Learning to Dance Again

How far can the Cincinnati Bearcats go in March? Well, that all depends.

Last week, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas spoke with resident Cincinnati sports fan turned rising radio sports-talk star Mo Egger about the then No.11, now No. 15, Cincinnati Bearcats.

Bilas stated that UC led the nation in “playing hard,” a stat we haven’t yet found a way to track, but one that most have little argument about the Bearcats leading. He went on to imply that, because of their oft-present lack of scoring prowess, even a team leading the nation in “playing hard” has a ceiling of the non-glass variety. In UC’s case, Bilas claims it’s the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. And despite the Bearcats going to the furthest of lengths to verify his condemnation with an offensively anemic 51-45 loss to the UConn Huskies on Saturday, I respectfully disagree.

I don’t so much believe in the glass half-full point of view, but I’d just as easily venture to say that any team that can turn the ball over 20 times, shoot just 27 percent from the field—yes, really, 27 percent—and still be one egregiously blown block/charge call and a missed layup away from tying the game in the final minute has no ceiling. Certainly any team that can go on the road against the defending national champions, turn the ball over 21 times and still walk away with a 69-66 victory—which UC did against Louisville earlier this year—doesn’t have a ceiling.

In any case, the Bearcats rank second in the country behind only Arizona in defensive efficiency and fifth in the country in points allowed per game (57.4). Generally speaking, UC’s defense is good enough that the Bearcats will win if they reach the 60-point plateau, and they can win with far fewer—UC beat Pittsburgh, a team averaging 72.5 ppg, by a score of 44-43 earlier this year. UC shot just 28.6 percent from the field in its 58-57 loss to Louisville on Feb. 22 and it still took a fade-away jumper from Russ Smith with 2.2 seconds remaining to finish the Bearcats off. If they can shoot that poorly against a top-10 team and lose by one point, who can’t the Bearcats beat if they shoot 40 percent?

Perhaps the most important thing for the Bearcats is that even they don’t believe there is a cap on how far they can go.

When I asked senior forward Titus Rubles about the team’s chances in the tournament, he said, well, exactly what I sarcastically wanted him to:
“No ceilings, baby. Lil Wayne.”

Can they compete? Yes. This is easily one of the most wide-open years in recent college basketball history. The difference in talent and win potential between the top-30 teams is closer than it’s been in the past decade, save perhaps the 2011-12 season.

And while we unfortunately can’t calculate just how hard the Bearcats will have to play in order to break through the ceiling, we can overanalyze exactly what the starting five will have to do in order to do so.

Shall we? *All stats current as of March 6.

Ge’Lawn Guyn, Junior, Point Guard:

While Guyn’s average on the season is a rather low 4.9 ppg, it is skewed because he often played a reduced role in UC’s early season games, as many thought it was only a matter of time before he was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Troy Caupain. It was not until midway through UC’s 15-game win streak that Guyn emerged as the clear-cut point guard and a factor in UC’s offense. He doesn’t score often, but each and every point he has scored in crucial wins for UC has been at a vital moment, with no greater example than UC’s surprisingly close 55-50 victory over USF on Feb. 2. Guyn scored only eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, but all three buckets were monumental in terms of turning the momentum. The same can be said of his preformances in UC’s victories against Louisville, UConn, and Houston.

Unfortuneatly for Guyn, and more so for UC, he has been a complete non-factor in UC’s five loses, accumulating only 11 points on 4-of-22 (18.2 percent) shooting from the field. In losses to Xavier and New Mexico, Guyn failed to score at all; he’s made more than one shot in only one UC loss (UConn). Worse yet, Guyn has only one assist and 11 accumulative turnovers in those games. AND HE’S A POINT GUARD.

Guyn’s average stat line in UC’s five losses: 21 minutes, 2.2 points, 0.2 asists, 2.2 turnovers.

