Mon Feb 14 09:16am EST
Seventy-eight seconds remained in Sunday's 59-57 loss to St. John's when Cincinnati big man Ibrahima Thomas fouled out, walked back to the huddle and gestured for teammate Yancy Gates to check into the game.
Bearcats fans, upset at the way Gates had sulked at the end of the bench over his lack of second-half playing time, welcomed the enigmatic 6-foot-9 junior with a chorus of boos as he jogged to the scorer's table.
The home crowd could have saved its breath because Gates' appearance turned out to be a false alarm. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin immediately sent him back to the bench without checking into the game, expressing bewilderment after the game that Gates even got up off the bench in the first place.
"I have no idea who told him to do that," Cronin told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "We're winning and they're pressing. Even if he's playing well, with his free-throw percentage, we're not going to put him in at that point."
For the embattled Cronin not to use his most talented player during the most crucial stretch of Cincinnati's season speaks to the rift between Gates and his head coach.
Gates, the Bearcats' leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, sat out all of a Feb. 5 loss to Pittsburgh as punishment for arguing with an assistant coach earlier in the week. He logged 16 minutes against DePaul on Tuesday and then played just 13 minutes against St. John's, missing his only field-goal attempt.
"I play the guys that give the Cincinnati Bearcats the best chance to win," Cronin said.
The former five-star recruit entered Cincinnati three years ago amid high expectations but his development has plateaued. His 11.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game are virtually identical to the numbers he put up as a freshman and sophomore.
Even so, the Bearcats certainly could have used a low-post scorer like Gates when their offense stalled against St. John's. They became overly reliant on 3-pointers against a packed-in Johnnies zone, attempting 30 in the game, making a brief comeback when a few finally started falling and then collapsing down the stretch.
If the Big East doesn't get the 11 NCAA tournament teams many have projected, the most likely to miss the field is certainly Cincinnati. The Bearcats have lost six of 10 since beginning the season 15-0 against mostly tissue-soft competition.
There's certainly still hope for Cincinnati to finish strong and earn an at-large bid, but the remaining schedule is daunting. The next six games include two dates with Georgetown, home games against Louisville and Connecticut, and road trips to Marquette and Providence.
Winning three of those six games to get to .500 in Big East play would be difficult for the Bearcats at full strength. With Gates' recent disappearing act, it may now be too much to ask.