Something strange and consistent has been happening in Cincinnati. The players seem to always come out stale in the first half and look like the Cincinnati soccer team put basketball jerseys on playing 'dress up'. They pass lethargically, the basketball looks foreign to them, nobody wants to shoot, and the defense is just a step or two more relaxed than usual. Then they come out in the second half as the team we all had hoped they would become. Which begs the question, WTF is happening in that locker room?
Rumor has it - Larry Davis has been turning to the military for inspiration. Apparently, he told the players about the WWII siege of Leningrad to motivate them. Which leads me to my next point, it is time we were honest about Larry Davis. Fifteen years ago he easily could have played Marcus Luttrell in "Sole Survivor". He looks like he could take a shotgun to the face and walk away. If you told me Larry Davis was a T-1000 equipped with advanced emotions, I would believe you. If I found out tomorrow that Larry Davis was a Marine for 20+ years, again - I would believe it... but back to the game.
The first half was a little scary. The game was uncomfortably close early, which wasn't that big of a deal. I first started feeling uneasy when Octavious Ellis was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul with 7:33 to go in the first. It was a bonehead play, but nothing too malicious. He pushed Donrad Knowles who was laying in an easy layup. My ominous feelings of a loss in our near future started seconds later when the Bearcats found themselves down double-digits. Cincinnati clawed back to within 6, and then Troy Caupain picked up his third foul and the "oh crap" alarms started going off all around the tri-state.
At the half, the Bearcats were down 3 off an all too familiar last second bucket by Gary Clark; nevertheless, I was worried. Who would lead us back? Octavious Ellis was ejected from the game. Caupain was in foul trouble. Maybe Farad Cobb? Maybe Gary Clark? Maybe Kevin Johnson? Maybe not.
The answer came from a forgotten place. A source that was recently moved into the backdrop, finding himself coming off the bench. The move to bench Shaquille Thomas and start Jermaine Sanders was applauded by many, including myself. Today, last night's reversal of that decision deserves the same accolades. Shaquille Thomas started last night for the first time in a handful of games, and it paid off. In 38-minutes of play, Shaquille Thomas went off for a career high 18-points. He was slashing to the rim, pulling up for 15-foot jump shots, and cashing in on multiple and-ones. He was in the zone. A player that had been shooting just under 60% from the charity stripe made 7-of-8 free throws. And best of all, HE DIDN"T MAKE A SINGLE TURNOVER!!
Simply put, he was the Shaquille Thomas that we had all hoped he'd become. Fan feelings toward Thomas last night mirrored those from his breakout game against Creighton 2 years ago, when we all looked at each other thinking, "that kid is going to be special". Unfortunately, the awkward shifting and uneasy footwork that we attributed to hist freshman status never went away. The only puzzling thing about Shaq's performance last night was how a 6'7" high riser plays 38-minutes of organized basketball and doesn't record a single rebound.
To put last night's win solely on the shoulders of Thomas would be unfair and frankly untrue. With Ellis out, Gary Clark stepped up big. Clark posted 11 points with 14 rebounds, including 6 boards on the offensive end. Supporting Thomas and Clark, Kevin Johnson added another 12 points, 5 boards, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Not a bad team effort.
Houston was a very confusing team to watch. In the first half, they looked like AAC contenders. In the second half, they looked more like they had never held a basketball before. Their dribbling was awkward and many of the steals Cincinnati had were gift wrapped from the Cougar guards. I have no idea how good Houston is going to be next year... absolutely no idea.
Next up, Cincinnati continues their stretch of must wins inviting UCF to Fifth/Third on Wednesday and heading down to Tulane on Saturday. If the Bearcats can come out of that two-game stretch unscathed, they will have a little leeway against Tulsa and Memphis (meaning they could probably lose one of those games and still make the tournament), but a 4-0 run would be much more comforting.
-Daniele "Da" Bologna