Yancy Gates & The Cincinnati Bearcats Have Their Bite Back

*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks, starting Monday. After Oregon yesterday, we’ll keep this going with Cincinnati – not quite a top 16 team, but one of our favorites here at Dime.*

The Cincinnati Bearcats spent the second half of the past decade rebuilding the program’s image following the departure of long-time head coach (and at times controversial) Bob Huggins in 2005. The ‘Cats are finally on the cusp of regaining their old form of the Huggins era, as Mick Cronin led the squad to its first NCAA Tournament berth of his five-season tenure last year. A 26-8 record overall and sixth place finish in the Big East (11-7) was good enough to earn the Bearcats a No. 6 seed in the Dance, where they beat Missouri before falling to UConn in the Round of 32. The journey back has earned Cronin a contract extension through 2017, as well as a No. 22 preseason ranking and a projected fifth place finish in the Big East this year. With the top four scorers coming back, the Bearcats are looking to reach the “glory days” level of years past once again.

Key Players
Yancy Gates is the big name for UC this season. The 6-9, 260 pound monster of a forward enters his senior year as the team’s reigning leader in points (11.9) and rebounds (6.9) per game. Yancy has been inconsistent at times earlier in his career, and I felt it was pretty obvious when his focus and hunger for the game were lacking. But he seemed to turn a corner last season and others are beginning to take notice, earning Gates preseason All-Big East Second Team honors. Yancy will be counted on night in and night out to provide not only points, but boards, blocks and all-around toughness for the Bearcats. Staying out of foul trouble will be a constant task for the Cincinnati native.

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Senior guard Dion Dixon will be the other big leader for the ‘Cats, coming off a season in which he averaged 11.6 points a night from the floor. Dixon has the ability to play both guard positions, and his versatility and experience will be just as important as his offensive point production. Sophomores Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson will also be vital to any success the squad might have this season. I felt both players should have received more minutes as freshmen last season, especially in the case of Kilpatrick, who put up 9.7 points and 3.2 rebounds a game in roughly 20 minutes a contest. The 6-4 guard/forward is the Bearcats’ most talented all-around player in my opinion, a guy that can slash or dribble to the paint and get points at the rim or step back and play on the perimeter, where he shot nearly 38 percent from beyond the arc last year. Look for Kilpatrick to be featured far more prominently in the Bearcats’ rotation and offensive scheme this season. Jackson is a lanky, 6-8 athletic specimen that can run the floor and jump with anyone. He put up 2.5 points and 2.5 rebounds a game in only 13 minutes of action, and should benefit from an offseason of polishing his offensive game.

Junior point guard Cashmere Wright – the man with the soft “J” and soft name – always seemed to have a profound impact on the squad’s game-to-game performance last season. The team’s output often mirrored Wright’s, excelling with his success and stumbling when he struggled. The 6-foot ballhandler had solid averages on the hardwood (8.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.9 apg), but was often fluctuating between strong and erratic performances over the course of the year. A more consistent season out of Wright should yield more stable play from UC in ’11-’12.

I also think the squad will benefit from the graduation of a few players off last year’s squad. They lost a few starters and serviceable subs, but I felt Cronin used far too large a rotation at key moments in the season. It was head-scratching and frustrating when potential studs like Kilpatrick and Jackson were surrendering minutes to more experienced but less talented role players. Barring a couple freshmen coming on really strong in non-conference play, a seven or eight-man rotation should be an advantage for the Bearcats down the stretch. Speaking of…

Young Guns
The Bearcats bring in a nice group of young, talented freshmen this season who UC fans will hope to have contribute at high levels a few years down the road. It’s unclear what the role of each newcomer will be for the upcoming season, but early indications are that 6-5 wing Jermaine Sanders and 6-2 combo guard Ge’Lawn Guyn will be counted on the most. A nice position battle push by each of those guys should help keep Kilpatrick and Wright focused and motivated, too. Mick Cronin is also said to be expecting strong production out of 6-10 JUCO transfer and Senegal native Cheikh Mbodj.

The Bearcats are continuing a pattern from year’s past in which they play a rather sub-par non-conference slate before heading into the rough-and-tumble Big East schedule around the start of the 2012 calendar year. The ‘Cats will eventually have to face off against perpetual conference (and national) powerhouses like Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and UConn, but the earlier matchups offer little cause for alarm on paper. Aside from the annual contest against local rival Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout, the Bearcats toughest non-conference foe is probably Oklahoma or Georgia. If this season in any way mirrors the last, a strong start against inferior opponents could do a lot to boost UC’s confidence against the likes of Xavier and the Big East juggernauts.

[Related: 10 College Basketball Teams Flying Under The Radar This Year]

Sorry For The Wait
After complications regarding the eligibility of four-star freshman recruit Shaquille Thomas, the 6-7 forward is reportedly redshirting this season. I’m expecting big things out of the youngster next year though, especially after an extra season to prepare his body for the collegiate game.

Under The Radar
The Bearcats lost one of the top defenders in the conference with the departure of four-year player Rashad Bishop. It will be interesting to see how the ‘Cats intend to fill the defensive void. I’m guessing the task will fall to Kilpatrick, but only if he seems up to the challenge from the get-go.

What are your expectations for Cincinnati this year? Will they regain their old touch?

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