Will Cronin’s calculated risk pay off for Cincinnati?

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It’s crunch time for Cincinnati. And the Bearcats’ most important player may not be part of it.

After lashing out at an assistant coach, junior center Yancy Gates was suspended for Saturday’s game against Pitt and may not play tonight against DePaul, either. The Bearcats shouldn’t need Gates to beat the Blue Demons – even in Chicago, DePaul’s still the Big East’s worst team – but it’s more about what’s after DePaul.

St. John’s. Louisville. Georgetown. UConn.

If Cincinnati expects to end its NCAA tournament drought – it hasn’t been since 2005, also its final year in Conference USA – it probably needs to win five of its last eight games. It’s certainly doable, but is far from a sure thing if Gates remains in Mick Cronin’s doghouse.

But it should as if things are getting resolved. Gates admitted his blowup was “a bad situation and I handled it wrong,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. He’ll travel to Chicago, but there’s still no word if he’ll play.

And, to Cronin’s credit, he’s not about to play Gates just to win a few games. He’s trying to make a point. From Paul Daugherty’s column in the Enquirer:

I asked Cronin if it took courage for him to sit his best player in a big game. His answer reflected the fundamental push-pull between what is right and what helps you win. It was a good answer, the best. How it helps Cronin win games is anyone’s guess.

“The fact you had to ask that question is a sad indictment on our society, and what winning has become in amateur sports,’’ Cronin said. “I like to think I’m still part of amateur athletics. Life lessons are a big part of it.

“(Gates’) athletic career has been a process of telling him how great he is. Not his immediate family, but everyone around him. He’s a microcosm of today’s athlete. He’s far from the only guy on our team or any team that deals (poorly) with taking responsibility for their own actions.’’

It’s a calculated gamble by Cronin, but a good one. After all, Cincinnati’s still recovering from its “Zero Graduation” image it had just a few years ago.

Ending that image and winning games would be no mean feat for Cronin .

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