DAYTON, Ohio -- Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was on the court during Wednesday’s shootaround at Wright State's Nutter Center, directing his players to spots that they hadn’t been in prior to the season.
But late in the first half, anyone watching in the crowd or on ESPN2 would have never guessed the Bearcats were new to a four-guard, spread-out offense.
In its first game since Saturday's infamous brawl with rival Xavier, Cincinnati ran out to a 23-point lead on the youthful Raiders, making nine 3-pointers in the first half, moving the basketball, taking chances and locking down on WSU in the halfcourt to the tune of nine first-half turnovers.
“The best thing about a four-guard offense is that you’ll get a good shot every time,’’ said Cronin after the Bearcats’ 78-58 victory over Wright State. “I wanted to let these guys play. When you have those big guys, the floor shrinks and these guys have to have room to operate.’’
The big guys that weren’t on the floor for the Bearcats were starting center Yancy Gates and forward Cheikh Mbodj and reserve forward Octavius Ellis. All three were suspended for six games for their roles in the fight. Reserve guard Ge’Lawn Guyn was suspended for one game.
The only big guy of note playing for the Bearcats on Wednesday was Justin Jackson, who more than held his own with 11 points and eight rebounds, despite fouling out. Sean Kilpatrick moved to a more of a power guard position, and he lit up the Raiders with 20 points and had a season-high six 3s. Jaquon Parker got a start at guard and scored 14 points after having come in averaging just 4 a game.
“We fed off the energy of our teammates,’’ Kilpatrick said. “Cashmere [Wright] was in my ear to keep shooting and keep shooting. We had a lineup with everybody rebounding and looking for the extra pass.’’
The new-look Bearcats will be the norm for UC going forward.
Cincinnati’s offense had stagnated in the first eight games, last in the Big East in scoring. The preseason No. 22 team, the Bearcats had already lost a stunning game at home to Presbyterian and then in overtime to a legit C-USA contender in Marshall. Then by 23 to the Musketeers.
So Cincinnati couldn’t afford to fall flat against Wright State and certainly has to win upcoming home games against Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago State, as well as Oklahoma on Dec. 29 at U.S. Bank Arena in downtown Cincinnati before the Big East opener at Pittsburgh on Jan. 1.
If the three players suspended for six games adhere to Cronin’s four-step reinstatement process -- apologizing publicly (which was done Monday), anger-management counseling (which started Wednesday), community service and an apology to the UC student body -- then the full roster will be back for the Big East home opener against Notre Dame on Jan. 4.
Wright State coach Billy Donlon said he could tell the Bearcats were playing with a purpose the moment they stepped on the court.
That passion to just play the game and do it with class and sportsmanship was a must Wednesday — and has to continue, since the sport will be watching this team going forward.
“I think everyone was waiting for us to explode and have a mental breakdown,’’ Wright said. “But we just came ready to play.’’
Xavier, which will play Sunday against Oral Roberts without four players (Tu Holloway, suspended one game; Mark Lyons, two games; Dez Wells and Landen Amos, out for four), didn’t have the luxury of getting back on the court so soon after the fight to repair its image.
“This was good for us to play,’’ Cronin said. “It was good to take a road trip. Sometimes we’ve come up on game day like we did at Miami of Ohio. But I’m glad I made the decision to come up [Tuesday night], so we could spend time together and get these guys to laugh."
As for this Saturday's home game against Radford?
“I love our fans and I think it will be nice to be home,’’ Cronin said. “I think our fans will rally around us. I think we’ll see that Saturday.’’