CINCINNATI — The Bearcats reinvented themselves when two front-line starters got suspended for a brawl against Xavier. Their new look has opened some eyes.
Cincinnati has won all six games with power forward Yancy Gates and center Cheikh Mbodj suspended, including a 66-63 win at previously No. 22 Pittsburgh on Sunday night. The outcome knocked Pitt out of the Top 25 on Monday and left the Bearcats (11-3) getting votes in the poll again.
The two suspended players will be back on Wednesday for a home game against Notre Dame, starting the process of blending them into a new guard-driven offense that has worked very well without them.
"It makes everything a little bit easier," said sophomore guard Sean Kilpatrick, who was named the Big East's player of the week on Monday. "We know a lot of (defenses') attention will be brought to the middle, and that will make our shots open up a lot more and our drives open up a lot more."
The best things the Bearcats have going for them now is their spirit, speed and hustle.
They struggled to score and defend consistently during an opening stretch that included home-court losses to Presbyterian and Marshall. They lost by 23 points at Xavier on Dec. 10, a game called with 9.4 seconds left when a brawl broke out among players.
Both teams suspended four players. Xavier lost three starters and its top three scorers. Cincinnati lost its top two front-line players, forcing coach Mick Cronin to go with a four-guard offense that encouraged quick shots and full-court defensive pressure to make up for the lack of height.
The new approach worked better than anticipated.
The Bearcats got outrebounded against Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, but won the games with defensive pressure and outside shooting. Before the suspensions, Cincinnati averaged 5.4 3-pointers and 15.7 attempts from behind the arc per game. In the last six games, they've made 12.1 and shot 28.2 per game.
Kilpatrick averaged 18 points and eight rebounds in the last two wins, expanding his game.
"If I don't do a lot of things on the court that I normally don't do, there's a slight chance it will be a long day for us," he said on Monday. "That's what I try to do even more — the deflections, rebounds. I don't worry about the point total or anything like that."
Cronin's challenge is to blend his returning front-line players into the wide-open offense. They've been practicing with the team during their suspensions, so Cronin thinks it won't be a big adjustment in the games.
"Not really, not if everybody does what they're being asked to do," Cronin said. "They guys that do what they're asked to do will be the guys who are out there on the court. That's how we've been doing it, and that's how we'll keep doing it."
Cronin declined to say whether Gates or Mbodj would start on Wednesday.
"I'm not going to sit here and give away what we're going to do," he said. "We're going to play to win. Everyone needs to do whatever job they're asked to do, and that's part of being our team."
Cronin expects them to be rusty in the first game back because they've missed so much time on the court.
"We've worked them as hard as we can, but it's not the same," he said. "So I would not expect any of the (suspended) guys to be sharp. I don't. Hopefully they can give us some depth."
The Bearcats banded together during the six games without their two starters, playing by far their best all-around. Cronin is trying to keep the momentum going as they get back to full strength.
"As long as our guys continue to focus on playing for the name on the front of the jersey and playing for each other and trying to do everything they can to get a win, it's fun to coach, period," he said. "Right now, I don't have anybody playing individual basketball at all."