College Basketball Nation: Cheikh Mbodj

3-point shot: Huge addition for Cincy

August, 28, 2012
1. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said landing 7-foot-1 David Nyarsuk is a huge addition, both literally and figuratively: “He’s a shot blocker, finisher and runs great. If he was a JUCO he would have been No. 1 in the country." Nyarsuk went to NAIA Mountain State (W.Va.) where he averaged 9.8 points and eight rebounds last season. Nyarsuk, who is from the Sudan, resolved a student visa issue, and will have two seasons of eligibility remaining. “He’s a rim protector behind our pressure defense," Cronin said. Nyarsuk will join a frontline of Cheikh Mbodj, Kelvin Gaines and Justin Jackson. The Bearcats should be considered a top 25 team and a Big East top four contender.

2. Marquette decision last week to fire assistant Scott Monarch and suspend head coach Buzz Williams for a game is another example of a school endorsing head coach penalties to head off any potential committee on infractions hits. The era of the coach not being held accountable is now officially over. Coaches can expect to be penalized a game or two or three by their school, conference, or the NCAA for failing to foster an atmosphere of compliance.

3. The Horizon League is desperate for good news after the abrupt departure of Butler to the A-10. Loyola (Ill.) returned from an Italy trip with some dramatic uptick in numbers. The Ramblers averaged a meager 57.2 points a game last season but on a 4-1 trip they averaged 82.3 points a game. The Ramblers also hadn’t had a player average five assists a game since 2003. But Iowa transfer Cully Payne handed out 9.3 assists in the four games. Porter Moser is hoping to see a turnaround and the indication is that this trip may give the Ramblers the necessary bounce.
Every week, your humble college basketball hoops blogger (er, me) will respond to your questions, comments and nonsensical rants in this here Hoopsbag. To submit a query, visit this page by clicking the link under my name in the upper right-hand corner of the blog. You can also email me or send me your entries via Twitter. (Honestly, the best way to get me is Twitter.)

Per the usual, we begin with a video. Remember: For the rest of the 2012 season, Hoopsbag will run on Tuesdays. Adjust your correspondence accordingly.

@c_watson writes: Now that that's over -- just 83 days until One Shining Moment.

Eamonn Brennan: Thank goodness, right? Don't get me wrong: I don't dislike college football. It's not in my top four sports viewing experiences -- which, in order, are college hoops, the NBA, European soccer and the NFL -- but if it's on, I'll watch it. And I was as geeked out for last night's national title game as anyone else. But college football's season has always baffled me, and it continues to do so. There's the whole bowl/playoff dynamic, which sort of speaks for itself, of course, but even so I will never understand the logic of finishing the regular season on Dec. 3, the date of the SEC title game, but playing the championship game on Jan. 9. Jan. 9! Is there another sport in the world that waits that long between its penultimate game and its championship final? Throw in the usual complaints about the way the sport crowns that national champion ... and, well, let's just say I'm happy we can all focus entirely on college hoops. Not that I wasn't already.

@RookTakesPwn writes: I'd rather watch the Butler-UConn game again.

Brennan: Ouch.

Now that I think about it, there are some parallels there -- particularly the athleticism and defensive prowess shared by Alabama and Connecticut. Both just overwhelmed their opponent on that side of the ball. Two of the greatest defensive performances in college sports history; two of the uglier national title games in recent memory.

Steve in Philly writes: I assume you've been in your fair share of news conferences. Have you ever seen a question like the first one Les Miles got last night? Did you see this? Dude basically called him out like it was his coach's show. It was amazing.

Brennan: At the risk of turning this into a college football Hoopsbag, no, I have never seen a question in a postgame news conference -- let alone a packed crazy-house press situation like the national title game or Final Four always is -- like the very first question Miles received after the game last night. It came from local radio host and former Saints quarterback (and father of LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert) Bobby Hebert, and apparently this is just his style. From the transcript:
Coach, did you ever consider bringing in Jarrett Lee, considering that you weren't taking any chances on the field? Now, I know Alabama's defense is dominant. But, come on, that's ridiculous, five first downs. I mean, so it's almost an approach, I'll tell from you the fans' standpoint, that how can you not maybe push the ball down the field and bring in Jarrett Lee? So what if you get a pick six. It seems like the game plan that  not pushing the ball down the field, considering it's like a Rueben Randle or Odell Beckham, Jr. I know the pass rush of Alabama, but there's no reason why in five first downs  you have a great defense, LSU is a great defense, but that's ridiculous.

