For the first time since joining the Big East Conference, the Cincinnati Bearcats made the NCAA Tournament last season. Defense was their driving force and that will once again be the case even though Mick Cronin welcomes seven new players into the fold.
While Cincinnati loses several roles players, they still return their top four scorers from last season. That includes their backcourt trio of Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, and Sean Kilpatrick.
Wright underwent his third knee surgery this offseason but is ready to go for the start of the year. He is a terrific defender with quick hands and solid distributor. Cronin will need Wright to assume the leadership responsibility and for his body to hold up physically. Seldom used JaQuan Parker will backup Wright with freshman Ge'Lawn Guyn pushing for minutes as well.
Dixon is a solid off guard who buys into the defensive philosophy with his toughness but can also score when needed. Kilpatrick is a more offensive minded player and the team's top three-point threat. Freshmen Jeremiah Davis, Jermaine Sanders, and Shaquille Thomas will compete for minutes off the bench. Sanders is a bigger, physical wing while Thomas relies on his athleticism and length. Both guys could be big factors off the bench especially if they commit to the defensive end.
Yancy Gates will anchor the Bearcats in the middle. He has had his share of ups and downs throughout his collegiate career but has the potential to a dominating big man, when he puts forth the effort. Junior college transfer Cheikh Mbodj figures to start alongside Gates up front. Mbodj is physical down low and can protect the rim on D, but he is also a polished offensive player. It will be very difficult for opposing teams to match up with the size and skill of the Gates/Mbodj duo.
Justin Jackson is an athletic forward who figures to see an increased role this season off the bench. Redshirt freshman Kevlin Gaines and newcomer Octavius Ellis will also try to work themselves into the rotation. Gaines is more of a true post player while Ellis is effective operating from the perimeter but also uses his length to be a factor on defense.
It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati reacts to heightened expectations this season. They figure to be ranked in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2003-2004 and were picked to finish fifth in the Big East preseason media poll. I am not sure the Bearcats will be as stout defensively as they were a year ago since they have to replace three solid, versatile defenders in Bishop, Wilks, and Davis, especially since they have to acclimate seven new players into the fold. Still, Cronin will get his kids to play as hard as possible on that end of the floor.
Player to Watch: Yancy Gates, PF/C
Inconsistency has plagued his first three seasons as it's always a toss up as to which Gates will show up; the one who wants to dominate or the one who tends to coast through forty minutes. He has a solid mid-range game but too often plays out on the perimeter rather than imposing his will down low. Gates will need to overpower defenders in the post and bring solid energy to the floor on a nightly basis if Cincinnati is going to live up to their expectations.