The obvious issue for Cincinnati in 2014-15 is how to replace first-team All-America guard Sean Kilpatrick, who finished his career as the second-leading scorer in school history behind the legendary Oscar Robertson.
But that’s not how coach Mick Cronin sees his challenge as he begins his ninth year at his alma mater armed with a new seven-year contract extension.
“We quickly have to realize it’s a new day,” Cronin says. “That’s my message to the guys. It’s your team. We don’t have to replace nobody. We have to become the 2014-15 version of the Bearcats.”
Cincinnati will have seven new players and no double-figure scorers returning from the 2013-14 team that shared the inaugural American Athletic Conference title with Louisville and lost to Harvard in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bearcats won’t have much experience, but they will have plenty of size on the front line, which is a major departure from last season.
“We’ll be a couple inches bigger and a lot stronger on the front line and deeper on the front line,” Cronin says. “With Shaq Thomas, you talk about six guys that are 6-7 or bigger and either really athletic or 265 or 270 pounds. We have a chance to be a great rebounding team.”
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The Bearcats were looking forward to seeing how much top-25 recruit Jermaine Lawrence had improved after his disappointing freshman year in 2013-14, but Lawrence transferred to Manhattan because he wanted to be closer to his home in New York after he learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
Thomas, a 6-7 junior forward, is Cincinnati’s leading returning scorer after averaging 6.8 points last season, but he still has not reached the potential the coaching staff sees in him. Thomas scored in double figures only once in the final 12 games of the season.
The Bearcats are hoping for immediate help from 6-10, 270-pound junior college transfer Coreontae DeBerry and 6-10 junior college transfer Octavius Ellis. The 6-10, 220-pound Ellis is the most intriguing of the newcomers because he began his career at Cincinnati in 2010, but was asked to leave after his involvement in a nightclub incident. He returns after earning All-America honors at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, where he averaged 14.8 points and 9.7 rebounds last year. Ellis is one of four Cincinnati players who were suspended after the infamous fight against cross-town rival Xavier three years ago.
Jamaree Strickland, at 6-10, 270 pounds, will make his debut after being forced to sit out last year because the NCAA would not accept all of his high school courses.
Gary Clark, a 6-7 freshman, was a prolific scorer in high school, and 6-8, 230-pound forward Quadri Moore provides another physical player on the front line. Jermaine Sanders, a valuable player at times off the bench last year, is back for his senior year.
Cincinnati Bearcats Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-7, 15-3 AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Mick Cronin (162-107 at Cincinnati, 72-70 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Ge’Lawn Guyn returns at point guard, but he’ll be pressed by sophomore Troy Caupain, who has better all-around skills and is more of a scoring threat. Deshaun Morman will make his debut after being redshirted last year due to a broken foot.
Sophomore Kevin Johnson hit some big shots in a reserve role as a freshman and could blossom into a consistent perimeter scoring threat. The Bearcats were not a great 3-point shooting team last year even with Kilpatrick in the backcourt, so they signed junior college transfer Farad Cobb, who averaged 15.1 points and shot 46.3 percent from beyond the arc last year at Northwest Florida Community College. Cobb began his career at Chattanooga.
Cincinnati has been on a nice run with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a 101–39 record during that span, but the Bearcats will have a much different look this year with a roster heavy on strong physical players on the front line.
If the Bearcats are going to make a fifth straight NCAA appearance, they’ll need a big boost from Caupain and incoming guard Cobb and hope that the front-line players blossom quickly.
With no proven returning scorer and so many untested players on their roster, it’s a stretch to predict that the Bearcats will win their second straight AAC title.
Guard Farad Cobb is being counted on to provide 3-point shooting. Deshaun Morman, who redshirted last year, will provide depth in the backcourt. Forward Coreontae DeBerry is a strong, physical player who should help right away. Center Octavius Ellis has two years of junior college experience and one year in the Cincinnati program. Jamaree Strickland is an unknown commodity after sitting out last year. Forward Gary Clark is a potential big-time scorer, and forward Quadri Moore will provide a physical presence up front.