After playing in the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2005, Cincinnati is now fully healed and ready to retake its place as one of the better programs in the country. Coach Mick Cronin, who was rewarded with a new six-year contract worth $1.25 million per year, begins his sixth season with a mix of veterans — led by senior forward Yancy Gates — a top-25 recruiting class and several young players with enough experience to flourish in the Big East.
“We have great potential,” Cronin says. “The key for us is going to be can we become the same defensive team or better than we were a year ago because that’s why we won. If you’re going to try to be a highly successful program, you’ve got to be able to play defense. I love our talent and our returning guys but we’ve got to have the new guys fill some roles for us.”
The Bearcats lost five scholarship seniors and a lot of experience from last year’s 26–9 team, but only starting forward Rashad Bishop could be considered a major loss. The 2011-12 team should be more talented overall and could be a factor in the Big East if several of the incoming freshmen — most notably forwards Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas — can make an immediate impact.
Key Bearcats Stat: 26
The Bearcats won 26 games last season, their highest total since 2001-02, when Steve Logan led them to a 31-4 record.
At 6'9", 265 pounds, Gates has been an above-average player the past few years but has yet to take that next step to stardom. The Bearcats are hoping that will happen this season after he averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a year ago. He’ll be joined on the front line by newcomer Cheikh Mbodj, a 6'9" forward with solid offensive skills from Grayson (Texas) College and Dakar, Senegal.
Kelvin Gaines, a 6'10" post player, was redshirted as a freshman last year and is not yet polished offensively, but he could provide a shot-blocking presence the Bearcats sorely need.
Sophomore Justin Jackson, a long-limbed 6'8" forward who plays with a lot of energy, finishes well around the basket, but he needs to improve his overall offensive skills. Sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, who made the Big East All-Rookie team last year, is a swing player who averaged 9.7 points last year and should assume more of the offensive burden after coming off the bench for most of last season.
Junior point guard Cashmere Wright, who arrived with great expectations, has been brilliant at times, but he’s also been inconsistent as he has struggled with a knee injury that sidelined him for his entire freshman season. When Wright is healthy, he has the quickness to get to the rim, though he needs to do a better job of finishing once he arrives there. He’s also a capable 3-point shooter and ball-handler. If he can stay healthy, he could blossom into one of the Big East’s top point guards.
“If he’s full strength, I really like our chances,” Cronin says. “To have a guy that’s in his fourth year of college, and his third year playing, and he’s a talented guy, we all saw when he was healthy and he was at his best, how good he was at times.”
Senior Dion Dixon, who averaged 11.6 points last season, has developed into a reliable 3-point shooter and a leader on offense. Junior JaQuon Parker, who played very little as a sophomore, worked hard during the offseason and could provide the Bearcats with another veteran scoring presence in the backcourt.
Last year was a breakthrough for the Bearcats, who satisfied their fans by returning to the NCAA Tournament, where they had landed for 14 straight years before Bob Huggins was fired. The key now is for the program to continue to grow. From a pure talent standpoint, this team should be better than last year’s, but with so many newcomers it will be difficult to replicate the chemistry and resiliency that served Cincinnati so well last year.
If Cronin can get the newcomers to buy into the team concept the way last year’s seniors did, and if he can teach them to play the same inspired defense that was the Bearcats’ trademark, Cincinnati could go further than the second round of the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Wright must stay healthy, and Gates must become a dominant player.
Big East Prediction: 6th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out