UC Basketball Primed To Explode in 2012-’13

Mick-CroninEntering last season’s Crosstown Shootout the University of Cincinnati were a mediocre 5-2 having already racked up egregious losses against the Presbyterian Blue Hose (yes, that’s their real nickname) and the Marshall Thundering Herd. The Bearcats proceeded to be eviscerated at the Cintas Center before, as everyone is well aware, everything hit the fan in the waning seconds. As a result, UC basketball’s two biggest players, Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj, were suspended for six games, forcing Mick Cronin to alter the Bearcats’ entire system, switching to an offense emphasizing spacing paired with ferocious on-ball defense.

It could not have been any more successful.

After ranking last in the Big East in scoring up to that point in the season the Bearcats thrived the rest of the season, winning ten of their next eleven games, reaching the Big East Tournament championship game and clawing their way to the Sweet 16 before losing a hard-fought game against Ohio State. There was a new Bearcat style of basketball and, with an entire offseason devoted to this new more free-flowing system, Mick Cronin’s squad appears ready to take the college basketball world by storm and maybe, just maybe, be the best UC team since Kenyon Martin called Clifton home.

This year’s Bearcats squad is led by Sean Kilpatrick, selected to the preseason Big East second-team, a dynamite scorer who seems ripe to breakout. The outside system emphasizes shot-making on the perimeter, something Kilpatrick provides in spades, as well as an ability to get to the rim. He’s certainly Cincinnati’s best player and their best pure scorer, however you could certainly make the argument he isn’t the Bearcats’ most important player.

That would be Cashmere Wright, the point guard which ensures the entire four-out-one-in offensive system works. Wright was afforded significantly more freedom once Cronin made the switch, running less set plays and instead leaving the ball, and the brunt of the decisions, in the hands of his enigmatic point guard from Savannah, Georgia. Wright still has issues with turnovers but he’s a dynamic playmaker and is a competent shooter, crucial to spacing. As a senior he should be more mature and, if ready to take a step forward and cut down on the mistakes, could end up being one of the more underrated players in the country.

Chiekh Mbodj holds down the fort on the low block, replacing the departed Yancy Gates. He primarily provides defense and rebounding, a mountain of a man to erase any mistakes, offensive or defensive, made by the skilled players surrounding him. Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles, a JUCO transfer, will receive the majority of the playing time opposite Mbodj down low, both of them perimeter-oriented forwards with serious defensive potential. Jackson became the stopper down the stretch last season while Rubles is the Bearcats‘ most anticipated newcomer who shone in their exhibition game against Bellarmine. JaQuon Parker rounds out the starting lineup, serving as the do-everything glue player who can drive the ball at will, drawing ever-important trips to the foul line and, perhaps more importantly, creating foul trouble on opposing bigs. This is particularly crucial because Mbodj, while a solid player, is not a serious threat on down low, negating the chance to draw foul trouble the more traditional way.

One of the Bearcats‘ biggest strengths this season is their depth, however, with a legit 7-footer, David Nyarsuk, backing up Mbodj and a litany of guards, including Jeremiah Davis III and Jermaine Sanders, plenty capable to provide the starers rest. Last year’s team thrived with a short bench while this year’s squad, even without departed starters Gates and Dion Dixon, figures to be significantly deeper, providing Cronin a bevy of lineup options to choose from.   

The combination of an additional year of experience for stalwarts like Kilpatrick, Wright and Parker along with much more depth has driven some buzz for the Bearcats in the preseason. The Bearcats were chosen fourth preseason in the Big East, the highest preseason rank the Bearcats have received since joining the Big East in 2005-06, and yet it still doesn’t feel high enough. Three ESPN analysts chose Cincinnati as their ‘Sleeper Team’, more than any other team chosen, and this is obviously already expecting them to finish in the top 4 and receive a coveted double-bye in the Big East Tournament come March. The offense is explosive enough to incite some Final Four talk, even in if a bit far-fetched. Still, to anyone who watched this team play without Yancy Gates last season, it feels within reach. The competition was weak, definitely, but Kilpatrick and Wright played the best basketball thus far in their career, embracing the free-flowing nature of Cronin’s new offense and capitalizing on their immense potential.

If they can maintain that level of production, perhaps even improve upon it a touch, particularly Cashmere, then this Bearcats’ offense has a serious chance to be the best in the Big East. And while Louisville’s defensive pedigree will be tough for anyone to top, Cincinnati has as good a chance as anyone else in the Big East to challenge the Cardinals for the crown. If Cronin can instill enough defense into his team of capable and willing defenders, with Mbodj effectively manning the middle, this Bearcats team is dangerous. A top-4 seed and a trip to the Sweet 16 seem to be the baseline expectations for Cincinnati this season, with a Final Four a realistic possibility for the first time since Kenyon was hooping for the Bearcats.

Despite their status as a ‘Sleeper Team’ currently it would be best for Cincinnati’s opponents not to sleep on the Bearcats. They are dangerous, explosive and fully capable of competing against any team in the country. I’m not bold enough to predict a trip to Atlanta but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if that’s where they end up.

Also, Killa for Big East Player of the Year.