The Bearcats will play their sixth season as a member of the Big East conference and Mick Cronin will enter his fifth season as their head coach in 2010-11. In all of those years, the Bearcats have failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Put two and two together and you’ll find Cronin squarely on the hot seat next season. To make matters worse, Cincinnati’s two leading scorers depart (Deonta Vaughn to graduation, Lance Stephenson as an early entrant to the NBA Draft, despite his earlier and wiser claims that he was quite ready for the NBA), leaving the Bearcats at a point where they are not quite starting over, but need to find a new identity.

While Stephenson and Vaughn were the faces of the program last season, the real strength of the team lay in their athletic and hard-working front line, and for the most part that will return. Yancy Gates was the team’s leading rebounder last season and is their leading returning scorer, and he is certainly an enormously gifted young man. However, he has been known to give Cronin migraines from time to time, either due to lack of effort or poor decisions. If Gates can clear up those mental issues in his junior season, he is a very skilled post player who can emerge as a team leader. Alongside Gates in the post will be junior center Ibrahima Thomas, a nice long rebounder and shot blocker. Rashard Bishop will likely start at the three-spot in his senior year, and he may be the Bearcats most consistent returning offensive player, capable of both knocking down the three and slashing to the hoop.  Two seniors will return to provide depth off the bench up front: 6-11 center Anthony McClain, who played sparingly and is mostly distinguished by either his height or his awkwardness, and 6-7 forward Darnell Wilks, an athletic rebounding forward with surprising three-point range.

In the backcourt, Cashmere Wright got a few starts in his redshirt freshman year as a third guard, and will take over the point guard duties full time next year. He is a speedy pass-first point who sometimes let his speed get the best of him. According to Cronin, the player with the best chance to take over at the two-guard will be redshirt freshman Sean Kilpatrick, an excellent scoring guard in high school. Competing with Kilpatrick for that role will be quick sophomore Jaquon Parker, who was a very effective offensive player for the Bearcats in his limited minutes as a freshman. Also figuring into the backcourt mix will be senior Larry Davis and junior Dion Dixon, both of whom have reputations as excellent long-range shooters despite their mediocre percentages last year.

And then there are the reinforcements, in the form of an intriguing two-man recruiting class. Justin Jackson is a 6-8 power forward who is an active, athletic finisher who has shown some pretty impressive skills both running the floor and handling in the open court. Then there’s 6-10 center Kelvin Gaines, another athletic specimen who can get up and down the floor and be a presence in the paint. Both will have plenty of chances to earn minutes throughout the season.

There has been talk that this team has had a chemistry problem in years past, and further talk that the source of that chemistry problem is now gone. And just to be clear, surprisingly enough, that wasn’t Stephenson. The Big East has seen a couple of cases of “addition-by-subtraction” lately, and if the Bearcats suddenly have a united locker room, maybe some of those two and four point losses last year turn into two and four point wins. But regardless of the chemistry side of the equation, the fact is that the Bearcats have to find players to step in and pick up the slack left by their departed backcourt. If Wright can be the efficient point guard he is capable of and if Kilpatrick lives up to the expectations that his coach has for him, that would be a great start, but in the end, Gates putting behind the inconsistencies of an immature ballplayer and turning into a consistent force in the Big East is the only way that Cronin gets his team to the Tournament and gets invited back for another season. That may not be an easy task, but for Cronin to prove his worth as a major-college head coach, he’ll need to make sure he has Gates on board.

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