For Real or Fraudulent: Sean Kilpatrick’s Hot Start?Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 13th, 2013
Although his stated reason for passing on the NBA Draft and returning to Cincinnati for his senior season was that he wanted to be the first player in his family to graduate and get his degree, it’s not hard to imagine that Sean Kilpatrick also wanted to make up for a disappointing junior campaign on the court as well. Charged with becoming the new face of the program following the graduation of hulking forward Yancy Gates and leading a younger Bearcats’ team coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance, Kilpatrick faltered slightly.
Kilpatrick raised his scoring average to 17 points per game, but a five percent increase in usage rate combined with an unexpected inability to shoot the three-pointer (37% in 2012 to 30% last season) led to an effective field goal percentage of less than 50 percent and didn’t exactly paint Kilpatrick as the picture of efficiency. He was still able to create his own shot and was plenty capable of filling it up (as Marquette found out when he went for 36 in a win in January) but the onus was on him to carry the offensive load every night and his shot-selection and decision-making suffered because of it. He was still an above-average rebounding guard and plus defender but the breakout that so many had expected never really happened and the Bearcats were as a result bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Creighton.
A fringe NBA prospect, Kilpatrick decided to return to school for his senior season and coach Mick Cronin must be glad he did. After the 2012 season much was made about how the departure of Gates would affect the team, but the Bearcats actually lost far more production from last season than they did from the season before. Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker graduated and took nearly 24 points per game and more than 600 shot attempts with them, which meant that opposing defenses this season were going to be even more focused on Kilpatrick.
So far, Kilpatrick has handled being the center of attention with aplomb. He is leading the team in scoring at 19.6 points per game and his offensive rating of 140.4 is good for 23rd in the country and second among players who use at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions. He is shooting the ball from deep better than he ever has in his career (44 percent); he has improved his free throw shooting dramatically (89 percent this season, up from 73.8 percent last season and 75 percent in 2012); and he has even become a more willing distributor and playmaker by pushing his assist rate north of 20 percent for the first time in his career. He is the main reason the young and inexperienced Bearcats have only lost once this season, and he has easily justified his inclusion on the preseason first-team all-conference roster.
It’s clear that Kilpatrick has improved his game and he deserves kudos for better free throw shooting and distribution to make him a more well-rounded offensive threat, but non-believers still argue that it’s been a small sample size and they kind of have a point, especially after the Bearcats’ recent loss to New Mexico. Cincinnati’s first seven opponents were the exact opposite of a murderer’s row and when the team finally played a worthwhile opponent in the Lobos, Kilpatrick had his worst offensive game of the season with shades of the player who tends to force shots and struggle mightily from downtown. The Pit is an extremely tough environment for opponents, especially opposing shooters, and so Kilpatrick shouldn’t be judged fairly until he has a chance to redeem himself against Xavier and Pittsburgh in the next week, but history isn’t on his side either.
Through the first eight games of last season, Kilpatrick carried an offensive rating over 120 and 42 percent shooting rate on three-pointers too. But even though he still had his moments, for the most part he regressed badly and finished with the most inefficient offensive season of his career. The bad news is that things aren’t going to get any easier for his team from here. The aforementioned Musketeers and Panthers are the next two opponents on the docket and you better believe that they watched how badly Cincinnati struggled offensively against the Lobos. I think it’s safe to say that those teams will be paying more than enough attention to the Bearcats’ only competent offensive weapon in the next week.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that Cincinnati’s conference schedule should be markedly easier this season than it was before, which should allow the Bearcats to win more conference games than they will lose and allow Kilpatrick to flex his offensive muscles against defensive sieves like Houston and Rutgers. Kilpatrick, however, most likely is not thinking that way and he shouldn’t be. If he still has ultimate NBA aspirations, he shouldn’t be hoping that lesser opponents make him look like a better offensive player; he should be wanting to actually become that better offensive player. The signs are there in this year’s first month-plus, but for now, the jury is still out.