Mon Oct 10 09:00am EDT
As Cincinnati tried in vain to rally from a 17-point halftime deficit at Pittsburgh last February, the Bearcats' top big man lamented that he was powerless to help.
Yancy Gates didn't join the rest of his teammates on the trip because Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin suspended him earlier in the week after he mouthed off to an assistant in practice about not getting the ball enough. Instead the 6-foot-9 forward spent the evening in his on-campus dorm room, where he had to follow the score on his phone because his cable package didn't include the channel televising the game.
"That was the hardest part," Gates said. "I was already upset I wasn't out there with my teammates, and then not being able to watch it made it worse. No player wants to be in that situation, not being able to be there for the rest of the team. Not ever wanting that to happen again was a big motivator for me."
Although Gates logged just 16 minutes the next game against DePaul and languished on the bench for all but one minute in the second half of a 59-57 loss to St. John's the game after that, eventually he regained Cronin's trust. Not only did his concentration, attitude and effort improve in practice, he also averaged 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds during the final nine games of the season as Cincinnati pushed its way from the fringes of the NCAA tournament picture to a No. 6 seed.
Those close to Gates suggest the lessons he learned late last season have translated into a successful offseason.
He set an example for his younger teammates with his focus and work ethic during offseason workouts and shooting drills. He shed about 20 pounds since the end of last season by becoming more vigilant about cutting junk food, sugary juices and red meat out of his diet. And instead of walking long stretches of the hilly five mile path he takes with his father several mornings a week, he now runs it from start to finish.
"He has been able to make huge strides and turn some corners personally and athletically," Cronin said. "He wasn't mature enough to be a dominant player for us in the past, but now he's a different person maturity-wise and he has developed a work ethic. It has helped him grow as a player, do what he did down the stretch last season and do what he did this summer to prepare for a great senior season."
One major reason Gates took longer to develop the habits necessary to fulfill his immense potential is that his natural-born size, strength and athleticism enabled him to dominate high school peers without working especially hard.
The largest kid in his grade from kindergarten on, Gates was too big to play Pop Warner football with kids his own age and often had parents of opposing players questioning his age on the AAU circuit. He averaged 17.2 points and 9.2 rebounds as a freshman at Cincinnati's Hughes High School, numbers he improved upon throughout his high school career despite criticism about his ballooning waistline, suspect effort level and tendency to float to the perimeter.
When Gates chose hometown Cincinnati over Georgetown and Indiana among others in April 2007, elated Bearcats fans expressed hope the five-star recruit's arrival would quickly revitalize the sagging fortunes of a program that had struggled since Bob Huggins' messy departure. Predictions that the wide-bodied Gates would be another Danny Fortson proved overly optimistic, however, as he averaged a modest 10.5 points and 6.0 rebounds his first two seasons and failed to lead the rebuilding Bearcats back to the NCAA tournament.
"He and I came into a very tough situation together with fans who wanted their top 25 program back after it was taken away from them, but some things can't be fixed overnight," Cronin said. "Unfortunately we beat kids up these days that aren't great players as a freshman or sophomore. I think that's an ugly part of college basketball today."
Aware that sub-par conditioning contributed to his inability to play more than a few minutes at a time without becoming fatigued and his susceptibility to foul trouble, Gates began to address that flaw in his game the summer before his junior year. He no longer slacked off during offseason strength and conditioning sessions and even spent a few weeks in the San Francisco area running sand dunes every morning.
Although Cronin praised Gates' increased stamina and improved effort on defense early in his junior season, friends goaded him about his scoring average plateauing at about 10 points per game. As a result, Gates' attentiveness to defense waned and his frustration increased, especially after a Jan. 29 home loss to West Virginia in which the junior scored back-to-back early buckets but finished with just seven points because he seldom touched the ball the rest of the night.
"He didn't feel West Virginia had any answer for him inside," Gates' father Tony Dees said. "After the game, he expressed to his mom and I how frustrated he was that he didn't get the ball more, and I said, 'OK, Yancy, I agree with that but you're upset about it. When you calm down, talk to the coach tomorrow.'"
Instead of heeding his advice the next day at practice, Dees said Gates dealt with his resentment poorly. When one of the Cincinnati assistants told Gates to get on the low block during a drill, the 6-foot-9 big man initiated a heated argument when he responded, 'Why should I get on the block when I can't touch the ball?"
"There were words going back and forth when Coach Cronin walked in and told Yancy, 'You can't be talking like that. Get on out of here.'" Dees said. "It never got physical or anything, but I let Yancy know afterward, he didn't handle that right. He left the coach no choice but to discipline him."
For Cronin to suspend his top big man for a matchup with Big East-leading Pittsburgh and to play him sparingly in two subsequent games was a particularly gutsy decision considering Cincinnati was in the midst of a critical part of its season. Six losses in 10 games had halted the Bearcats' momentum after a schedule-aided 15-0 start, a potentially ominous sign for a program whose attendance was lagging and whose fifth-year coach was under pressure to make his first NCAA tournament.
In hindsight, however, Cronin's gamble appears wise. A revitalized Gates helped ensure his coach earned another year at the helm by leading Cincinnati to late-season wins over Louisville, Georgetown and Marquette to wrap up an NCAA bid.
"If there's any lesson to be found here for young coaches, it's that the worst thing you can do for kids is change the rules and bend your principles in an effort to maybe win a game," Cronin said. "You're going to lose a crucial teaching point for a player. It can be a watershed moment. I'm just glad that for Yancy, it turned into a positive."
In addition to the confidence boost Gates received from his strong finish last season, two snubs the past few months have surely added to his motivation entering his senior season. In August, Purdue coach Matt Painter cut Gates from the U.S. roster for the World University Games and last week, Gates failed to make the Wooden Award's preseason top 50 watch list.
Individual goals like those are important to Gates, but it's his role in the resurgence of the Cincinnati program that he hopes is his legacy. And with three starters back and talented freshman forward Jermaine Sanders in the fold, the Bearcats may be capable of continuing their upward trajectory this season.
One of the reasons Gates put in so much work during the offseason is he sees the team has a chance to contend in the Big East and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. He also wants to improve his unfavorable reputation among fans in his hometown.
"A lot of the fans see me get mad in a game and they think, 'There he goes again, he's thinking about himself,'" Gates said. "Really, it's just competitiveness. I hate losing. I get mad if I'm losing in the middle of a pickup game. So I want people to know how competitive I am and how unselfish I am on the court. I'm happy if I don't score and we win rather than if I get 20 and we lose. I think that's something a lot of fans don't know."
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell
Big Ten: How Zack Novak became Michigan's emotional leader; Big Ten projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-Ohio State star Jim Jackson scouts the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big Ten games; Q&A with Michigan State forward Delvon Roe
Big 12: Big 12 projections and storylines to watch, Iowa State's Royce White aims to capitalize on second chance, Ex-Oklahoma guard Michael Neal projects the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league Big 12 games, Q&A with Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson
Mountain West: San Diego State out to prove it's no one-hit wonder; MWC projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-New Mexico forward Daniel Faris projects the league; Ranking the 12 best non-league MWC games; Q&A with UNLV guard Anthony Marshall