Friday, December 30, 2011
Bearcat trio close to returning
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin wouldn't commit to reinstating three suspended players unless they went through a checklist of things to get back into the good graces of him and the university.
They have one task left -- apologizing to the student body next week. Do that and Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis will be back on the roster and in the rotation for Wednesday's Big East home opener against Notre Dame.
The Bearcats play their sixth game without the three suspended players Sunday at Pitt. The three were suspended (along with Ge'Lawn Guyn for one game) for their roles in the fight against Xavier on Dec. 10 that forced officials to call the game with 9.4 seconds remaining.
Cronin had Gates, Mbodj and Ellis publicly apologize at a news conference on Dec. 12, go through anger management counseling and do community service. The coach said the first set of community service hours was conducted at a children's hospital and that UC is setting up a time for community service at a local elementary school that will be organized once school is back in session.
"They've all had counseling, and it's been good for them," said Cronin by phone late Thursday night after the Bearcats' 56-55 victory over Oklahoma. "There have been some issues that have come out, stuff that has been bothering them that they're actually going to continue to go for some of them. It has turned into a positive for them."
Cronin said Gates will probably publicly apologize to the fans at the Notre Dame game on the PA system in addition to something with the head of the student government that the whole team will be involved in, possibly earlier that day on campus.
Gates, who threw the most vicious punch of the fight -- one that connected with Xavier's Kenny Frease's face and drew blood -- has the most to repent. Cronin expects the noise to get worse for Gates when the Bearcats go on the road. Pitt fans may heckle the Bearcats, but Gates, Ellis and Mbodj won't be in attendance. The Big East doesn't allow suspended players to travel to road games, so the first road game with everyone there would be Jan. 9 at Georgetown.
"Yancy's used to being heckled," Cronin said. "He was heckled in high school and throughout his whole life. I've talked to Yancy that he's got to be ready. He's going to be heckled a lot. He can't listen to that stuff. Some people were even yelling [Thursday]."
The Bearcats are 5-0 since the fight, but the most significant win came against the surprising Sooners. Cincy has been going with a four-guard lineup in the absence of Gates and Mbodj. Sean Kilpatrick has at times gone off offensively with 20-plus in two of the five games, but point guard Cashmere Wright has been the difference. Wright won the game Thursday night with a reverse layup with eight seconds left after OU had taken the lead. Cronin said he told Wright in a late-game huddle to take over and make a play.
Cronin said UC needs the suspended players going forward to remain afloat in the Big East. The Bearcats, who were ranked No. 22 in the preseason but lost at home to Presbyterian and Marshall and were blown out by Xavier before the fight, can't afford any slippage in the Big East by losing games to lower-level teams. If the Bearcats are going to get back into the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, they're going to earn it in league play.
The suspended players have been allowed to practice, with Cronin mixing and matching units, but the suspended players haven't been to the games and that has been hard on them, according to Cronin. He said that's part of the punishment.
"We need depth," he said. "We've been playing with five guards a lot. But we don't need Yancy to play 30 minutes. No matter what happens on Sunday, we've turned this into a positive. It has brought us together as a group. We'll go on the road in the Big East and hear all kinds of things. We'll huddle together, keep our chin up and play hard."