-best 81 assists on the season for a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Wright, a Top 100 player by most recruiting services out of high school, is extremely quick off the bounce and both handles and passes the ball well. His overall offensive game is still developing, but the Savannah native shoots decently from anywhere on the floor – including the line – and is able to drive and kick for open threes. His floor vision is among the upper echelon in the Big East, and his defensive prowess, primarily fueled again by quickness, is solid as well. Forward Darnell Wilks (6-7, 205 lbs.) has started just four times this season, but is slated to get the nod against WVU. Wilks averages less than four points and three rebounds and has played only about 15 minutes per game. He isn't shooting it well from three (21.7 percent), which was his offensive ticket last season, and is the fifth option in the starting line-up. This isn't a poor overall player, but one having a lesser senior season than most anticipated.
Fellow forward Rashad Bishop (6-6, 220 lbs.), eight points, 3.4 rebounds, is UC's best free throw shooter (91 percent), though he doesn't get there as much as the staff would like (34 of 37 on the season). He doesn't drive and attack the rim as often as Gates and has taken 68 threes, third most on the team, making 34 percent. His rebounding and shooting are average, but he passes well for a forward and is decent defensively. The senior is a kind of jack-of-all-trades player, one who will contribute but isn't the go-to and prefers being supporting cast even while playing 25 minutes per game.
|Sat. Jan. 29
8:00 p.m. EST
Fifth Third Arena
WVU 13-6, 4-3
UC 18-3, 5-3
Big East Network
WVU - 19
UC - 36
Again, West Virginia will face a team with a far deeper bench than its own. Cincinnati plays its four primary reserves between 12 and 20-plus minutes per game each. Redshirt freshman guard Sean Kilpatrick (6-4, 215 lbs.) sees more than 20 minutes per game and averages 10 points and three rebounds. He is a very capable shooter at 43.7 percent overall, 40.8 percent from three. Kilpatrick can also handle it and pass, though Cronin recruited and plays him to supply the ‘Cats with at least some outside shooting. Fellow backcourt player Larry Davis (6-3, 185 lbs.), 16.5 minutes with one start this year, is another quite soli shooter the Bearcats can insert for stretches. The senior scores less than six points per game but is hitting 45 percent from the floor and three-point range. Fifty-five of his 89 total shots are from three, and he enters the game expecting to hoist outside shots. The two players are not simply zone breakers, but certainly aid a program that has struggled to shoot at least since entering the Big East.
Senior-freshman combo Ibrahima Thomas (6-11, 235 lbs.) and Justin Jackson (6-8, 215 lbs.) combine for eight points per game in 20 and 12 minutes, respectively. Thomas obviously brings size and wingspan issues, and is solid around the hoop. He has taken 20 threes this year, missing 17, but his 5.9 rebounds per game within his minutes played is impressive. He hounds the boards on both ends, but isn't a major defensive of foul line threat. Jackson's game is all inside, and he is worse from the line (seven of 19) than any other Bearcat player who sees more than 10 minutes. The newcomer can rebound, though, and his defensive skills are very good for a frosh.
This is a classic Cincinnati team, one that plays solid lockdown defense but doesn't hit buckets much outside the paint save about three players. To Cronin's credit, however, he has recruited some better shooters, and can now insert from exterior ability into the game as needed. The Bearcats, though, still lead the conference in team defense (56.4 ppg), rebound effectively, get into the paint and play physically on both ends. What they don't do is play much finesse basketball. This black-and-blue affair should again be in the mid-50s scoring wise and come down to rebounding, WVU's interior defense and UC's ability to stop the Mountaineers from getting quality looks. As always, turnovers and transition or garbage points factor as well. Huggins could have a match-up issue with Gates, and his defenses have not kept the ‘Cats from scoring within close range in many of the contests. For some reason, this game always looks better on paper for West Virginia than how it actually executes. Tough, defense-first tilts should be just to his liking, but Cincinnati has largely fared better in the overall play in the four series meetings with Huggins. UC, though off to its best start since entering the league, has three Big East losses and an inflated mark partially because of a weaker schedule. WVU finds out firsthand if Cronin's team, despite its scoring and some shooting woes, has enough defense to push far into the postseason.
West Virginia is 4-4 against Cincinnati in Big East play. The Mountaineers won both meetings last season after dropping the first pair against the Bearcats following Huggins' hire at WVU.
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Kevin Jones needs 11 points to become West Virginia's 47th 1,000-point scorer.
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The Mountaineers are 16-15 on the road in Big East play under Huggins.
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Mick Cronin is 3-3 against West Virginia. The Bearcats have never lost to WVU (3-0) at Fifth Third Arena.
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Cincinnati is 13-0 at home this season.