That’s been the million dollar question this past season, hasn’t it?
Seniors Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson have been instrumental in rebuilding Cincinnati Bearcats basketball to the point where it consistently earns NCAA Tournament bids and challenges for conference championships. Their contribution to this program has been felt in simultaneously very similar and very different ways. So it’s not easy answering that question about.
Despite the challenge, we at Cincy on the Prowl attempted to tackle the question by way of a staffer roundtable. We’ll then pose the question to you with a poll at the bottom of the post. Feel free to vote and leave a message in the comment section.
So let’s get to it!
Mike Jorgensen (@SinceHeWillWin): Not an easy question but I’ve got to say Sean Kilpatrick. First of all, I’m glad that we didn’t even bother throwing Rubles name in the mix for this question. He was a senior and may have provided some leadership behind the scenes and was definitely a great defensive presence but his shot is hard to watch. Secondly, I have trouble talking about the success this year but I suppose a successful season is undeniable. I still have a bad taste in my mouth after a first round tournament exit, in my mind the entire season exists for the tournament. I know that’s not necessarily true but when it comes to gaining respect for the program, you simply have to win some games in March.
Why Sean Kilpatrick over Justin Jackson? First, let’s give Jackson due credit. Jackson matured greatly as a player and brought an intensity to the post position that we haven’t seen in the Mick Cronin era (looking at you Gates, Bishop, Thomas, and McClain). It was nice to see someone out there who looked like they wanted to be there. Having an exciting, fan-pleasing player is especially important when you have a slow-paced, low-scoring offense as Cincinnati always seems to have. Every Bearcat fan should be very thankful for Justin Jackson; he left everything out on the court for 4 years. It would have been nice if he could have stayed out of foul trouble, shot from outside 10 feet, or been able to make a free-throw but his intensity was worth the other frustrations.
Finally, I’ll get to Sean Kilpatrick. Sean gave us a scoring threat that we haven’t had since Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson left the program in 2010. We’ve spent the last 4 years pulling our hair out, dying to get someone who could just shoot the ball consistently. Additionally, Cronin seems to have the same tendency as Huggins and not recruit true point guards. Sean was a natural 2 Guard who had to run point. He rose to the challenge and managed the offense as well as anyone in Mick’s tenure has done. Granted, Sean’s job on offense was made easier by having an enthusiastic big man (Jackson) who could put the ball back in the hoop after a miss. The reason I chose Kilpatrick over Jackson is that we had games where Jackson didn’t really show up statistically but Cincinnati won but if there were ever a game where Kilpatrick didn’t show up then we inevitably lost. It may sound like Heisman criteria, but Kilpatrick consistently made the biggest difference to this team.
Spencer Tuckerman (@spncrtckrmn): It may seem like a fairly simple question, but it actually took me a little bit of thinking and research before I found an answer I was happy with. It’s Justin Jackson. I know how weird that may seem given the fact that SK is arguably one of the 5 best players in program history, but this team could not function without Justin and everything he brought to the table this year. Despite the fact that Kilpatrick was the lone bright spot in a dreadful offensive team, I think the presence of the Bearcats’ most iconic defender was more crucial to the team’s 27 wins.
You may remember that in the early part of the season, Kilpatrick went through a really bad shooting slump. He couldn’t hit a jumper to save his life, and everyone was sort of freaking out about it. The slump began with the December 28th game against Nebraska, and lasted through the January 11th game against Rutgers. He was 4-for-33 from 3-point range during those 5 games. Guess what? The Bearcats won all of them. Granted, he still was able to manufacture some points at the line, but the team still found a way to beat Nebraska, SMU, and Memphis, back-to-back-to-back.
On the flip side, when Jackson was unhealthy or in foul trouble, the Bearcats suffered greatly. When Justin played 30 minutes or more, the ‘Cats were 12-2. That includes some of the biggest wins of the season, such as the Louisville win, the UConn win, and both Memphis wins. The only losses were in the postseason to UConn and Harvard. Key games in which Jackson did not play 30 minutes? Every regular season loss. That’s right. In all regular season losses, Jackson played less than 30 minutes. That’s how important he was to the success of the Bearcats this year.
Ben Levin (@LevinMachine): I think it’s a no-brainer for me. While Jackson was an emotional leader, a superstar defender, and showed a much-improved offensive game this year, Sean Kilpatrick was easily more important to the 2013-14 Bearcats. It’s no secret to anyone that Kilpatrick carried the bulk of the scoring load for this team all year. Justin Jackson did not score 28 points in a road win at Louisville. He did not score 26 points in a win over UConn. Not did he score 34 in the senior night win against Memphis (in a run-and-gun game where UC needed every single one of those points to survive).