It's basically a call you'd hear on a radio show, except it happened face-to-face in a massive news conference just minutes after the national championship. I suppose you have to admire the bravado. Given the situation, I also thought Miles handled it about as well as possible.

Anyway, we need to get Hebert to the NCAA tournament this season, if only so he can "ask" a similar "question" of Jim Calhoun. I think we know how that would end.

OK, enough of this. Let's talk hoops.

@MetsUconn16 writes: Is something seriously wrong with Shabazz Napier? Alarming comments Sunday, scoreless yesterday. What's up with No. 13?

Brennan: Fortunately for the Huskies, they got out of some serious second-half trouble against West Virginia Monday night, going on a post-Calhoun-technical 17-3 run and overcoming a 10-point second half deficit just in the nick of time. Had the Huskies dropped their third straight game -- this one at home, no less -- the whole "guys don't let me lead" thing from Napier could have really blown up. It would have been a mess.

But here's why I wouldn't be worried about Napier: He wants to lead. He wants to do the right thing by his teammates. He wants to succeed. He didn't shoot the ball well Monday night -- he was 0-of-6 and finished with zero points -- but he did have eight assists in the win. He's a point guard on a team with a ton of scoring talent in Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond; Napier doesn't have to score for this team to win.

I would be far more worried if Napier were checking out entirely, if it looked like the frustration of unrequited leadership was turning him to apathy. That doesn't seem to be the case. UConn has its share of issues to deal with, but Napier's attitude is as much a positive for me as a negative. Leading a group this talented isn't as easy as saying "Hey, guys, I'm the leader now, and that's that" -- but at least Napier wants the job. That's half the battle, right?

@kpotter30 writes: Where is Duke missing the boat at right now? And is there someone on the team that can fix its problems?

Brennan: The Blue Devils have their fair share of issues on offense, where they've struggled to create good shots from time to time. But the real issue is defense. As of Tuesday, Duke ranks No. 4 in the nation in Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency metric and No. 50 in adjusted defense. The lowest the Blue Devils have ever finished in adjusted defense since Pomeroy began tracking this stuff in 2004 is No. 20 overall.

Forget the occasional stagnant offense; this is still, all things considered, a very good offensive team. But if the 2012 Dukies don't significantly improve on the defensive end -- if they don't play defense the way most Duke teams do -- then their ceiling is going to be much lower this season than most.

@ThatPipkensGuy writes: What things (if any) in the universe are less predictable than the 2012 Atlantic 10?

Brennan: Let's make a list:
  • The NCAA tournament
  • The Pac-12, maybe
  • The economy
  • Bradford Cox's musical output
  • My jump shot

I'm reaching on a lot of those. (My jumper is usually pretty good. Usually.) Which is to say, your point is well-taken. With Xavier apparently falling off a cliff, Temple is not quite at an elite level and interesting, emerging teams like Saint Louis, Dayton, St. Joe's and even La Salle and Charlotte (which beat St. Joe's Saturday, mind you), the A-10 appears to be as deep, or at least as wide open, as we've seen it in the past 10 years. Maybe longer.

@hoopthink writes: Is Mick Cronin frontrunner for Big East Coach of the Year? What a job he's done since the Cintas brawl -- gritty road W last night.

Brennan: I can't disagree with the latter -- last night's win at Georgetown, which required a late 16-6 run and five forced turnovers against a team that was shooting lights-out whenever it held the ball long enough to get a look, was as impressive a road win as we've seen this season. Since the Xavier-Cincinnati brawl, X has tanked. But Cincinnati has won eight of its last nine, earned a 3-1 start in Big East play and begun to play with the sort of competency that had caused so many pundits to rank them in the Top 25 to start the season. After a dreary start and the mess that was the brawl, the Bearcats are sitting pretty as of Jan. 10. Points granted, all around.

Having said that ... I'm still hung up on the way the brawl was handled. Frankly, those suspensions weren't long enough, particularly for Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj, both of whom should have missed more Big East games. The Mbodj thing is less glaring, because he's a role player. But Gates only missed six games, and those six games -- Wright State, Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Chicago State, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh -- hardly conveyed the same punitive attitude Cronin displayed in his well-received post-brawl comments to the media. Maybe I should get over that, but I thought Cronin -- who handled everything as well as possible, with the exception of the suspensions -- could have sent a clearer, realer message after the fight. But that's just me.

