Night Line: Cincinnati’s Talent and Toughness Has the Bearcats Rising to SuccessPosted by EJacoby on January 19th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
After No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Syracuse, it’s still unclear exactly who the second best team in the Big East Conference is. But after Cincinnati defeated No. 12 Connecticut on the road on Wednesday night in impressive fashion, we might have an answer to that question. With their 10th victory in 11 games, the Bearcats have improved to 5-1 in the Big East with three road wins, including two over top competition in UConn and Georgetown. This team has already gone through enough adversity for an entire season and is now starting to peak after all of it. Cincinnati is identified first for its ugly brawl with Xavier on December 10, but with the way this team is now playing, it might soon be recognized instead as an excellent basketball team.
Cincinnati has been a fairly mediocre team during the Mick Cronin era. They hadn’t finished above 10th place in the Big East standings until last season’s sixth place finish, and they have won 20 games just once in the past six years. Despite rumors of their coach being on the hot seat, the program has had faith in Cronin and his hard work in recruiting and teaching is finally paying off with these talented Bearcats. Then came the fight with Xavier last month, which threatened to ruin this team’s chances yet again. Instead, the lessons learned from that day seem to have awakened this team. While nobody in the program would wish for that nasty fight to be a catalyst for success, the fact is that the Bearcats are playing at a more functional, higher level right now than they have in years. Having star caliber players in Sean Kilpatrick and Yancy Gates doesn’t hurt, but when you consider how good this team is right now after everything it’s gone through, it’s safe to say Cincinnati is one of the most intriguing teams in the country.
Kilpatrick is perhaps the biggest reason for Cincy’s success. The sophomore from White Plains, New York, was never involved in the Xavier fight that left several of his teammates suspended for multiple games. Kilpatrick is only recognized for his tremendous production this season, averaging a team-leading 16.2 PPG as well as 4.7 boards and 1.6 steals per night. After Wednesday night, he is now synonymous with something else — clutch performance. Kilpatrick hit the game-winning three-point shot against UConn as part of his 16 points, and Cincinnati walked away with their fifth true road win of the season with a final score of 70-67.
The Bearcats now sit at 15-4 overall, with three of their losses coming at home to inferior opponents in close games. Two-point losses to Presbyterian and St. John’s look particularly bad, and if Cincy had just been able to avoid those two performances they would be looking at one of the most impressive bodies of work in college basketball. Instead, they live with the fact that they were upset three times at home and partook in a violent and embarrassing brawl in their other loss. This kind of adversity tends to reveal true character, and Cronin’s team has responded by playing tougher in seemingly every game. That includes Wednesday’s win in Gampel Pavilion that saw the Bearcats come out strong, withstand furious runs by their opponent, and make the big play down the stretch to come out victorious.
Jaquon Parker, Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, and Gates all finished in double figures against Connecticut in addition to their go-to man Kilpatrick, and this has become a theme for Cincinnati. They have four players averaging at least 10.5 points per game, with Parker adding 9.5 as well. The seniors Gates and Dixon are playing with a new-found efficiency; Dixon is at a career-high 13.9 points and 1.7 steals per game as a catalyst on both ends while Gates nearly averages a double-double inside with 12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds, both career highs as well. Throw in Wright’s heady point guard play (4.8 APG) and the out-of-nowhere production coming from Parker (he averaged 1.5 PPG last year), and that’s a lot of talent on the floor alongside the developing star Kilpatrick. Cincinnati is also very strong defensively (allowing just 0.91 PPP and 59.2 PPG for the year), making this team an extremely difficult matchup.
Going forward, the key for this team is going to be keeping up their collective intensity. We’ve seen talented Cincinnati teams crumble in conference play far too often in the past, and we already know the potential downside with this year’s team with its home losses, most recently on January 7 to St. John’s. But now in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season, the Bearcats are playing their best basketball. “We’re to a point now mentally that our guys believe that if we play well, we can beat anybody,” said Cronin after Wednesday’s win. Cincinnati heads to West Virginia on Saturday before a home date with undefeated Syracuse on Monday, so we’ll get an immediate feel for the staying power of this team’s current strong play. This is the Big East, so the Bearcats will take some losses over time, but the collective talent and toughness on the roster makes us think that Cincinnati just might be the second best team in their conference.