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Bearcats Defense Gives Mick Cronin Cause For Concern

Mick Cronin's life is good at the moment. He is at the helm of a team that will be ranked in the top 10 for three straight weeks. His Bearcats just posted their twenty third win of the season and are the favorites to win the school's first conference title in a decade. A fourth straight NCAA tournament is a near certainty, and he is going to get paid, but there is one thing keeping Mick up at night, his defense.

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That is preposterous on the face of it based on the season long stats. Depending on who you pay attention to the Bearcats are either the 6th (Kenpom) or 7th (defensive efficiency) best defense in the country. Based on the body of work for the year that is pretty fair. But there is a disturbing trend in those numbers.

This season the Bearcats are allowing an efficiency of 90.7, as stated above that is good for 7th nationally, but the Bearcats have allowed five of the last 6 opponents to score at a much higher clip.

  • @ Temple 115.2
  • @ Louisville 101.5
  • vs USF 84.9
  • vs UConn 93.5
  • @ SMU 120.6
  • vs Houston 114.8

The SMU game can sort of be explained away. Moody Coliseum has become a ridiculously tough environment to play in this season. They have the personnel that gives this Bearcats team fits with big burly interior forces like Markus Kennedy surrounded by long distance marksmen on the perimeter like Nic Moore and guys who can capitalize on collapsing defenses to get to the bucket like Nick Russell. In theory that is a great group to capitalize on the Bearcats weaknesses, by pounding the ball inside, waiting for the Bearcats to over-help and collapse the defense leading to rim runs, lay ups and uncontested three pointers. If enough effort is made that terrible performance can be rationalized away as an outlier.

Should someone choose to do so that Temple performance could partially be written off as well. Justin Jackson went down after 6 minutes due to injury. Without the Bearcats talisman these cats are pretty average defensively. That could explain the Bearcats collapse in the second half of that game. Of course Louisville and UConn have very potent offenses that had some success against UC, but the Bearcats shut both squads down when they had to.

There is a trend within the trend, Justin Jackson's foul trouble. In each of the last three games he has had to leave the game with foul trouble ahead of the Mick Cronin's normal rotation. Today he left the game after five first half minutes and sat the rest of the half. JJ picked up his third after four minutes in the second half and had to ride the pine for a while.

There is probably no one cause of the Bearcats issues on defense of late, it is far more likely it is a combination of factors. UC's conference schedule was front loaded to an almost comical extent, and that has shown lately as the Bearcats have looked more fatigued than usual. That gauntlet of games could be an indirect source of trouble, as It is an alternate theory for JJ's foul issues. The correlation between being tired and reaching defensively, thus getting cheap fouls, a known quantity.

Then there is the frantic defensive style that this team plays with, which requires near super human levels of effort from those on the floor. UC can still hit the high notes when they have to, as they did late against UConn and early against Louisville. But turning it up to 11 on a game to game basis is a huge challenge, especially with Mick shortening the rotation from the 9 and 10 he played early in the conference slate to the 8 he plays now.

One last possibility is that opposing coaching staff's and teams have gotten a handle on what they Bearcats are doing. There were several times in today's game against Houston where the Cougars absorbed the pressure and held the ball in situations where other opponents would have coughed it up knowing that they have a numbers advantage if they can move the ball quickly to beat the defensive rotation. SMU killed the Bearcats doing just that, and Houston got most of their points in the paint following the same blueprint.

The point of this isn't to call into question the Bearcats defensive abilities. When they have their rotations dialed in and the switching more concise than it has been of late they can unleash a tsunami of destruction. But it something that has to be acknowledged as something of a dip in form. If this team can regain its peak then everything is in play on the conference and national level. I have every confidence that they can do just that.