Wednesday, October 12, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 18 Cincinnati Bearcats

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 26-9, 11-7 (t-6th Big East), lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to UConn

Head Coach: Mick Cronin

Key Losses: Rashad Bishop, Darnell Wilks, Ibrahima Thomas

Newcomers: Jeremiah Davis, Octavius Ellis, Shaquille Thomas, Ge'Lawn Guyn, Kelvin Gaines, Cheikh Mbodj, Jermaine Sanders

Projected Lineup:

- G: Cashmere Wright, Jr.
- G: Dion Dixon, Jr.
- G: Sean Kilpatrick, So.
- F: Justin Jackson, So.
- C: Yancy Gates, Sr.
- Bench: JaQuan Parker, Jr.; Jeremiah Davis, Fr.; Octavius Ellis, Fr.; Shaquille Thomas, Fr.; Ge'Lawn Guyn, Fr.; Kelvin Gaines, Fr.; Cheikh Mbodj, Jr.; Jermaine Sanders, Fr.

Outlook: Mick Cronin has now officially gotten the Cincinnati program back to relevance as he brought the Bearcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. It was far from a guarantee for much of the season, however. Cincinnati got off to a 15-0 start to the season, but other than the final win in that streak -- a 20 point shellacking of Crosstown Shootout rival Xavier -- that record was largely based on the fluff that the Bearcats played in the non-conference portion of their schedule. There were many doubters, myself included, of Cincinnati's legitimacy as a potential tournament team.

To their credit, the Bearcats proved the doubters wrong. They went 11-7 in Big East play, including a stretch where they won five of their last six games and beat Louisville, Marquette and Georgetown twice. After winning a game in the Big East Tournament, the Bearcats earned a six seed in the dance and knocked off Missouri before getting bounced by the eventual national champs in the second round.

The key for Cincinnati this season will be Yancy Gates, who was the spark for the Bearcat's late-season surge last season. After getting frustrated over how many shots he was getting, Gates snapped at an assistant coach at practice. That didn't go over well, and Gates was suspended for Cincinnati's trip to Pitt. He played limited minutes -- and was benched in the second half -- against both St. John's and DePaul in the next two games before coming alive. He averaged 15.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 1.3 bpg over the final 10 games of the season, and that renewed effort he showed late in the year has continued into the offseason. He's lost 20 pounds, he's taken conditioning and weightlifting workouts seriously, and by all accounts Gates finally appears to have matured enough mentally to be able to reach his full potential as a player. With his size, strength, athleticism and skill set, I don't think its a stretch to say that Gates could end up being the best big man in the Big East this season.

Joining Gates on the front line will be quite a bit of youth. I expect sophomore Justin Jackson to start. An athletic 6'8" forward, Jackson is one of those guys that makes things happen with his energy. Whether its making a play defensively, getting an offensive rebound or finding himself open off a cut to the rim, Jackson is going to play hard. It will be interesting to see if Jackson's offensive ability can develop next season. The front court depth will be all newcomers. Kelvin Gaines is a 6'10" redshirt freshman and a high school teammate of Jackson. Cheikh Mbodj is a Senegalese JuCo transfer. Octavius Ellis is a 6'9" Memphis native. That front court could end up being a weak spot for the Bearcats.

Mick Cronin should have a solid group on his perimeter next season. Sean Kilpatrick is the name you want to remember here. A sophomore, Kilpatrick was terrific in the role of the sparkplug off the bench last season. Playing just a shade over 20 mpg, Kilpatrick was the third-leading scorer for the Bearcats last season. He was a high-volume, high-efficiency player as a sub, the kind of player that the stat-heads love. He shoots the ball well from deep, he can get to the free throw line, and he doesn't turn the ball over. It will be interesting to see how he handles become a primary scoring option this year.

Joining Kilpatrick in the starting lineup will be Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright. Dixon is a do-it-all kind of player. He was the team's second-leading scorer last season, capable of putting up 15 or 20 points when he needed to, but he's also the team's best perimeter defender. Wright is the point guard and the playmaker. He's a good defender and a guy that can get into the lane and draw a foul or find an assist.

The first guy off the bench on the perimeter will likely be JaQuan Parker, but it will be interesting to see which Parker shows up. He had a promising freshman campaign, but he struggled with his confidence as a sophomore, shooting a dreadful 18.4% from the floor and losing his spot in the rotation by the time Big East play rolled around. Freshmen Jeremiah Davis, Ge'Lawn Guyn and Jermaine Sanders round out the rotation.

The Bearcats aren't quite on the level of the Big East elite. UConn, Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville will likely be the four teams battling for the Big East title. But don't be surprised to see Cincinnati knock one or two of those teams off. A top four finish in the league isn't out of the question, especially if Gates and Kilpatrick both become all-Big East caliber players.

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