Tipping Off The Big East Countdown: #4 CincinnatiPosted by mlemaire on November 8th, 2012
Few teams had as interesting a season as the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2011-12. High expectations looked overblown when the Bearcats stumbled to losses against Presbyterian and Marshall in the early part of the schedule. Talk of failing to live up to expectations was quickly drowned out however amidst the noise that followed the Bearcats’ nasty brawl late in a losing effort against crosstown rival Xavier. Mick Cronin’s team could have faded from the national conversation right then, but instead they responded by winning 12 conference games and reaching the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Ohio State. It was the Bearcats’ second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance and it was proof that Cronin has the program headed in the right direction. Now, the expectations are back, as are 10 players who averaged at least five minutes per game last season. If last season was proof that Cronin is capable, then this season could be a statement that the Bearcats are ready to once again take their place among the conference elite.
2011-12 Record: 26-11, 12-6
2011-12 Postseason: Sweet Sixteen, lost to Ohio State 81-69.
Last season the Bearcats thought they had scheduled few non-conference challenges, and it almost cost them a spot in the Big Dance. This season Cronin’s team will play a slightly more difficult slate, although they will rarely stray far from home. The rematch with a depleted but talented Xavier team looms in December but before that they will also have to get by at least Iowa State in the Global Sports Invitational and then a talented Alabama team in the SEC/Big East Challenge. A visit from a dangerous New Mexico squad will cap off non-conference play and 2012 for the Bearcats. The conference schedule holds few surprises or interesting information worth gleaning. The one bit worth a mention is that the Bearcats will only play Syracuse, Louisville, and Georgetown once, which could help them rise to the top of the conference heap.
Cincinnati isn’t losing too many players, but the ones they are losing are important. Forward Yancy Gates (12.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG) had his ups and downs in his four years in the program, but ultimately he leaves Cincinnati as one of the most accomplished players in program history. There is no one left over on the roster who can match Gates’ blend of size, athleticism, and skills nor his physicality in the paint. Guard Dion Dixon (13.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.1 APG) was the team’s second-leading scorer and a steady ballhandler, but he was the team’s second-most frequent chucker (11.6 field goals attempted per game) behind Sean Kilpatrick, except with half the shooting ability (37.1 FG%, 26.1 3PT%). His loss could free up more shots for players like Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker, you know, guys who can actually shoot. The only other player gone from last year is 6’9″ forward Octavius Ellis, who was kicked off the team for his involvement in a local nightclub brawl. Ellis gained some notoriety for his role the other brawl with Xavier, but he played in just four games last season and wouldn’t have been a factor even if he was still on the team.
Cronin didn’t have a lot of scholarships to work with and so he signed just one player for this season, junior college forward Titus Rubles. Rubles was lightly recruited out of Brenham (Texas) Blinn Junior College and will probably need a year to add muscle and get adjusted to the physicality and speed of the Big East. If we are cheating a bit then it is probably okay to consider Shaquille Thomas a newcomer as well. The 6’7″ New Jersey native was a top-100 prospect coming out of high school but the NCAA ruled him and a number of his teammates at NIA Prep ineligible last season because of the school’s reputation as a diploma mill. Thomas has guard skills in a small forward’s body and considering that he has been practicing with his teammates since midway through last season, he should be relatively well-adjusted to college basketball. None of this means he will see the floor when it matters, though, especially considering Cincinnati’s abundance of talent in the backcourt and on the wing. But he has the offensive skill set and athleticism to become an impact player before too long.
Whom to Watch
With Gates gone, there is little doubt as to who the team’s best player is. Junior guard Sean Kilpatrick is coming off a season in which he led the team in scoring (14.3 PPG) and led the conference in three-pointers made. He has the offensive ability to become an all-conference performer, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the increased attention he will receive from opponents who don’t have to worry about Gates on the low block. Dixon is gone so there will be more shots to go around and it would behoove Kilpatrick not to just start bombing aimlessly. If he can become an efficient scorer and can get to the free throw line with consistency, he may lead the conference in scoring.
Wright is one of four seniors on the roster and he will be by far the most instrumental to the Bearcats’ success this season. The floor general posted 10.9 points and 4.6 assists per game last season and he will be counted on heavily to make plays of the offensive end and knock down open shots. He also averaged a couple of steals per game and has pesky hands and quick feet that help make him a headache as an on-ball defender. One of the primary reasons the Bearcats are ranked so high even without Gates is because of the veteran leadership and ability of their backcourt. If Wright and Kilpatrick can lead this team with their play, there might be another deep NCAA Tournament run in the cards.
If Cronin had someone waiting in the wings to take over for Gates on the low blocks, Cincinnati might be looking at a Big East title contender. Unfortunately for the Bearcats, their frontcourt is comprised of undersized combo forwards and inexperienced underclassmen. There is some ability, but there are a lot of unknowns and not a lot of depth, which will make it difficult for the Bearcats to compete down low against bigger conference foes. The good news is that Cronin has legitimate star power in the backcourt in Kilpatrick and Wright and depth and experience on the wing in Parker, Jackson, and Thomas. If the Bearcats can somehow maintain their defensive efficiency from last year even without Gates anchoring the paint, they will be in good shape thanks to their prolific outside shooting and transition game. But replacing interior defense is easier said than done. The guards and wings will carry this team back to the NCAA Tournament, but beyond that will depend on how well Cincinnati can find interior players.