Bearcat Nation can breathe easier even if it's only for a couple of days. Following two difficult defeats last week, coupled with some injuries, it was unsure which team would emerge from the locker room Tuesday night. The confident one that could beat or hang with any team in the country on any given night? Or would it be the limping, struggling, unsure-of-itself Bearcats of the past week?
Thankfully the former showed up and the Bearcats cruised to a semi-comfortable 68-50 win over Jay Wright's Wildcats. I say "semi-comfortable" because, well, as we all know these Cats don't make anything easy and it's never really comfortable in the Big East unless you're playing DePaul or (this season) South Florida.
You know what makes it "easy" to win basketball games? When your three best guards decide to hit shots and combine for 49 of the team's 68 points. Sure Cashmere Wright still struggled to a 3-for-14 night, but he hit some key shots and looked a bit quicker than he has lately. And if Jaquon Parker could regain his free throw stroke (only 4-of-11?!?!) that would be a huge boost. Sean Kilpatrick (not Kirkpatrick as a few of the local media keep screwing up) appeared to have no lingering effects from the finger injury sustained Saturday night by shooting 6-of-12 from the field including 4-of-10 from three-point range.
Also nice to see was Justin Jackson's ankle injury didn't seem to be holding him back too much. His offense stinks, but his defense, rebounding, and overall attitude needs to be on the floor for this team. From opening warmups throughout the game, he appeared to be functioning perfectly fine. Hopefully that injury won't linger.
Getting bench contributions from Jermaine Sanders (7 points, 4 rebounds) and Ge'Lawn Guyn (5 points) was no doubt welcomed by Mick Cronin. Sanders appears to be settling in after a somewhat disappointing first few months. He looks like a player who has confidence and that sweet jumper of his looks good from the time it leaves his fingers right now. That needs to continue. And Guyn, with a first half three-pointer and running one-hander later, looks like he is gaining some confidence running the team as well. Both players still have a ways to go, but they finally appear to be coming along just fine. The player I'm still extremely excited about is Shaq Thomas. This kid has no fears especially in the lane. He's going to attack and draw contact like he did last night. He only played two minutes (kind of surprising) but he was able to get in the lane and got fouled.
One other aspect that really stood out last night was the physicality of the Bearcats. UC manhandled Villanova's guards especially in the second half and the Wildcats folded down the stretch. Mick Cronin challenged his team prior to the game to set a record for deflections and get on the floor for loose balls. It seems as if his team accepted the challenge. They also were able to turn Villanova over 19 times - a stat that has been woefully lacking from this year's team defense.
So now the team has a few days to prepare for John Thompson III and his Georgetown Hoyas, who come to town for an odd Friday night game at Fifth Third Arena (9:00 ESPN). At 7-5 in conference, the Bearcats have a little bit of breathing room meaning they don't have to win Friday night. But knocking off the 15th ranked team in the country would be big for their postseason resume.
Now I'm in no way using the "B" word when describing UC's outlook for March, but if you look at the remaining schedule, it's pretty tough: #15 Georgetown, at UConn, at #21 Notre Dame, UConn, at #12 Louisville, South Florida. There aren't many sure wins in that group. You could probably chalk up the South Florida game on Senior Day, but that's still three weeks away. As brutal as the Big East is in the fact that there aren't many easy wins, the nice thing is you definitely have a chance to help your resume by knocking off some good teams.