Led by Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati's resurgence is just getting started. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)
In six years, Cincinnati has quickly moved away from the acrimonious end to the Bob Huggins era and brought in a new era of prosperity and upward mobility under Mick Cronin. With the Bearcats' appearance in the East regional semifinal last month in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati is now back where the program had been for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s: A national powerhouse still looking to make a statement.
This season, early losses to Presbyterian and Marshall, coupled with the 23-point rout against Xavier that will forever be remembered more for the brawl between the two schools in the final seconds, made the wrong kind of statement for Cincinnati. With Cronin's extreme makeover of the Bearcat offense, Xavier became not only a thing of the past; but more like a turning point for the Cincinnati season, as the Bearcats won ten of their next eleven going into Big East play and 2012.
Securing a double bye in the Big East tournament, where the Bearcats narrowly missed cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden in a six-point championship game loss to Louisville, Cincinnati entered the field of 68 having won nine of its last twelve. Considered a dark horse to make a deep run after Syracuse had lost center Fab Melo prior to the tournament starting, Cincinnati knocked off Texas and Florida State before their defeat at the hands of eventual Final Four participant Ohio State in Boston. However, that did not change the fact that Cronin has taken this team to greater heights than Cincinnati has seen in recent years, and with the wealth of talent the 40-year-old coach brings back for what will be his seventh season at the helm, there is no reason to believe that Cincinnati is not going to replicate their run to the Sweet 16. In fact, the Bearcats may even be dancing longer.
The Bearcats only lose two seniors, but Yancy Gates will almost certainly be the hardest player Cronin has had to replace since taking the job in 2006. His departure opens the door for Justin Jackson to play a significant amount of minutes as the long forward enters his junior season. Senegalese import Cheikh Mbodj will also be among the favorites to take Gates' position in the lineup, and if Cronin can lure Chris Obekpa; a 6-10 recruit who is said to be choosing either Cincinnati or St. John's as his college destination, the task of replacing a player who averaged twelve points and nine rebounds becomes a lot easier. In addition to Gates, guard Dion Dixon departs after a stellar four-year career that saw him rise from a reserve to the likes of Deonta Vaughn and Larry Davis into an indispensable part of the Cincinnati rotation. The Bearcat backcourt remains strong, however; with Cashmere Wright back for another season at the point, this after averaging nearly eleven points and five assists per game this past year. White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick becomes a junior next season, and could even become the Big East Player of the Year if he puts up similar numbers. This past season, Kilpatrick was Cincinnati's leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, grabbed over four rebounds per contest, and shot a blistering 38 percent from beyond the arc as well. JaQuon Parker returns as the Bearcats' "glue guy" after a promising campaign in which the Xavier incident actually opened the door for the 6-3 wing to average over nine points and five rebounds per contest while simultaneously doing a number of things that did not show up in the box score. Jeremiah Davis and Ge'Lawn Guyn are the headliners of a deceptively strong bench, one that also includes Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas; who comes from successful basketball lineage, as his uncle Tim played at Villanova before enjoying a solid NBA career, while older sister Essence Carson is one of the faces of the New York Liberty after reaching the 2007 national championship game at Rutgers.
Cincinnati has one more recruit coming in besides Thomas, who is basically a redshirt freshman at this point. Also joining the Bearcat family will be swingman Titus Rubles out of Blinn Community College in Texas. If that school sounds familiar, it may very well be due to the fact that it produced Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Cam Newton just three years ago before the Carolina Panthers quarterback transferred to Auburn. Again, Cincinnati may also land Chris Obekpa when the prospect announces his decision to sign later this spring. Regardless of who else comes on board, Mick Cronin has several pieces to make yet another run at Cincinnati; and this time, it might not be over after just three games in the NCAA Tournament.