His struggles in UC’s losses are more drastic than any other UC player, and his turnover problems and shooting woes in said games directly mirror UC’s two biggest issues as a team. If Guyn can contribute as little as three baskets a game and bring his assist-to turnover-ratio—which is currently a dismal 0.78—closer to the 1.14 mark he’s managed during UC’s 24 victories, it would be a much-needed difference for the Bearcats.

Shaq Thomas, Sophomore, Guard/Forward:
UC head coach Mick Cronin has surely lost more hours of sleep than games this season, trying to find a way to instil even a glimmer of confidence in the immensley talented yet perpetually hesistant enigma that is Shaquille Thomas.

Sean Kilpatrick phrased it best during UC’s 63-58 victory against UConn, when—notably frustrated with his young mentee—he not-so-calmy walked over to Thomas, who had just passed up an open look, and said: “Shoot the fu#%ing first one.”

The magic number for Thomas is eight.

Eight times this year, Thomas has attempted eight or more shots. In those games, the Bearcats are 7-1, with the lone setback coming against Xavier. In those games, the team is averaging 77.4 ppg, which is exactly nine points higher than the overall season average of 68.4.

Most importantly, games in which Thomas takes more shots  generally represent games in which he’s played with more confidence. In his career, Thomas has taken eight or more shots on 11 separate occasions. In those games, he is a combined 45-88 (51 percent) from the field, compared to his career average of 43 percent.

Inside of 15 feet, Thomas is as good as anyone in the country when he wants to be, and few players tall enough to guard him are athletic enough to defend him off the dribble.  “If he gets inside of 15 feet, it’s over,” UC senior Justin Jackson said after Thomas’s impressive performance against Houston. “There’s really nothing you can do about it. I can’t even do anything about it.” That’s quite the compliment, considering it comes from one of the best defensive players in the country. When Thomas drives to the basket with confidence, it’s scary just how good he can be. (Pleas note, the 30-second mark.)

But much like Guyn, Thomas has the propensity to disappear. In UC’s losses to New Mexico and Louisville, he scored zero points, which simply isn’t good enough for a player who has the skills to be the best on the floor. As Cronin has said many times, UC needs Thomas to be a “12- to 15-point guy” in order to compete in the tournament.

Titus Rubles, Senior, Forward:
If ever there were a player difficult to examine from a statistical standpoint, it’s Rubles. His scoring average is badly skewed by a blistering start to the season, in which Rubles scored in double digits in five of UC’s first six games of the season. He’s scored more than 10 points only once since then (13 against Temple on Jan. 14) and is shooting just 27.9 percent from the field since the beginning of December.

He was a non-factor in mid-December losses to New Mexico and Xavier, totaling just seven points and 10 rebounds. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, he very much kept the Bearcats alive in close losses to Louisville and UConn, grabbing 14 and 13 rebounds, respectively. Additionally, Rubles’ defensive work rate and length at the front of UC’s press is indispensable. His career individual defensive rating of 87.1—a measurement of points allowed per 100 possesions—ranks 20th all-time. (The stat has only been tracked since the 1996-97 season, according to basketballrefence.com).

While UC doesn’t need Rubles to score in bunches, he does need to hit his average. UC is 14-1 in games where Rubles scores seven or more points, compared to 10-4 when he doesn’t.

Although, that’s by no means a glaring difference when accounting for the difference in competition. Three of UC’s five losses—most notably Louisivlle and UConn—were within three points in the final minutes. It seems ridiculous to say that there’s a difference between Rubles scoring six points or seven points, but it’s true on this team. Every point from every player matters when 58-57 final scores are your norm.

If nothing else, Rubles’ contribution to UC’s success could begin and end with never taking another jump shot outside of 10 feet again. The collective groan from Fifth Third Arean every time he takes a jumper goes a long way in explaining his 27.9 shooting percentage since Dcember. Titus is probably UC’s most underrated player off the dribble and shoots a surpring 77 percent from the free throw line. He should stick to that.

