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The Bearcats Did It With Defense

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With the season at its end, the real and legitimate end will come in about 3 days when the National Champion is crowned, it is time to look back on the season. To put the manic highs and depressing lows in the rearview mirror and undertake an honest and sober evaluation of the 2010-11 Bearcats. There can be little doubt that there was tangible progress this season. It would take a work of super human stubbornness to deny that. We all know that there are people out there who have wrapped their entire Bearcat fandom up in the idea that Mick Cronin is usurper, a man not worthy of the throne, so they actively root for the demise of Cronin, and though they don't know it, the program. These people are crazy. But even that small and ardent group of fans have no choice but to throw up their hands and acknowledge that the rebuilding job is complete, and that the trajectory is pointing resolutely up once again.

The question is how did this group of players do it? As always with a Mick Cronin team the answers begin and and end with defense. Even when Cronin took on the job, even with the limited talent on hand he still managed to fashion a good defense, or at least a above average unit. This year everyone bought into to the team defense concept. Granted, not everyone bought in at the same time, it took Yancy Gates a while to do so, but after the St. John's game he was 100 per cent into defense. When that happened UC went from being a very good defense that had occasional lapses in judgment, to a defense that was suffocating for 35 seconds on every single possession.

From the start of the season UC was a great pressing team, and I do mean great. Yes, the competition sucked, point acknowledged. But from the onset the thing that this team did best on defense was press. Whether it was the 1-2-2 white press with Darnell Wilks or Justin Jackson on the in bounder or the 2-2-1 black version with Cashmere Wright and either Rashad Bishop, Dion Dixon or Sean Kilpatrick up top. That press allowed UC to run a ton of people out of the gym and to do it quickly. The half court defense wasn't great, the switch from the zone press to the man to man half court defense created a bit of exposure that some teams were able to take advantage of, but most couldn't, they didn't half the point guards to do it. It really wasn't until the Villanova game that the issues with the shift in defense and the lapses in the half court became issues.

A big part of that was that for all the length and athleticism in the front court with Yancy Gates, Ibrahima Thomas, Wilks and Jackson those guys weren't always willing defenders in the half court. That wasn't an issue so much with Jackson and Wilks, those are the type of guys who would stick their face in a fan if asked, but it was with Gates and Thomas, Yancy in particular. After Cronin got into him a little bit Yancy was a big impact on the defensive end down the stretch, if you look at his game by game statistics the difference is pretty starling. In the first 25 games of the year Gates had 8 games with double digit blocks. In the 10 games after the St. John's contest Yancy had 5 double digit block games. If you look at the rebounds the same thing, 3 10+ rebound games in the first 25 games of the year. In the last 10 games of the year, 3 of those were double digit board games.

In Basketball you build a defense from the inside out. You could have 10,000 Bishops roaming the perimeter, but if there is no one inside to anchor the paint the results won't be that great. It wasn't so much that Yancy Gates was nymph floating around the paint prior to that St. John's game. He was an adequate defender and did OK in his efforts to secure the paint, but he was a little lazy at times and picked up a ton of cheap fouls and took himself out of too many games way too early. Once he started to be active and interested in playing on the defensive end of the floor the defense went from being very good to being one of the elite defenses in the country.

The perimeter defense was good from the get go. Rashad Bishop is such a gifted defender that he made up for a ton of defensive deficiencies, both in the full court press and the half court sets. For example the best lineup for UC offensively was usually Gates-Jackson-Bishop-Wright-Kilpatrick. But Cashemere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick aren't great on ball defenders. But having Bishop gave Cronin a ton of defensive flexibility he could take Cash off the Kemba Walker's and Ben Hansbrough's and put Bishop on them and let Cash cover someone who didn't have the offensive acumen of those other guys. That was a huge reason why the defense was as good as it was this season defending the perimeter. This year UC wasn't exceptional at doing one thing in particular defensively, if you look at the scouting report you find that the best single statistic as a defense was Effective Field Goal Percentage. Even on that metric the Bearcats weren't great, 31st out of 345 teams is very good and border line elite, but it isn't exactly jaw dropping. Everything else was good or very good. When you combined all the various phases of defense the result was stellar. No one aspect of the defense was performing at an elite level, but all of the phases of the defense were either good or very good and the end result was a House of a Thousand Spears. The Bearcats finished ranked 15th in Ken Pom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Which is the best mark since the 2003 team which was rated 14th in the category.