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Wanted: Consistency From Shaq Thomas

The Cincinnati Bearcats are in relatively new territory. It has been a long time since this program has been involved in meaningful games in February. Fighting for a spot in the tournament is one thing, thats how the last three teams spent the shortest month of the year. This year the fight is for a championship, and that is a completely different fight. To close the deal the Bearcats need a bigger contribution from its most gifted player.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Lets start with a premise. As presently composed, and with current levels of production from all rotational cogs these Bearcats are Sweet 16 material. That assumption is based, in part, on the fact that they just went toe to toe with one of the hottest squads in the country and lost by one. In that game Sean Kilpatrick had more field goals by himself then the rest of the team did.

Right now the Bearcats are a lock for the tournament, and probably will be no worse than a four seed if they can win two of their remaining three games. Given that seed they have the ability to simply bully their way into the second weekend. Defense can get them that far, but no farther.

As always the question is whether they will have enough offensive punch to go further. Of late the answer is an emphatic no. Kila is doing everything he can with a ridiculous 25.3 points per game over the last 8 games. Justin Jackson continues his ascendance on the offensive end, but only when he can stay on the floor. Unfortunately that is never guaranteed, and when SK is the only one of the two on the floor the offense falls apart completely. There is no one else on the floor that commands the respect of the defense the way SK and Jackson do. Defenses collapse and contort themselves to put someone in Kila's grill, leaving gaps that should be exploited by UC players, except they don't.

The main beneficiary of all that attention for Kilpatrick should be Shaq Thomas, but there is no way to tell what Shaq we are getting in any given game. In the first Louisville game Thomas was everywhere, dropping from the ceiling for dunks, attacking the rim and generally making things happen. But he is just as likely to skip a game as make an impact in one.

In the rematch Saturday, in a game where UC needed him more than ever Thomas no showed; 20 minutes, zero points on 0-4 shooting (three of them jumpers), 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 turnover. Part of this is the trials and tribulations of a young player. Shaq has been in the program for three years, but this is just his second year playing, and his first go round at being a major rotational cog. Thats a ton of change, and a whole lot more responsibility for a young player, but he has to be the one to pick up the slack when games break against SK and JJ.

Ge`Lawn Guyn and Titus Rubles have the confidence for that role, but only Thomas has the talent. Truth be told Thomas is the most physically gifted Bearcat on the team. He is built to play basketball, and the game can be breathtakingly effortless at times, he just has a hard time making that time all the time. Far too often his offensive approach can only be described as passive. This season 55 percent of Thomas's shots have been two point jumpers*, and he only makes 34 percent of them.

*only Jermaine Lawrence shoots more two point jumpers as a percentage of his total shots

If I am a coach for the opposing team I thank the basketball gods every time Shaq takes a pull up flatlining jump shot from 15 feet. That is a win for them every single time. Think about how teams match up with UC most often. The best perimeter defender goes on SK automatically, usually the second best goes on Guyn / Troy Caupain. The third goes to Thomas, that should be an automatic win for Shaq. Louisville hid Luke Hancock on Thomas Saturday. Hancock tries hard and works his but off on defense, but he is not a good defender. Nor is Hancock in the same stratosphere athletically as Thomas, but the Bearcats couldn't make the Cardinals pay for it. Thats not a new narrative, its one that has cropped up many times this season, and it will continue to.

I realize that this is all very harsh, and the kind of stuff that will upset some of our readers, and I apologize for that, but this is a point that has to be made. The ceiling of this team is not defined by the play of Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. Those are the two veterans of this team and the unquestioned leaders. But they are known quantities to all and sundry, 20 points 5 boards and excellent foul shooting for SK; 10 and 8 for JJ, plus his usual manic defense. UC can make a little run in the tourney relying on that alone.

But to take a real run at North Texas the Bearcats need Shaq Thomas to start fulfilling his vast offensive potential on a night in night out basis. Shaq has shown that he is capable of being the third scorer the Bearcats need as his play against Xavier, Louisville and Temple showed. All this team needs is more of that and they can make a real run in march. That has to start with Saturday's game against Connecticut. Can Shaq Thomas rise to that occasion?