Season In Review: Cincinnati BearcatsPosted by mlemaire on May 1st, 2013
Coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance last season, hopes were high for this season’s version of the Cincinnati Bearcats. Unfortunately, after a hot start in the non-conference portion of their schedule, some of their weaknesses were exposed in conference play and a clear inability to score consistently held the team back as it finished 22-12 and 9-9 in the Big East before losing in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament to Creighton. It was a relatively disappointing season after coach Mick Cronin had raised the bar in the 2011-12, but let’s dig a little deeper and see just how disappointing it really was.
Both the conference coaches and the esteemed group at this microsite saw the Bearcats’ finish last season and promptly pegged Cincinnati to finish fourth in the conference this season. Mick Cronin’s career was starting to take off following an impressive run to the Sweet Sixteen, and heading into this season, he boasted one of the league’s most experienced and talented backcourts in senior Cashmere Wright and junior Sean Kilpatrick, and an influx of junior college talent and improving underclassmen were supposed to prove serviceable in the frontcourt following the departure of do-everything big man Yancy Gates.
Although it didn’t look particularly exciting at the beginning of the season, whoever put together the Bearcats’ non-conference schedule this season might have legitimately influenced the program’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament. The team finished the non-conference slate 12-1 with good wins over Oregon, Iowa State, and Alabama, and their only loss was a one-point defeat versus New Mexico. The Bearcats ended the season on the bubble and you better believe that two wins and a close road loss to good NCAA Tournament teams helped make a difference. There is something to be said for how consistently good Mick Cronin-coached teams are defensively.
The Bearcats were one of the 25 most efficient defensive teams in the country in 2011-12, and they actually improved in 2012-13, jumping from 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency to 14th. They blocked a ton of shots and defended the perimeter with reckless abandon, both of which led to a number of tight games. Wright was another bright spot for the team as he capped off his senior season by improving his scoring average and cutting down on turnovers. The other positives were less noticeable but worth mentioning nonetheless. Senior center Cheikh Mbodj was a pleasant surprise as he played a serviceable center for much of the season, and versatile freshman Shaquille Thomas really came on strong late and looks poised for big things next season.
There are plenty of factors that led to Cincinnati underachieving this season, but if you had to highlight three of those, they would be the injury to Wright, the severe regression of star guard Sean Kilpatrick, and the dearth of interior scoring that allowed opposing teams to harass Kilpatrick and Wright without worrying about the post. Wright was the team’s leader and the only player on the team who took the offensive pressure off of Kilpatrick, so when he got hurt and didn’t come back at 100 percent, an offense that largely relied on his creativity to score fell apart. Meanwhile, this was the season Kilpatrick was supposed to contend for conference player of the year honors, but instead his three-pointing shooting dropped seven percentage points all the way down to 30.7 percent, his shooting dropped below 40 percent on the season, and he started committing extra turnovers as well.
There is certainly something to be said for all the pressure he faced as one of the team’s only offensive weapons and some of those numbers were a result of Kilpatrick trying to do too much. But a two-guard with that much talent should be able to post better numbers than what he posted, regardless of how ineffective his teammates were. Also, when your frontcourt consists of two of the worst offensive centers in the conference in Mbodj and freshman David Nyarsuk, and two of the least efficient shooters in the entire country in Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles, you should feel lucky that your team managed to even finish 112th in adjusted offensive efficiency. If it wasn’t for their impressive offensive rebounding ability, this would have been an incredibly bad offense. Rubles is a solid player with zero scoring ability outside of eight feet, and Jackson is a prototypical wing player who can’t shoot at all and watched his field goal percentage drop nearly 11 percentage points from last season.
The immediate future for Cincinnati got a shot in the arm when Kilpatrick decided to come back for his senior season redemption tour. If he can cut down on poor shot selection and start shooting the ball the way he did as a sophomore, he will be one of the best guards in the entire conference. A quick glance at the teams that will be in next season’s American Athletic Conference show that the Bearcats will be, at worst, the fourth most talented team on paper behind Louisville, Memphis, and Connecticut, and the only team that is clearly ahead of them is the Cardinals. This means there is a great opportunity here for Cincinnati to improve upon this past season’s result. Cronin’s five-man recruiting class is rather ho-hum except for the sparkling jewel who is five-star forward Jermaine Lawrence.
Lawrence doesn’t necessarily solve the Bearcats’ interior scoring issues as he is not a back-to-the-basket player, but he is an athletic and extremely gifted big man who should start immediately as a stretch four and may take some of the scoring heat off of Kilpatrick. The team will be stocked with options on the wing with Jackson and Thomas back in the fold, and Rubles looks a lot nicer as a high-energy rebounder and defender off the bench than he does starting on the low block. The only thing that will hold them back are questions at point guard now that Wright is gone. Frankly, the Bearcats don’t have a viable point guard on their roster so they better hope that junior Ge’Lawn Guyn who has averaged 10 minutes per game in his career steps up, or they may be forced to use Kilpatrick as their primary ball-handler.