Cincinnati Bearcats Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Last Season 26-11 (12-6 Big East)
Lost to Louisville in Big East tournament championship game
Lost to Ohio State in Sweet 16 of NCAA tournament
Key Returning Players: Sean Kilpatrick, G
Cashmere Wright, G
JaQuon Parker, G
Justin Jackson, F
Ge’Lawn Guyn, G
Cheikh Mbodj, C
Jeremiagh Davis III, G
Jermaine Sanders, F
Key Additions: Titus Rubles, F (JuCo transfer, Blinn College)
Shaquille Thomas, F (Redshirt Freshman)
Key Losses: Dion Dixon, G
Yancy Gates, F
Octavius Ellis, F (Kicked off team)
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 23 vs. Iowa State (Global Sports Invitational, Las Vegas)
Nov. 24 vs. Oregon or UNLV (Global Sports Invitational)
Dec. 1 vs. Alabama
Dec. 19 vs. Xavier (US Bank Arena, Cincinnati)
Dec. 27 vs. New Mexico
Top Conference Games: Dec. 31 @ Pittsburgh
Jan. 7 vs. Notre Dame
Jan. 19 vs. Marquette
Jan. 21 @ Syracuse
Feb. 9 vs. Pittsburgh
Feb. 15 vs. Georgetown
Feb. 24 @ Notre Dame
Mar. 4 @ Louisville
Mar. 9 vs. South Florida (Senior Night)
Breakout Player: JaQuon Parker. Parker has hid behind the three-headed Bearcat backcourt for each of the last two years. This season, he’ll get a chance to be a part of it. Dion Dixon is out and JaQuon Parker is in as Mick Cronin turns to a new senior to slot in between Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick. And given Dixon’s shooting woes last season, that’s probably a tradeoff Cronin is embracing. Parker was Cincy’s top bench player last season, providing valuable outside shooting and rebounding out of the guard position (a backup guard grabbing 5.6 boards per game is unheard of). Under Cronin, whose undersized teams generally rebound well relative to the size of the roster, guards are responsible for crashing the glass. And Parker does that better than any returning guard in the Big East. In a magnified role in 2012-13, Parker should emerge as one of the best two-way guards in the league. Kilpatrick and Wright receive all the attention, but Parker is no slouch himself.
Honorable Mention: Justin Jackson. He’s the best passing big man in the Big East, yet no one outside of Ohio knows who he is. That will change this season. In an expanded role (Yancy Gates is a Bearcat no longer), Jackson will have the opportunity to flash his guard-like court vision and passing ability. The Bearcats will need more out of the multi-skilled forward. With a young and inexperienced frontcourt, Jackson must also emerge as a defensive stalwart and authority on the boards in the absence of Gates.
X-Factor: Frontcourt play. The Bearcats own the best backcourt in the Big East, even without Dion Dixon, who graduated in May. But there’s a reason why Cincy is comfortably behind Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame in the Big East preseason projections. The team’s frontcourt is a virtual unknown. Without Gates, the only Bearcat with significant frontcourt experience is Jackson, who is a natural 4, not 5, and certainly not capable of holding down the fort inside himself. Not in the rough-and-tumble Big East, where frontcourt depth is paramount. JuCo transfer and Senegal native Cheikh Mbodj, who logged a shade under ten minutes per game last season, is slated to start at center unless Cronin opts for an unorthodox four-guard lineup (or a three-guard, two-forward look). Villanova has made it work in the past, but Cronin doesn’t seem too eager to test out Jay Wright’s novelty. If Mbodj does get the nod at center, he’ll need to make significant improvements in strength, rebounding, court awareness and his post game. That’s asking an awful lot from a guy less than two years removed from junior college and who averaged fewer than two points per game last season. If Cincy is to make do with its frontcourt pieces, oft-used sophomores Jermaine Sanders (forward) and Kelvin Gaines (center) will have elevate their games in expanded reserve roles. Redshirt freshman Shaquille Thomas, formerly a highly touted high school prospect, could see significant action in his first active season at the school, as could JuCo transfer Titus Rubles. Whoever gets the nod better make good of the opportunity. The long-term success of the Bearcats’ season rides on the new-look frontcourt.
Best Case: Sean Kilpatrick is Big East player-of-the-year good, having a similar junior season as former conference POY Kemba Walker. Kilpatrick, with the help of Wright, puts Bearcats on his back and totes them to a top-two finish in the league. JaQuon Parker emerges as a senior, surpassing Dion Dixon’s senior production and solidifying the best backcourt trio in the Big East. Justin Jackson flashes more than just his Magic Johnson-esque passing skills. He wields a more complete game with more refined moves on the low block and a stronger body capable of competing with other Big East big men on the boards. Shaquille Thomas bursts onto the scene as a valuable bench spark, showing why he was one of the most coveted small forwards in the class of 2011. Mbodj is ready for the grind of the Big East, and does just enough—namely, the little things like rebounding, boxing out, sealing the paint, altering shots and setting screens—to allow the strength of the Bearcats (the backcourt) to operate at full capacity. Ge’Lawn Guyn assumes the sixth man role left behind by Parker (now a starter) and excels as a sparkplug off the bench. The Bearcats are far from great inside, but again, thanks to a backcourt committed to helping on the boards, Cincinnati is good enough down low for the backcourt to lead the team. With signature non-conference wins over UNLV, New Mexico and hated rival Xavier (no bloodshed this time around though), Cincy rolls into conference play, where the squad reels off 13 wins and a top-two finish in the league. A strong showing at MSG lifts the Bearcats to a top-four seed on Selection Sunday.
Worst Case: Lofty expectations and a growing commitment by opposing coaches to game plan against him weigh on Kilpatrick during his junior season. Wright and Kilpatrick still comprise the top starting backcourt in the league, but the gap is not as wide as it could be. Parker, who excelled in a sixth man role last season, struggles adjusting to his new starting gig. The lack of a frontcourt presence causes Cincy to fall in love with the 3-point line (even when the Bearcats had an inside presence last year in Gates, the team still had a bad habit of launching too many ill-advised 3’s). Having guards pull down lots of rebounds is nice, but when they have to shoulder the bulk load of the rebounding, that’s a problem. The Bearcats show why as they are eaten up on the glass, especially in conference play. With the guards having to pack it in on defense to assist on the glass and compensate for the frontcourt deficiencies, Cincy becomes exposed to the 3-point shot. What’s more, the team’s overreliance on guard rebounding stymies fast-break opportunities and prevents the Bearcats from scoring easy buckets. Mbodj is still a work in progress and unable to assume an expanded role. The Bearcats are devoid of an inside presence aside from Jackson, who alone is eaten up by opposing big men. Cronin experiments with a four-guard look and a three-guard, two-forward alternative, but both solutions ultimately fail against physical, frontcourt-oriented Big East opponents. After an up-and-down non-conference run low-lighted by a second straight loss to Xavier (in a down year, no less), Cronin’s Cats stumble into the Big East, where they’re sandwiched in the middle of a more-than-usual top-heavy conference. A sixth-place finish in conference and quick exit at the Big East Tournament finds the Bearcats squarely on the bubble come Selection Sunday.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 23-8 (12-6 Big East), 4th place Big East
Lose in semifinals of Big East tournament
NCAA tournament No. 5 seed

Topics: Basketball, Cincinnati Bearcats

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