|Yancy Gates :: Al Behrman/AP
After making the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2005, Cincinnati is ready to take the next step. Coach Mick Cronin begins his sixth season with a mix of veterans -- led by senior forward Yancy Gates -- a top-25 recruiting class and several young players with enough experience to flourish in the Big East.
The Bearcats lost five scholarship seniors and a lot of experience from last year's 26-9 team, but only starting forward Rashad Bishop could be considered a major loss. The 2011-12 team should be more talented overall and could be a factor in the Big East if several of the incoming freshmen -- most notably forwards Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas -- can make an immediate impact.
"We have great potential," Cronin says. "The key for us is going to be can we become the same defensive team or better than we were a year ago because that's why we won. If you're going to try to be a highly successful program, you've got to be able to play defense."
Among Cronin's newcomers is front line addition Cheikh Mbodj, a 6-foot-9 forward with solid offensive skills from Grayson (Texas) College. He'll join Gates, who averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds last season, along with redshirted freshman Kelvin Gaines and sophomore forward Justin Jackson. Gaines is not yet polished offensively, but he could provide a shot-blocking presence the Bearcats sorely need, while Jackson finishes well around the basket, but needs to improve his overall offensive skills. Sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, who made the Big East All-Rookie team last year, is a swing player who averaged 9.7 points and should assume more of the offensive burden after coming off the bench for most of last season.
In the Bearcats backcourt, junior point guard Cashmere Wright has been brilliant at times, but a knee injury has caused him to be inconsistent. When Wright is healthy, he has the quickness to get to the rim, though he needs to do a better job of finishing once he arrives there. If he can stay healthy, he could blossom into one of the Big East's top point guards.
Senior Dion Dixon, who averaged 11.6 points last season, has developed into a reliable 3-point shooter and a leader on offense, while junior JaQuon Parker, who played little as a sophomore, worked hard during the offseason and could provide the Bearcats with another veteran scoring presence in the backcourt.
From a pure talent standpoint, this team should be better than last year's, but with so many newcomers it will be difficult to replicate the chemistry and resiliency that served Cincinnati so well.
If Cronin can get the newcomers to buy into the team concept the way last year's seniors did, and if he can teach them to play the same inspired defense that was the Bearcats' trademark, Cincinnati could go further than the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Jeremiah Davis (G, Fr.): Enters the program low on the depth chart.
Octavius Ellis (F, Fr.): Gives Cincinnati more depth on the front line.
Kelvin Gaines (C, Fr.): Redshirted last year and needs a lot of work on offense, but has imposing physical skills and shot-blocking ability.
Ge'Lawn Guyn (G., Fr.): Gives the Bearcats a potential backup for Cashmere Wright at the point.
Cheikh Mbodj (PF, Jr.): Is the big man whom will replace Ibrahima Thomas, but with better offensive skills.
Jermaine Sanders (F, Fr.): Is a wing player with a good feel for the game and the ability to score in a variety of ways.
Shaquille Thomas (F, Fr.): Is a skinny forward with a nice perimeter shooting touch.