Pete in Los Angeles writes: I think you're dead on when you write that the Pac-12 is completely up for grabs. But as someone that has watched almost every Colorado basketball game this year, for better and worse, I wanted to tell you what I'm seeing. This team I'm watching now is completely different from the team I saw early in the year. Early in the year they were lost, the offense was stagnant and they seemed confused as they learned how to play with each other. It's understandable considering CU lost four of it's five starters from last year (two players now playing in the NBA). They have three freshmen logging significant minutes and three other rotation players playing their first season for Boyle after transferring. With so much turnaround it just took some time.

Now this team is jelling. Carlon Brown has taken the leadership role, Andre Roberson continues to prove he's one of the best rebounders in the nation, Spencer Dinwiddie and Aski Booker (their two freshmen guards) are playing with a ton of confidence, and Boyle has got them all playing swarming defense. I know it's easy to look at their play earlier on and dismiss them, but watch them play. They're really good, and that Washington win was no fluke.

Brennan: This email came in before Monday, when I ranked Colorado No. 3 in the Pac-12 power rankings. I will retain my doubts on whether the Buffaloes are "really good" -- that's just way too strong a term right now. Improved? Sure. Really good? Let's give it a week or two and see where Colorado is at that point. The Pac-12 is just too weird to get too excited about a 3-0 team that hasn't played a conference game on the road yet. If the Buffs go to Cal (Thursday) or Stanford (Saturday) and come away with a road split, I'll be more inclined to believe. (Or, if you prefer, #Buffalieve. You're welcome, Colorado hoops fans. OK, let's just move on.)

And now, the two best (read: worst) emails I received all week:

Jon in Denver writes: I have a feeling that you grew up in a family that had a younger sister that was much more in the spotlight than you. Always recieving praise and attention, while you sat in the corner holding your 4th place spelling bee trophy. Your ability to up sell the favorite and down play the underdog is amazing. But if that underdog flourishes, you seem to become hard pressed to give credit where credit is due. I know it is hard to imagine that maybe your initial assessment was wrong, but step back for a moment and rehash your previous opinion. The PAC-12 is young across the board and that may play into how some teams performed in the early going. Instead of writing off what you simply believe can't be, allow others to enjoy their success and the possibilty of more too come. Quit pouting about not being lauded for your previous predictions and give credit to the up coming players and coaches. Pretty weak on your behalf and I bet your sister writes for the New York Times as a hobby. Congrats.

Brennan: I have no idea what most of this means, but I'd just like to clarify one thing: I don't have a sister that works for the New York Times, whether as a hobby or as a profession, because I don't have a younger sister. But I was a pretty killer spelling bee contestant. Fourth place? Pshh.

That's only the email of the week runner-up, though. Ladies and gentlemen, your winner:

Unsigned writes: why are you so stuiped

Brennan: If I was the kind of person that wrote "smh," this is where I would write "smh."

1. Cincinnati Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said Monday suspended players Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis are all in good standing and ready to play Wednesday night against Notre Dame. The three were suspended six games for their role in the Dec. 10 brawl with Xavier. The Bearcats won all six games, including Sunday night at Pitt. The toughest decision for Cronin will be how he integrates the bigs into a team that has meshed quite well by going small.

2. The Alabama Crimson Tide's announcement that junior guard Andrew Steele was immediately cleared to play was a stunner. I spoke with the family in June when concussion symptoms forced him to retire from the game. He and his family had accepted that he was done playing for the sake of his long-term health. But Steele had been serving as a student assistant and slowly worked with the scout team and has been nothing but a positive for the Tide. Coach Anthony Grant said in a news conference Tuesday Steele can be productive.

3. The Virginia Cavaliers showed tremendous poise in holding off the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge Monday night. The rest of the ACC should congratulate the Cavaliers. Outside of North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils, ACC teams have done nothing to shout about in non-conference play. Having UVA ranked, with one loss and wins over the Michigan Wolverines and at LSU gives the league hope for three bids in March. If a fourth team wins the tournament then the ACC can land four.

Short-handed Cincinnati focused, victorious

December, 14, 2011

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.

[+] EnlargeMick Cronin.
AP Photo/Skip Peterson"This was good for us to play," coach Mick Cronin said of Cincinnati's first post-brawl game. "It was good to take a road trip."
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.’’