NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Yancy Gates' college career began amid outsized expectations and nearly ended in disgrace. Now, the former five-star prospect finally is accomplishing what so many anticipated when he signed with his hometown school.
"I don't think any player in the history of our program – and we've got a storied history – has really had the weight of the world on his shoulders that he has during the time at our school," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
That's a bold statement from a coach at a program that has produced Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman as well as Kenyon Martin and numerous other NBA players.
Then again, perhaps no active player in the nation has endured as much of a roller-coaster career as Gates, though some of the adversity was of his own making. In December, who could have ever believed this 6-foot-9 forward would be leading the Bearcats to their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2001?
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick said.
Cincinnati's chances of advancing beyond the Sweet 16 depend heavily on how Gates fares Thursday night in his East Regional semifinal matchup with Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger. Gates already has come a long way since the incident that could have ended his career prematurely.
The Bearcats were in the closing seconds of a 76-53 loss to Xavier on Dec. 10 when the crosstown rivals engaged in an on-court brawl. Gates punched Xavier center Kenny Frease in the face at one point, leaving a cut below Frease's left eye.
During an emotional postgame news conference in which he criticized his players' behavior, Cronin said he would have to decide whether to kick anyone off the team. Nobody got dismissed, but Gates was one of three Bearcats to receive a six-game suspension.
After apologizing for his role in the fight, Gates spent much of his time away from the game with his two families – the one at home and the one on the court.
"I just needed to be around people I was close with and that I could trust," Gates said. "My teammates, my coaching staff and my family were right there with me."
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This represented one instance in which Gates' decision to attend college in his hometown paid off.
"I think that was big, me being home,'' Gates said. "I was at home right here with my mother. I'm a big mama's boy.
"I was able to go home, get my head rubbed, but also come back to practice and get yelled at by the coaches as if I was playing."
Staying home wasn't always such an advantage. As the No. 22 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class out of Cincinnati's Withrow High, Gates could have signed just about anywhere. He chose a Cincinnati program that still was recovering from the messy departure of former coach Bob Huggins.
"It's very tough to be a local player in this day and age in college basketball, let alone sign up to help build a program that's been devastated and [has] just joined the Big East," Cronin said.
Many local fans considered Gates the quick fix who could lead Cincinnati back to national contention before making an early exit to the NBA.
It didn't quite work out that way
Gates averaged 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds as a freshman, good numbers but disappointing to those who expected immediate greatness. Cincinnati failed to reach the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons on campus.
"The problem in college basketball, everybody wants John Wall," said Cronin, referring to Kentucky's freshman sensation from two seasons ago. "Everybody wants one-and-out. That's not what our game is about."
Gates eventually learned to tune out the criticism.
"As I got older, I learned to not necessarily pay attention to the expectations but just play within myself and be the player that I am and not the player other people expect me to be," Gates said.
Gates remained a steady but unspectacular player and helped get the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament his junior season. But his senior season couldn't have started much worse.
At the time Gates was suspended, Cincinnati was 5-3 with an embarrassing loss to Presbyterian on its résumé. As Cronin put it, the Bearcats were so far from the NCAA tournament they couldn't see it with binoculars. Gates now believes the experience helped make his team stronger.
"Me being gone gave everyone else an opportunity to step up in big situations and have to handle adversity," Gates said Sunday after Cincinnati's 62-56 victory over Florida State. "Now in games like this, any one of us can step up at any time because during that period, any one of them had to step up. It made us better.
"Now instead of one or two guys, we have five guys out there at the end of a game who can hit the big shot."
Indeed, Cincinnati (26-10) has five players averaging at least nine points per game. That balance helped the Bearcats bounce back from their troublesome start to set a school record with 12 Big East wins this season.
Gates sparked the turnaround. He has averaged 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, putting him on pace to become the first player in school history to lead his team in rebounding four consecutive seasons. He followed up a double-double Friday against Texas by helping Cincinnati overcome a major height disadvantage against Florida State.
His biggest test of the postseason comes Thursday when he faces off with Sullinger.
"I think that's the matchup that he wanted," junior guard Cashmere Wright said. "I know he's going to be ready to play."
Gates said he believes the past few months have made him mentally stronger. That additional toughness has allowed him to keep his cool while also helping him deliver in clutch situations. The notoriously poor free-throw shooter – his career average is below 59 percent – even went 4-of-5 from the line and hit both ends of a one-and-one opportunity in the final minute against Florida State.
"He's gotten a crash course in life and learning who your friends are, learning what's important and how to mentally be able to deal with tough times and pressure," Cronin said.
Many of those friends were his teammates. They appreciate how this tournament run has helped the nation see another side of Gates. Instead of allowing the Xavier incident to define him, Gates chose to grow from the experience.
"He's always been a great guy," Kilpatrick said. "He's never been down on his teammates. He's always been the type of guy to uplift his teammates. That's something we all love about him. Even though he wants to win so bad he may yell sometimes, we know exactly where he's coming from because he's a competitor just like us.
"He's still the same Yancy Gates, just a lot more composed."
The temptation is to say all the adversity Gates has encountered throughout his career has made him savor this opportunity even more now than if it had occurred in his freshman season. The only catch is Gates doesn't necessarily believe that's the case.
"Our freshmen are pretty happy, so I don't know," Gates said late Sunday night in a jubilant Cincinnati locker room. "I just think it's one of those things that's going to be sweet no matter if you get it all four years, or if you just get it your senior year."
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- Mick Cronin