It’s nice to see football experience such a renaissance on Cincinnati’s campus in recent years but when push comes to shove UC is a basketball school through and through. At least that’s how I’ve always viewed it since I started following the ‘Cats in the mid-90′s. When searching for evidence of this look no further than the UC students. The Bearcats sold out their student section for both exhibition games this year, the first time in over ten years that’s been the case. Clearly there is a ton of excitement surrounding this team.
But as the saying goes, with much hype comes much responsibility. Or something like that. The 2012-13 version of the Cincinnati Bearcats is the most talented group of players since Mick Cronin has taken over the program and they should win a lot of games. This team is built to almost perfectly match the blueprint of Mick’s ideal team. The 2012-13 Bearcats are truly seven years in the making, dating all the way back to Mick’s first team meeting that included just 4 players. For the most part UC’s head coach has restored Cincinnati basketball to what it once was. But to call the rebuilding job 100% complete he needs to show he can win with a team that is ultra-hyped going into the season as opposed to one that is fighting critics every step of the way.
Realistically that shouldn’t be a problem but this team still faces quite a few questions this year despite returning such a veteran group. I’ll do my best to answer seven of them after the jump.
1) Can the 4 – 1 offense work for a full season?
Watching this for three-quarters of last season the impulsive answer is an emphatic “Yes!”. The Bearcats saw marked success with the up-tempo offense with a focus on scoring and steals. On paper it sounds perfect; you win games by outscoring your opponent and the 4 – 1 is the best means of accomplishing that goal. But the scheme puts heavy pressure on players making shots and forcing the opponent into giving up the ball, while surrendering size around the basket. Cincinnati got into a ton of trouble last season when shots stopped falling, the opposing team didn’t turn the ball over, and the Bearcats lost the battle in the paint (see: Ohio State). To me the benefits of the 4 – 1 scheme far outweigh the costs as UC is pretty well built to run this offense over the course of the season. It might cost Cincinnati a couple of games but it will win them more than a few as well.
2) Will the backcourt be as dangerous as advertised?
On paper the trio of Cashmere Wright, JaQuon Parker, and Sean Kilpatrick combine to form the best backcourt in the Big East. Cash does a nice job running the offense and creating turnovers, Parker is a “guard” who acts more like a forward with his rebounding abilities, and Killa can score from anywhere on the court. They have a track record of success and should be able to shoulder the weight of UC this Winter. I think Cash, Parker, and Kilpatrick will have their best years as Bearcats but you never really know. One injury, heaven forbid, and Cincinnati has a major hole in their offense.
3) How does Cincinnati replace Yancy Gates?
The quick and easy answer is Cheikh Mbodj. He’s 100% healthy and in excellent shape, both of which were not the case last season and really prevented him from reaching his full potential as a junior. This year though he’s a brand new Cheikh! Replacing the production and presence of a Yancy Gates is never easy but Mbodj should do a solid job this season. The major difference in the upcoming season is that the offense will not run through the power forward (Yancy) as it has in years past. Cincinnati’s big men will be required more to collect rebounds and get buckets off of errant shots than carry the team. This responsibility will be entrusted to the three guards above. So while man-for-man Mbodj will try to replace Yancy Gates’ production the Bearcats will be using a completely different style of offense that doesn’t focus on the position anyways.
4) Will Justin Jackson return to full health?
Cincinnati’s sparkplug has been held out of the exhibition games because of a couple of minor injuries. My gut tells me he was benched for precautionary reasons but I can only hope that it’s nothing more serious. Most people close to the program have been playing them off as insignificant. However my nightmare is that they will haunt JJ this season and affect his play. We witnessed last season just how ineffective Cheikh Mbodj was as he constantly battled a bum ankle. With the kind of high energy player Jackson is a minor injury could easily balloon into something worse. This will definitely be something to keep an eye on this season.
5) Who’s going to spell Cashmere Wright in critical situations?
Last season this task of giving Cash and his knees a rest fell to Dion Dixon. Well he’s now gone and another player will have to step up to spell the Cincinnati point guard for 5 – 10 minutes per game. Most of the talk in the preseason was that sophomore Ge’Lawn Guyn who be that guy. In all likelihood he will be the first player off the bench to replace Cash as there really aren’t any other options on the roster and Jeremiah Davis has been moved off the point. Guyn wasn’t overly impressive in this role last year which was one of the reasons why Dixon took over. But hopefully after a year of experience under his belt the young guard will be more prepared this time around.
6) What role will Shaq Thomas and Titus Rubles play?
Of the few fresh faces on the roster these two are probably the ones drawing the most interest from fans. Shaq was redshirted last season after a mixup with his high school program forced him to sit out his freshman year and Rubles is a highly touted JUCO who turned heads in the exhibition games. As of now it looks like both are essentially fighting for the same spot, the small forward position that Rashad Bishop excelled in two years ago. Rubles seems to have a slight edge right now and actually could push Justin Jackson for playing time.
7) Will 5/3 Arena rock once again?
Like I mentioned in the opening paragraphs it’s encouraging that Cincinnati was able to sell out its student section for the two exhibition games. However that’s but a few thousand seats of the 13,167 that border Jucker Court. The Bearcats and everyone at the Shoe feed off the student section, who in general are great, but UC will need them to show up each and every game to make 5/3rd the kind of home court advantage as it was in the early 2000′s. Attendance has been on the rise since Mick Cronin took over but the annual attendance is always weighed down by poor early-season crowds when Cincinnati is playing the little sisters of the poor. Ideally I’d like to see the Bearcats average over 8,000 per game for each non-conference game and approach sell outs during Big East play. Even that slight boost would make 5/3rd one of the most imposing environments in the conference.
Now I pose a question to you. How do you think the Bearcats will finish this year?