Mon Jan 02 12:33am EST
Cincinnati has played so remarkably well since the suspension of big men Yancy Gates, Cheikh Mbodj and Octavius Ellis that their imminent return from suspension creates an unenviable dilemma for coach Mick Cronin.
Does he stick with the four-guard, no-center look that has spearheaded the Bearcats' six-game win streak since last month's brawl with Xavier? Or does he reinsert Gates in the starting lineup and return to the more traditional alignment Cincinnati utilized before?
That the end of Gates' six-game suspension raises these questions is a testament to how well the Bearcats have played after inserting Jaquon Parker into the lineup alongside fellow guards Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon. They've reeled off six straight wins, surpassing 100 points against Radford and Arkansas Pine Bluff, handing Oklahoma its second loss and edging Pittsburgh 66-63 on Sunday night.
"It's an interesting situation where they lose some guys and they seem to be playing better because of it," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I don't know if anybody would have predicted it, but give those guys credit and give their coaching staff credit."
The key to Cincinnati's success has been that the four-guard lineup is shooting better from the perimeter, forcing more turnovers and scoring more in transition. With Parker in the lineup and springy 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson serving as the lone big man, the Bearcats are better equipped to ratchet up the tempo since they don't have to wait for the plodding 6-foot-9, 260-pound Gates to get up court.
In his six starts, Parker is averaging 13.3 points per game and has sank 11 of 17 attempts from three-point range. Jackson isn't much of an offensive weapon in the half court, but he runs the floor well, brings energy and finishes on the fast break.
Where having Gates and to a lesser extent Mbodj should help the Bearcats on Wednesday at Notre Dame is they will no longer be as susceptible to frontcourt foul trouble and they'll be more capable of defending and rebounding inside again. The Bearcats didn't sacrifice much interior defense against their first four post-brawl mid-major opponents, but both Oklahoma and Pittsburgh handily out-rebounded Cincinnati and benefited from big games from forwards Andrew Fitzgerald (18 points) and Nasir Robinson (19).
The best option for Cincinnati might be to stick with the four-guard alignment and have Gates replace Jackson in the lineup. The hope would be that the Bearcats can still force turnovers and score in transition yet also benefit from Gates' defensive rebounding and interior scoring prowess.
There's no question the brawl was a turning point for Cincinnati. All the Bearcats can hope now is that the return of Gates and his teammates adds to their momentum rather than detracting from it.