Can Mick Cronin keep the Bearcats focused for a tourney run?

Can the Bearcats stay focused for a tourney run?

After winning its first twelve games of this season and vaulting into the Top Ten, Cincinnati has since played .500 basketball (7-7).  The disturbing trend is that of those seven losses, five have come at Fifth Third Arena on UC’s campus.  Of those five home losses, the Bearcats have reached 60 points just once.

In Cincy’s two road losses, the point totals were 55 and 50 respectively.

When asked about his team’s recent struggles, head coach Mick Cronin likes to focus on defense, offensive rebounding and effort level – in other words, “Things that we can control.”

Considering the Bearcats rank in the Top Ten nationally in defensive efficiency, rebounding and blocked shots, it appears those areas are covered.

When confronted, Cronin has continued to avoid the elephant in the room: Cincinnati’s offense has been inept and inconsistent, relying heavily on three perimeter players and low percentage shot attempts.

Let’s take a look at the numbers in Big East play:

  • Second-to-last in field goal percentage at a head-scratching 38 percent.
  • Eleventh in points per game at just 62.3.
  • Attempting more three-pointers than any other Big East team yet knocking down a frigid 30.5% (11th in the conference) from downtown.
  • Second-to-last in assists per game at just 11.2.
  • Eleventh in assist-to-turnover ratio.

What is wrong with Cincinnati’s offense?  Is it structure?  Lack of execution?  Not enough talent?

Last season, when UC defeated more ranked teams than anyone in the country and reached its first Sweet Sixteen in a decade, the offense was built around creating and exploiting mismatches from a spread set.  The Bearcats still ranked near the bottom in the conference in field goal percentage at just 42.0, but the offense had five threats on the floor at the same time, which allowed for Cincy to get buckets late in games—an area of major struggle this season.

Take a look at Cincinnati’s most recent three losses

  • At Providence, UC was 1-for-5 from the field, missed a front end of a one-and-one and committed a turnover in the final two minutes of a 54-50 loss.
  • Against Pitt, UC went the last 9:21 of game time without a single field goal, squandering a 45-39 lead and eventually losing 62-52.
  • Against Georgetown, after fighting back from twelve down and taking a 51-50 lead with 6:54 to play, UC did not make a field goal until the Hoyas let Cashmere Wright walk in for a meaningless layup with 22 seconds left.  Georgetown won, 62-55.

What’s the deal?

Cincinnati is simply too predictable and too easy to guard right now.  The offense is structured to promote space and freedom for the experienced backcourt trio of  Wright (RS Senior, 13.3 ppg), JaQuon Parker (Senior, 11.0 ppg) and Sean Kilpatrick (RS Junior, 18.0 ppg).  The problem lies with the fact that the other two players on the floor with them, regardless of which two players Cronin chooses, do not pose enough of an offensive threat to draw defensive attention.  Thus, the opponent’s defenders matched up with the two non-threats are free to offer help, cut off driving lanes and occupy the paint.

That leaves Wright, Parker and Kilpatrick with mostly guarded jumpshots and long three point attempts—also known as the lowest percentage shot attempts in basketball.

It’s very difficult to play 3-on-5 offensively and be effective, especially when the “three” attempt a high quantity of low-percentage shots.

And really, lately, UC has been playing 2.5-on-5 offensively.  Point guard Cashmere Wright badly twisted his knee January 15 at DePaul in a game in which he was in a smooth rhythm with 20 points on 8-for-11 from the field and seven assists in 22 minutes.  Wright had been averaging 14.5 ppg and hitting well over 40% from behind the arc before he writhed in pain on the floor that night.

In seven games since the injury, Wright is averaging only 8.9 points per game and has knocked down just ten of his 49 three-point attempts (20.4%).  He simply hasn’t been the same player.

Cronin and his staff have yet to make the switch to a structured, equal-opportunity offense with more ball and player movement and cuts to the basket, such as your open post or flex offensive attacks.

Take a look around the Big East, and you’ll find that the teams shooting the highest percentages, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Marquette, all run system offenses that focus heavily on creating high percentage opportunities near the basket and encourage selfless ball movement to find the open three-point shooter, allowing him to step into the shot unmolested.

Is it too late for Cincinnati to overhaul its offensive philosophy or will Bearcat fans be forced to suffer through more heave-and-hope, low conversion rate offense as a once-promising season fades into the background of the college basketball landscape?

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