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Kilpatrick leads Bearcats in new-look league
Cincinnati Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-12 (9-9 Big East)
Postseason: NCAA Round of 64
Coach: Mick Cronin (135-100 at Cincinnati)
American projection: Fourth
Postseason projection: NCAA Round of 64
After spending the last eight years in the Big East struggling for its share of national recognition in a league loaded with college basketball heavyweights, Cincinnati will immediately be viewed as one of the top dogs in the new American Athletic Conference.
The Bearcats would have preferred to have landed in the Atlantic Coast Conference like three of their former Big East colleagues, but the move to The American might be beneficial in some respects. They won’t have to plow through the meat grinder of the Big East schedule. But they’ll also have to strengthen their non-conference schedule to compensate for the loss of games against marquee Big East opponents, a formula that worked well under Bob Huggins in the Bearcats’ old Conference USA days.
Mick Cronin begins his eighth season as the head coach at his alma mater armed with a contract extension through 2018. He’ll have to replace three starters, including point guard Cashmere Wright, who ran the Cincinnati offense for the past four years and is the only player in school history with 1,300 points, 475 assists and 175 steals.
The Bearcats will lean heavily on shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick, a fifth-year senior who decided he would enhance his NBA prospects by returning to school for one more year. They will also feature one of the school’s most promising newcomers in years in 6-9 freshman power forward Jermaine Lawrence, a national top-25 recruit whom many believe could be a one-and-done player.
Cronin believes he has solved what was one of Cincinnati’s glaring weaknesses from a year ago by adding low-post scoring with Lawrence and 6-10 freshman Jamaree Strickland. He’s also hoping for increased production from senior Titus Rubles. Last year, Rubles averaged 5.9 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting only 33.8 percent from the field. Senior backup center David Nyarsuk, at 7-1 the tallest player in Cincinnati history, blocked 29 shots in limited playing time, but he averaged only 2.6 points and 2.5 rebounds.
The wild card for Cincinnati could be forward Shaquille Thomas. A 6-7 sophomore, Thomas has the athletic ability to become a 1,000-point scorer, but he still has a long way to go to translate that athleticism into a skill set.
Senior Justin Jackson has proven to be a consistent shot-blocker and solid rebounder, but has not developed offensively and still has a tendency to get into foul trouble. Jermaine Sanders, a 6-5 junior, must become more assertive and improve his shooting to make an impact. He made only 13-of-48 from long range last year and shot 53.1 percent from the free throw line.
The likely successor to Wright at point guard is freshman Troy Caupain, a prolific scorer who averaged 26 points in high school last season. One of Caupain’s strengths is his ability to get to the rim, but it’s always risky to rely on a freshman to run the offense. Junior Ge’Lawn Guyn was last year’s backup at the point, but he would have to make major improvements to win the starting job.
At shooting guard, sophomore Jeremiah Davis III received a medical redshirt after missing most of last season with a wrist injury. He could provide long-range scoring punch to complement Kilpatrick, who led the team in scoring (17.0 ppg) despite shooting a career-low 39.8 percent from the field.
Cincinnati’s top-25 recruiting class is led by freshman power forward Jermaine Lawrence, who’s expected to make an immediate impact. Center Jamaree Strickland is a traditional back-to-the-basket, low-post scorer but missed all of his junior year in high school and part of his senior year with a knee injury. Troy Caupain is a prolific scorer who will be given a chance to run the offense. Kevin Johnson is a Cincinnati prep product who can play both guard positions, and DeShaun Morman will be asked to provide depth from the wing.
Factoid: Sean Kilpatrick needs to score 556 points to become only the second player in school history to score 2,000 points, joining Oscar Robertson, who scored 2,973 in three years.
Cincinnati has thrived in recent years with veteran players who used their experience and physical toughness to compete successfully in the Big East. This year, however, the Bearcats will be younger, relying heavily on at least two freshmen — Lawrence and Caupain. That’s a lot to ask of first-year players, but it might be easier to get away with in the American than it was in the Big East.
Cincinnati will also have be more efficient on the offensive end after ranking 260th nationally in 2-point shooting (45.5 percent), 255th in 3-point shooting (31.6) and 302nd in free throw shooting (64.7). The hope is that UC will be able to increase its tempo — and create easier baskets — against less physical defenses in its new league.
Kilpatrick, who played for Team USA in the World University Games, was named team captain last spring and will be expected once again to carry the scoring load for a team that is seeking its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.