Parker is Bearcats’ ‘glue guy’

Published 9:38 pm Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cincinnati Bearcat players, from left, Sean Kilpatrick, JaQuon Parker, Ge’Lawn Guyn and Jermaine Sanders face fans as they get ready to head to Nashville. Gary Landers | The Enquirer

By Bill Koch
Cincinnati Enquirer

When the University of Cincinnati Bearcats lost home games to Presbyterian and Marshall early this season, coach Mick Cronin was quick to point out that the Bearcats were playing without JaQuon Parker, who missed the first seven games with a groin injury.

It seemed the flimsiest of excuses. Parker, after all, is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior guard who averaged 1.5 points as a sophomore.

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But Cronin knew what others didn’t — that this was not the same JaQuon Parker who sat on the bench so much in 2010-11. This was a player who had dedicated himself in the offseason to becoming a major contributor to UC and now had the potential to make a major contribution.

He’s also the same JaQuon Parker who hails from Suffolk and helped make King’s Fork High School the 2009 AAA state champs.

“He makes us better on both ends,” Cronin said. “Some games he scores, other games he rebounds. The things he brings to the table are intangibles. Winning teams have intangibles. You have to have those kinds of players. The popular term is glue guy, team guy.”

Parker doesn’t care how you label him as long as he gets the chance to help his team win.

“It don’t really matter to me,” Parker said. “I just go out there and try to play and try to get better every game. That was my game in high school, driving to the bucket and just doing the dirty things. I don’t mind doing all that stuff.”

As the Bearcats begin play in the NCAA tournament against Texas on Friday in Nashville, Parker has become an integral part of the starting lineup. He has averaged 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds this season. In his last five games, he has averaged 13.4 and 7.2, with a career-high 28 points in UC’s win over Marquette on Feb. 29.

He is fearless and effective driving the ball to the basket, loves to rebound against taller opponents and has developed into a 40-percent 3-point shooter.

“He gives us the luxury of playing a mismatch in his position because he can guard bigger, stronger guys,” Cronin said. “They may be physically stronger and bigger than him, but they can’t play bigger than he plays. Guys like him are invaluable.”

UC associate head coach Larry Davis saw Parker play for the first time in the VHSL state tournament in 2009, when Parker was still a junior. He had gone there to watch Troy Davis, who now plays for Virginia Commonwealth, but instead was intrigued by what he saw from Parker, who scored 24 points in the state semifinal.

“He is just dominating the game,” Davis said, “getting steals, getting rebounds, making shots, driving and posting up.”

Davis returned for the state championship game against William Fleming High School and became more impressed, this time by Parker’s defense against Davis. King’s Fork trailed 24-9 at halftime and was down by 19 in the second half before rallying to win 49-47. Davis scored 10 points in the first half, but with Parker guarding him in the second, managed only five.

“He took over the game defensively and did everything he could to make his team win,” Davis said. “He got every rebound and shut this kid down.”

Davis had seen enough. He called Cronin and told him that UC should offer Parker a scholarship. Cronin trusted Davis’ instincts and the Bearcats signed Parker, who was close enough to graduation that he was able to finish his high school academic work in the summer and join UC in the fall of 2009.

He had a decent year as a freshman, making a brief splash at point guard and averaging 4.3 points. But as a sophomore, he was the odd man out.

Near the end of the regular season, he was on the court shooting during pregame warm-ups when he told Davis that he would not tolerate another year of sitting on the bench. He blamed himself, he said, not the coaching staff, and was determined to do something about it.

“I think I’m good enough to play at this level,” Parker said. “I was really disappointed in myself for not working that hard and not giving it my all. I decided to give it my all and see what happens. The motivation was definitely there. I would do anything to get better.”

Parker ran three miles around the UC track every morning during the summer. He did shooting and ball-handling drills two or three times a day, often by himself, leaving nothing to chance. But as the season was about to begin, he was sidelined with a groin injury.

“After all that hard work, to just sit there and watch the other guys play, it was hard,” Parker said. “I prepared for this moment and then the injury came, so it was kind of sad for me, but I always kept my head up.”

Parker has spent a good portion of his life keeping his head up. He comes from a part of Suffolk where violence is commonplace and saw neighborhood kids that he knew get killed.

Davis said Parker struggled to find a place to live after his parents split up and ended up living for a time with an uncle. When he committed to UC, Parker’s mother told Davis to take her son to Cincinnati and “don’t let him ever come back.”

King’s Fork coach Josh Worrell has remained close to Parker since he left Suffolk. Last year, when things weren’t going well, Parker and Worrell would talk several times a week. When Parker went home for a few weeks during the summer, Worrell worked him out at the high school gym.

“He’s a very humble kid who constantly wants to get better and doesn’t back down from challenges,” Worrell said. “That’s what you guys are seeing now. He reminded me at the Big East tournament of what I had here. He’s got a heart that a lot of college basketball coaches would love for some of their stars. That’s what makes him be able to play.”

Reprinted with permission from the Cincinnati Enquirer.