But I think the argument for SK is made easiest by looking at the fact that UC played six of it’s closest and most important conference games without Jackson for large stretches. What made JJ a great shot blocker is his aggressiveness, but that aggressiveness also had a tendency to get him in foul trouble. Consider the following games: both home and away vs. UConn, home vs. Louisville, home vs. Memphis, home vs. Houston, and road vs. Rutgers in the regular season finale. In all six of these games, Jumping Jack missed long stretches with foul trouble. Despite this, the Bearcats went 4-2 in those games, and the two losses were by 1 and 6 points, respectively. If UC plays those six games without SK for long stretches, they ‘Cats probably go 1-5 (with most of the five losses coming by double digits) and finish in 5th place in the conference. As it stood, SK carried the team to an AAC title while Jackson sat.
Jesse Smith (@TeezyT): Justin Jackson- I know Sean Kilpatrick was all world for the Bearcats, but normally when the “Cats rolled over opponents it was because Jackson was effecting the game on both sides of the floor. Jackson’s contributors were the X-Factor for the Bearcats because of the decline in his Junior year. Mostly to injury, but we didn’t know what kind of impact he would have in the 2013-14 season. Bearcat faithful don’t attack me, but “Jumpin’ Jack” was the most important player.
Derek Mack (@damackattackkk): It’s difficult for me to think back on this past season and come to a definitive conclusion as to who was more pivotal in UC’s success. I find it difficult for me to think about not because both Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick make a strong case for team MVP (which they both do), but because I keep realizing that, come next season, both won’t be here.
You have to give credit where credit is due. Both Justin and SK were not only phenomenal athletes and leaders, but they were also phenomenally fun to watch. Both came into the program as 3-star recruits and without much fanfare. However, both grew into players that were feared, respected, and talked about on the national scale. That’s something that attests to how far both SK and Justin have come and how much they’ve developed.
Sean Kilpatrick will forever be one of the greatest players to ever put on a Bearcats jersey. He’s got that silky stroke from range, he’s not afraid to drive, he’s one of the most clutch players I’ve ever seen, and on top of that, he’s NBA-ready. I mean, look on twitter or walk around campus and I bet you you will hear murmurings in favor of retiring SK’s 23. You can’t not consider it with what he’s done for the program. However, like Spencer, I think the true unsung hero of the Bearcats this season was Justin Jackson.
Every game, Justin Jackson brought that energy, that aggressiveness, that characteristic JJ swag out with him every time he stepped on that court. It’s what made everyone love the kid. Furthermore, those are attributes you can’t necessarily coach into a player. Justin Jackson did all the little things and did them right. He was absolutely dominating defensively, aggressive in the paint, and would always hustle on both ends of the floor. On top of that, he was always a vocal leader. Justin Jackson is the type of player who you could always rely on getting that loose ball, those offensive and defensive rebounds, and getting that timely defensive stop. On top of the statistics that have already been presented (all thanks again to Spencer), Justin Jackson was just a machine in turning the tides of the game. I can’t even remember how many times he vaulted fans in pursuit of a loose ball. Or how many times he banked-in that sweet fade he developed in the off-season. However, I will never forget those dominating blocks, those timely putbacks the team desperately needed, or those breakaway dunks he became known for. To me, Justin Jackson, like Sean Kilpatrick, is a Bearcat all-time great and, to me, is the reason for the Bearcats’ success this season.
Tommy Perry: While Justin Jackson provided many highlight moments for our Bearcats this season, Sean Kilpatrick was the true leader of the team. Night in and night out, you knew he was going to score at least 15 and provide quality minutes. The most underrated part of his game is his defense, which never wavered, even on a bad offensive night. Justin Jackson is important in the sense that he was that extra role player we needed to win some tight games, but he was sporadic due to him constantly being plagued with foul trouble. Sean Kilpatrick is the definition of a blue collar player, as he gradually improved over his 5 years on campus. He had to endure the difficulty of being a big scorer in high school and then having to be patient and redshirt a year. He is the ultimate competitor, and even though most don’t think his game will translate well to the NBA, I wouldn’t bet against a man that works as hard as SK.
Chris Bains: There are so many great reasons to pick either Sean Kilpatrick or Justin Jackson and all of you made some excellent arguments. For me it comes down to consistency. Which player game in and game out could be relied upon to pull their weight. And for Cincinnati that was Sean Kilpatrick, even during the times when the ball wouldn’t find the bottom of the net.
Take for instance his stretch in early January when over the course of five games he shot 30% from the field and made just four total shots from beyond the arc. Despite his troubles, Kilpatrick still averaged 17 points per game. The reason was because of his versatility and wherewithal to understand how to score in a multitude of ways, such as barreling his way to the lane to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. That’s what happened against Nebraska when he made just two shots from the field but hit 17 free throws, boosting his point contribution to 21 for the good guys. Most players are going to go through stretches where they can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But the great ones know how to carry their team despite those issues.
The reason I can’t pick Justin Jackson is because UC didn’t know what they would get out of him on a game-to-game basis. Sure when he was able to stay on the floor he was crucial to Cincinnati maintaining a presence in the post. But when Jackson was benched due to foul trouble, UC had to rejigger their entire gameplan and rely heavily on Kilpatrick to carry the load. Thankfully he was more than capable of fulfilling those duties because he was the most important player on this team.