Saturday, October 15, 2011

Inside The Big East: Cincinnati

White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick leads Cincinnati into future, which should include a finish near top of Big East standings. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Buzz Williams and his three-guard set at Marquette were profiled in-depth in our last piece, and following him is another young and underrated Midwest coach intent on crashing the Big East championship party.

Cincinnati Bearcats (2010-11 Record: 26-9, 11-7 Big East)
Head Coach: Mick Cronin (6th season at UC, 87-77; 156-101 overall)
Returning Starters: F Yancy Gates (6-9 Sr., 11.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 51% FG, 58% FT, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG)
G Dion Dixon (6-3 Sr., 11.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 42% FG, 36% 3pt, 76% FT, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG)
G Cashmere Wright (6-0 Jr., 8.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 42% FG, 35% 3pt, 74% FT, 3.9 APG, 1.3 SPG)
Other Key Returning Players: G Sean Kilpatrick (6-4 So., 9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 44% FG, 38% 3pt, 72% FT, 1.5 APG)
F Justin Jackson (6-8 So., 2.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 53% FG, 30% FT)
Key Losses: F Rashad Bishop (8.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 41% FG, 37% 3pt, 82% FT, 1.7 APG)
F Ibrahima Thomas (5.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 50% FG, 60% FT)
G Larry Davis (4.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 38% FG, 34% 3pt, 73% FT)
F Darnell Wilks (3.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 43% FG, 64% FT, 1.1 APG)

I'll speak as a fan for a moment before I introduce the Cincinnati Bearcats, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament round of 32 last season before being eliminated by eventual national champion and fellow Big East program Connecticut. Cincinnati is one of those programs I cannot help but root for, thanks to an unassuming 40-year-old head coach that has quietly worked his way back to the top of the ladder and built his program back into the proven winner it had been while I was growing up under Bob Huggins.

In the four years that I have been fortunate enough to cover Mick Cronin, he has always been among the best interviews of my career; and has never given the impression of being too big for a particular media member like certain other coaches within his conference have been toward both myself and others. The soft-spoken Cronin holds nothing back when asked of his team and the expectations surrounding it, and does not mind sharing information with you. A broadcaster's and writer's dream to cover, Cronin should undoubtedly continue to find the success he so greatly deserves this year, as he enters his sixth campaign at the helm of his alma mater Cincinnati, which returns three starters and two major role players from last year's squad in the hopes of maintaining a Top 25 ranking in the upcoming season.

Homegrown talent Yancy Gates is now a senior, and the 6-9 power forward has improved by leaps and bounds since I called a game of his as a freshman back in 2009 at Carnesecca Arena. After averaging nearly twelve points and seven rebounds per game last season while also battling inconsistency through stretches of the year, Cronin and his staff believe Gates is ready to hold it together throughout the year; and the big man could be a first team all-Big East selection by the time the smoke clears on the season. Justin Jackson, who as a freshman gave many Big East teams fits trying to figure him out when inserted into games from the bench, should move into the starting lineup for his sophomore season. Despite not scoring as much as Bearcats fans would have hoped last season, Jackson's length and athleticism makes him a natural Big East forward; and he will only get better with time and age.

In the backcourt, senior Dion Dixon has made the transition from sixth man behind Deonta Vaughn to starter and team leader; and Dixon will anchor the guards for Cronin again this season following a junior campaign in which he averaged over eleven points per game while also shooting 36 percent from three-point range. Alongside him, last year's rookie sensation returns for his second season in the form of Sean Kilpatrick. A year ago, the White Plains product burst onto the scene for the Bearcats by averaging just short of ten points and a little over three rebounds per game; and shot 38 percent from long range, good enough for the lead in that department among Cronin's regulars. However, despite the presence of two gifted shooters in Dixon and Kilpatrick, the man who truly makes the motor run for Cincinnati is junior Cashmere Wright, who returns to serve as Cronin's point guard while Dixon and Kilpatrick play off the ball. Wright, who missed his true freshman season three years ago with a torn ACL, has come back better than ever; and averaged nearly nine points and four assists as the Bearcats' facilitator last season. Coach Cronin also welcomes a talented freshman class into the Queen City, highlighted by 6-7 swingman Shaquille Thomas and former Rice High School forward Jermaine Sanders. Junior guard JaQuon Parker is also back to provide added depth in the backcourt.

The Bearcats open their season with six consecutive games at their home court of the Fifth Third Arena, with the first coming on November 13th against SWAC school Alabama State. Jacksonville State, Presbyterian, Northwestern State, Marshall and Miami of Ohio are next at home for Cincinnati before traveling to Athens, Georgia for a December 2nd SEC/Big East Challenge matchup with Mark Fox and the Bulldogs. Following the Georgia game is an intriguing nonconference contest, the 2011 installment of the annual "Crosstown Shootout" against intracity adversary Xavier on December 10th. Last year, the Bearcats picked up a resounding 20-point win at home after Xavier had won each of the previous three meetings with Cincinnati; and will invade the Musketeers' home court at the Cintas Center looking for a repeat. Depending on how long Xavier center Kenny Frease is out after being suspended indefinitely earlier this week by head coach Chris Mack, Cincinnati could have it a little easier inside.

A road game against in-state rival and Horizon League contender Wright State is next before the Bearcats return home for matchups with Radford, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Chicago State. Cincinnati wraps up its nonconference schedule on December 29th with a neutral court showdown against Oklahoma, and opens Big East play on New Year's Day against Pittsburgh at the Petersen Center. Home games against Notre Dame and St. John's, the latter of which opens a home-and-home series, await the Bearcats before traveling to the Verizon Center on January 9th to meet Georgetown. Villanova comes into the Queen City five days later to play the front end of a home-and-home matchup.

Cincinnati takes its first two-game road trip of the Big East season on January 18th, when the Bearcats head to Gampel Pavilion for a showdown with UConn prior to taking on Bob Huggins and West Virginia three days later in Morgantown. A home game with Syracuse and road trip to Piscataway to take on Rutgers close out January for Cincinnati, with DePaul being welcomed into Fifth Third Arena on February 4th.

The Bearcats hit the road again after that to wrap up a home-and-home series with Steve Lavin and St. John's at Madison Square Garden on February 8th, and head to the Bradley Center three days later for the first of two meetings with Marquette. Three home games against Providence, Seton Hall and Louisville are next on the Cincinnati ledger before a trip to Florida on February 26th to face USF. Cincinnati's senior night takes place on February 28th at home against Marquette, with the final game of the regular season being a March 3rd tilt against Villanova at the Pavilion.

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