Now that the worst is behind him, Mick Cronin can admit this much: "If it wasn't my hometown and my school, there's no way I would have done it," he says of taking over as Cincinnati coach six years ago. "Professionally it was a horrible move."
When Cronin, a 1997 graduate of the school, returned to campus before the 2006--07 season, the Bearcats were reeling from coaching instability that had derailed recruiting, were facing the threat of academic probation and had recently joined the ultracompetitive Big East. He spent the next five seasons in "rebuilding mode," steadily improving won-lost records. Cronin's efforts began to pay off last season, when Cincinnati started 15--0, finished 26--9 and went to the NCAA tournament for the first time since '05.
This year they cracked preseason polls for the first time since 2003. "There's a buzz in the air around campus," says senior forward Yancy Gates, the subject of much of that excitement. The 6'9" Gates was the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season and is a headache for defenders near the basket. Even more of that buzz centers on swingman Sean Kilpatrick, who as a redshirt freshman was the team's third-leading scorer despite playing just over 20 minutes per game. Kilpatrick can get his points at the rim and from the perimeter—he shot 37.7% from beyond the arc—and has an obsessive work ethic. (A high school coach once reprimanded him for sacrificing sleep to spend time in the gym.) Says Cronin, "If I can get him to be as good a defender as he is an offensive player, he'll be an All-American someday."
Getting his players to think defensively is Cronin's most pressing task. A stellar D (a conference-best 59.6 points allowed per game last season) drove the Bearcats' tournament run; though their top four scorers return, they lost four defensive specialists. Cronin must persuade his young squad to sacrifice scoring stats for the greater good.
Along with Kilpatrick, the backcourt has a multitool player in senior Dion Dixon and a solid ball distributor in point guard Cashmere Wright. However, Wright is coming off his third knee surgery in as many years, so freshman Ge'Lawn Guyn could see time at the point if Wright's knee remains an issue. "They need to understand that we're only as good as we play," Cronin says of his team. Expect to see the Program That Mick Rebuilt in many Marches to come.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Mick Cronin (6th season)
2010--11 RECORD 26--9 BIG EAST 11--7 (6th)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Sweet 16
*Junior college stats
37.9 PERCENTAGE OF available offensive rebounds grabbed by the Bearcats last season, 10th best in the nation. Their offensive-glass pressure gives them extra chances when they struggle from the field.
Cincy finds its defensive groove thanks to such newcomers as redshirt freshman Kelvin Gaines and juco transfer Cheikh Mbodj. The team cracks the Elite Eight.
Mick Cronin can't get his young players to buy into their defensive roles, and point guard Cashmere Wright's chronic knee problems limit his production.
SEAN KILPATRICK Like their hardworking swingman, the Bearcats are young, talented and learning to play both ends of the floor.