Justin Jackson, Senior, Forward:
Justin Jackson is the most influential defensive player in the country…when he’s the floor. This isn’t news to anyone who has follwoed UC this year. He leads the nation in individual defensive rating  at 82.2 points per 100 defnsive possesions, highlighted best by his preformance against SMU, which was the most dominant defensive outing I’ve ever seen by an individual college basketball player.

“Justin Jackson was as good as you could possibly be today, probably on every phase of the game,” said Cronin after the game. “He had 16 deflections, 17 points, five blocks, five steals, three assists and no turnovers. [It’s] almost impossible to have a better stat line than he had and put forth a better effort than he did.”

That preformance prompted the now infamous “I’m a machine” quote from Jackson, which he is…when he’s on the floor.

Cronin calls it the “23/33 rule”: Against a quality opponent, UC will lose if Jackson plays 23 minutes; if he plays 33 minutes, they’ll win. While 33 minutes might be a stretch, the over/under 30-minute mark tells the tale of UC’s season thus far. In games against quality opponents, the Bearcats are a perfect 9-0 when Jackson plays more than 30 minutes. When he plays less than 30 minutes, they’re 6-5.

In all five losses, Jackson’s key statistics—with the exception of rebounds—have been significantly below his season average. His average comparisson between wins and losses is even more drastic:

Perhaps the most glaring difference is in blocked shots. When Jackson is on the floor, he blocks an average of 12 percent of all two point shots taken, which averages out to nearly four bocks per game in UC’s 24 vitories this season. But Jackson has just five cumulative blocks in UC’s five loses, a mere one block per game.

Even more specific to UC’s five losses, is that Jackson’s foul trouble occurred early in the first half.

Jackson’s first-half minutes from UC’s five Losses:
New Mexico: 11 minutes
Xavier: 9 minutes
SMU: 10 minutes
Louisville: 2 minutes
UConn: 7 minutes

He has played just 39 of a possible 100 first half minutes in UC’s five losses. He is undoubtedly the biggest X-factor in UC’s ability to compete against the nation’s elite. If Justin Jackson picks up two fouls in the first half, the Bearcats cannot win those games.

Sean Kilpatrick, Senior, Guard:

While Kilpatrick’s stats drop in average between wins and losses, just like every other UC player, his statline does not include a statisical trend like the majoirty of his teammates. Although his shooting percentage takes a severe dip, much of that can be attributed to being forced into taking poor looks to overcompensate for complete scoring lulls by the team as a whole (i.e. the Louisivlle and SMU losses).

If anything, Kilpatrick’s biggest part in helping UC to make a tournament run will be to control his turnovers. In UC victories, Kilpatrick is averaging 1.16 turnovers per game,= comitting no more than five in any UC win. But in UC’s losses, he is averaging 3.6, comitting seven, five, and four against UConn, Louisivlle, and Xavier, respectively.

Notes from the bench:
Troy Caupain: UC is undefeated when he comes off the bench and dishes out three or more assits. He had a career-high nine against Temple and has 68 on the season, but in UC’s five losses he’s totaled just four assists and five turnovers.

Jermaine Sanders: Averaging one made field goal per game in UC losses on 26 percent shooting.

Jermaine Lawrence: Five points in 88 minutes since returning from a foot injury in early Februray.

What It all adds up to:
Most of the issues listed above detract from UC’s ability to score in one way or another, which leaves us with the two biggest statistics for the Bearcats this season, assuming they continue to play their usual style of defense.

Points Per Game: UC is 2-5 this season when scoring less than 60 points. They are 22-0 when scoring 60 or more.

Shooting Percentage: The Bearcats are 1-5 this season when shooting less than 36 percent from the field, with their only vicotry coming against USF (33 percent).
New Mexico: 29.5 %
Xavier: 33%
SMU: 35.4%
Louisville: 28.6%
UConn: 27.1%

Josh Miller covers the Bearcats for The News Record at the University of Cincinnati.

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