Panthers face new-look Cincy
Pitt was tabbed to win the Big East Conference mainly because of its experience, depth and star center Aaron Gray.
Meet the Panthers’ polar opposite.
The University of Cincinnati Bearcats have a new coach, four new starters and an overhauled roster that includes a back-up tight end from the football team and a reserve whose old school got wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
No. 9 Pitt (17-3, 5-1 Big East) will meet the new-look Bearcats (10-8, 1-3) at 8 tonight at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati.
“You can only take so much,” first-year coach Mick Cronin said after Saturday’s victory over West Virginia snapped a five-game losing streak. “I worry about (our depth) every day. That’s our dilemma. Our numbers and our personnel. We’ve cut way back on practice. We’re doing a lot of shooting and a lot of teaching. We’re trying to save legs. You’ve got to be fresh on game-day.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon knows Cincinnati might not be as strong as some of the old powers built under coach Bob Huggins, but he remains wary of the Bearcats, coming off the 96-83 overtime victory against visiting West Virginia.
Pitt lost to Marquette, 77-74, in overtime but still leads the Big East.
“They are very quick,” Dixon said, “and they are a good rebounding team for their size.”
The 34-year-old Cronin left Murray State and took over a team at his alma mater that lost its top five scorers to graduation and transfers.
It got worse. Right before the start of the season, the Bearcats lost two centers for NCAA eligibility violations, including Hernol Hall, a prized junior college transfer who originally signed with Duquesne.
By the time Cronin finished his first year of recruiting, the Bearcats consisted of one returning starter, one highly touted freshman, two walk-ons, five junior college transfers, a tight end on the football team, and a 6-foot-9 center who transferred to Cincinnati from hurricane-ravaged Xavier (La.).
The entire roster included four players with Division I experience, and only one had made more than two starts, senior forward Cedric McGowan. Another was a walk-on.
Cincinnati was picked to finish 13th in the Big East preseason poll and obliged by getting off to their worst start in almost two decades. The Bearcats lost five games in a row, the longest losing streak since January of 1988, one year before Bob Huggins arrived and started a run of 17 consecutive postseason appearances.
The starters are three junior college transfers, forward John Williamson, center Marcus Sikes and guard Jamual Warren, along with McGowan and guard Deonta Vaughn, who is averaging 13.6 points and having the best season by a Cincinnati freshman since Shaler’s Danny Fortson in 1994-95.
The biggest problem is depth. The Bearcats have one of the shortest benches in the Big East.
Among all the backups, only junior guard Marvin Gentry, another junior college transfer, averages more than nine minutes per game. Four of the five starters average at least 30 minutes per game, and the fifth logs 28.9 minutes – the same amount that Pitt leader Aaron Gray averages.
The other backups include Ronald Allen, the displaced Katrina victim; Connor Barwin, a tight end on the Bearcat football team; and two walk-ons.
Not surprisingly, the team has been inconsistent. The Bearcats play at Fifth Third Arena, but it might as well be called One-Third Empty. Only one game has attracted more than 10,000 fans to the 13,176-seat venue, against cross-town rival Xavier. The average attendance is about 8,600.
The fans who show up witnessed a frustrating season.
Cincinnati owns victories over Temple, Xavier, North Carolina State and Miami (Ohio). But the Bearcats lost to Wofford and Rutgers at home and were blown out by Ohio State (72-50) and Memphis (88-55).
It reached a low point with a 74-59 loss at South Florida on Jan. 14. McGowan, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward, broke down. He shed tears in the locker room and fought back the emotion standing outside the team bus. McGowan, the team’s lone contributing senior, was wracked by anguish and frustrated at the school’s first four-game losing streak in 19 years.
Cronin said it was a good sign. It showed somebody cared about the losing. In the next game, Cincinnati erased a 30-11 first-half deficit at Syracuse but lost, 77-76. Then on Saturday, Cincinnati trailed West Virginia, 24-7, and started 2 of 17 from the field, before rallying for the huge overtime win.
“I haven’t been a head coach in this league, but I’ve been around for a young guy,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to show up every night if you want to have a good team. We’re trying to build our program on toughness and hard work and laying it on the line. People respect that. That’s the thing you got to focus on.”