Bearcats will take more hits in pursuit of postseason
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Now what?
Really, where does Cincinnati interim coach Andy Kennedy go from here? With senior forward Armein Kirkland suffering a potentially season-ending knee injury on Big Monday, how is Kennedy going to patch together a team of nine players, only seven of whom have played significant minutes this season?
As much as Kennedy wanted to make light of his misfortune after learning of Kirkland's injury following the Bearcats' gritty 70-59 loss to Connecticut, he couldn't spin this one too positively.
"Be careful when you say what's next?" said Kennedy, who coached the Bearcats to 10 consecutive wins -- among them at Vanderbilt, versus LSU in Las Vegas and at Marquette after the Eagles rocked UConn -- before their loss to fourth-ranked UConn. "It's just been incredible, like a black cloud.
"But you keep going on," Kennedy said. "I saw the commissioner (the Big East's Mike Tranghese) here and he didn't say, 'Andy, OK, we're going to cancel the rest of the games.' We go home and regroup and we do what we have to do. And, as I walk on campus [Tuesday], I'll be looking for tall guys. I don't know what else to do."
The 6-foot-8 Kirkland was having his best game of the season, scoring 14 points in 12 minutes, before jumping up and hearing a "pop" in his knee near the midway point of the first half.
Kirkland hobbled off the court, to the bench, and then to the locker room. He wasn't seen again until well into the second half when he emerged from a Hartford Civic Center tunnel on crutches. The initial report from Cincinnati: a sprained left knee. But Kirkland said UConn doctors told him that it was likely an ACL injury. He said he will be seen by an orthopedic surgeon Tuesday in Cincinnati.
|“||You tell me what coach in America could come close to UConn with eight undersized players? The tallest guy in the lineup is 6-8. Yet, he's coaching and running plays right. We're 13-3 with eight guys. ”|
|— Cincinnati's Eric Hicks|
"I hurt my knee two years ago and it turned out to be a sprained MCL. I was out four weeks, so hopefully it's the same thing," Kirkland said. "It hurts pretty bad. It feels loose whenever I walk. I was just trying to jump sideways to avoid a defender."
Kennedy said he's had five knee operations himself -- he tore the ACL in both knees during his playing career at UAB -- and knows a little bit about how these injuries work.
"I saw the twist," the coach said. "It's probably not good. It's severe. I don't want to jump the gun but from the initial tests, having movement isn't a good thing."
Yet, despite losing Kirkland, the Big East newcomers stuck right with the Huskies, trailing by only six points with three minutes left. UConn point guard Marcus Williams was called for a five-second violation, but at the other end forward Eric Hicks missed a shot. Williams came back with a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to nine, and the game essentially was over.
There were times during the second half Monday when Kennedy went to a weave to slow the game some. He went with a shorter lineup due to Kirkland's absence and foul trouble to Hicks and James White. The lineup went 6-foot-6 Cedric McGowan, 5-10 Devan Downey, 5-11 Jihad Muhammad, 6-2 Chadd Moore, and 6-9 Ronald Allen, a transfer from NAIA Xavier in New Orleans who is still learning the game at the Division I level.
"We're getting unbelievably courageous performances out of guys night in and night out," Kennedy said. "That's the reason we're sitting here with 13 wins, despite what you saw on our bench. Did you see our bench [no scoring from four reserves]? I mean, it was comical. We were drawing up things in the dirt just trying to fool [UConn] a little bit."
Well, this isn't entirely true. Kennedy, who replaced close friend and mentor Bob Huggins when Huggins was forced out over the summer, is selling himself short.
"You tell me what coach in America could come close to UConn with eight undersized players?" Hicks said. "The tallest guy in the lineup is 6-8. Yet, he's coaching and running plays right. We're 13-3 with eight guys."
Kennedy, who's also down to one fulltime assistant in Frank Martin (the program picked up former Bearcat Corie Blount for the rest of the season), is getting rave reviews from his peers. But Kennedy knows he likely has no shot at getting the full-time gig from the same president (Nancy Zimpher) who forced out his former boss.
"He's done a fantastic job," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "The early indication is that he won't be the next Cincinnati coach. But they should tell him that early so another school can gobble him up. He had no problem running something to run some time off, switching defense and running good offense."
Calhoun said the Bearcats played well for a charismatic coach in Huggins, yet Kennedy has had no trouble getting them to play for him. Calhoun said he could see Kennedy getting in the face of players on game tape but also witnessed the respect the Bearcats held for him. The players are extremely loyal to Kennedy, and they respond to his demanding style and toughness.
"Our guys have tremendous resilience and that speaks to their character," Kennedy said. "They don't always do the right thing from a fundamental standpoint, but these guys compete and have a strong will to win."
Cincinnati already has defeated Murray State, Ohio, Dayton, Vanderbilt, LSU (neutral court), and Marquette on the road. Its only losses in addition to UConn are Dayton and Memphis at home. Get the Bearcats five more wins for 18 and they should be considered a NCAA Tournament team, Calhoun said.
The question, however, is how do they get there without Kirkland and an undersized team.
"I wish I could tell you something poignant, but we don't know," Kennedy said. "This is all we've got. We'll play to the strength of our team ... we'll keep fighting and hopefully at the end of the day we'll be rewarded for that."
Senior writer Andy Katz covers men's college basketball for ESPN.com.
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