December 18, 2015

A loss to VCU marked the lowest point in Cincinnati's 2014-15 season and a frightening time in Bearcats coach Mick Cronin's life.

Cronin will be behind the bench when the No. 23 Bearcats visit VCU for Saturday's rematch, a duty he wasn't able to fulfill in last year's meeting due to a serious health issue.

Just hours prior to the Bearcats' matchup with VCU on Dec. 20, 2014, Cronin announced he would be taking a leave of absence after being diagnosed with a small tear in an artery delivering blood to his brain. His stunned team proceeded to lose 68-47, Cincinnati's most lopsided defeat at home since February 1984.

Cronin sat out the remainder of the season but has Cincinnati (9-2) back in the national rankings in his return, in large part due to a defense that's held opponents to 59.1 points per game and 37.1 percent shooting.

"It changed me in a good way, I think," Cronin told Cincinnati's official website of the health scare. "But it will be exciting to actually coach the game against VCU and not just prepare for it."

The Bearcats will be facing a VCU squad with a far different look than a year ago. Coach Shaka Smart departed for Texas and the program graduated two players instrumental to the Rams' run of five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Smart's "Havoc" defense limited Cincinnati to 33.3 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers in last season's meeting.

VCU (5-4) has remained among the national leaders in steals under Smart disciple Will Wade but has yet to regain its past success against high-caliber teams. The Rams are 0-4 versus Power 5 programs, suffering narrow losses to Duke and Wisconsin in November and falling to Florida State and Georgia Tech in its past two contests.

"We just haven't been able to get it done in these games," said Wade following Tuesday's 77-64 setback at Georgia Tech. "We've been close in a lot of them. We were close in this one for a half, we just haven't been able to sustain it over longer periods of time."

The Rams shot 28.9 percent while being outscored 50-37 by the Yellow Jackets in the second half, spoiling a career-high 18 points from sophomore forward Justin Tillman.

VCU went 15 of 31 from 3-point range in last year's rout of the Bearcats, with Melvin Johnson's 18 points leading the way. The senior guard ranks fourth nationally in 3-pointers per game (4.0) and averaged 23.5 points in the Rams' previous four Power 5 tilts, highlighted by a career-high 36 against Florida State on Dec. 6.

The Bearcats bounced back from last Saturday's 65-55 loss at No. 10 Xavier with Tuesday's 75-59 win over Norfolk State. Farad Cobb had 20 points and Gary Clark 19 after going scoreless in 29 minutes against the undefeated Musketeers.

Cobb leads Cincinnati at 11.7 points per game but averaged just 7.2 on 31.4 percent shooting over a six-game stretch before finishing 5 of 8 on 3s against Norfolk State.

The Bearcats are making their first trip to the Siegel Center, where VCU has won 24 of 25 against nonconference foes. The Rams are 4-1 against ranked teams at the venue, with last season's 74-57 loss to No. 7 Virginia the lone blemish.

Cincinnati's only win in four all-time meetings with the Rams occurred at home on Jan. 12, 1974.

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