2008-2009 Record: 18-14, 8-10 Big East (t-9th)
Key Losses: Mike Williams (9.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Alvin Mitchell (6.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Key Returners: Deonta Vaughn (15.3 ppg, 4.7 apg), Yancy Gates (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Dion Dixon (7.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Newcomers: Lance Stephenson, Ibrahima Thomas, Cashmere Wright
Mick Cronin's 2009-2010 Bearcat team will be by far the most talented in his four years at Cincinnati.
It starts with senior Deonta Vaughn, a potential first round pick who just may be the best player in the Big East you've never heard of. Vaughn is an explosive scorer (15.7 ppg for his career) whose offense is based around his ability to hit the three.
When he gets hot, going for 30 is not an uncommon occurrence.
But he isn't just a shooter; Vaughn is able to put the ball on the floor and either get to the rim or draw an extra defender and find an open man.
Vaughn's numbers dipped quite a bit during his junior season (17.3 ppg to 15.3 ppg; 40% 3's to 34% 3's; 1.36 pps to 1.22 pps).
Thanks to an injury to Cashmere Wright, a freshman who was expected to start at the point, Vaughn was forced to play out-of-position. (He is much more effective as a scorer when he can play off the ball.)
The other issue was a lack of depth on the perimeter for opponents to fear. Every night, he would face defenses completely geared towards slowing him down.
That will change this year.
Not only is Wright returning from injury, but the Bearcats also added all-world recruit Lance Stephenson to the mix.
I know that Stephenson is a freshman, but already he is as talented a scorer as there is in the country: He's the all-time leader in points scored in the state of New York.
There may not be a more potent "1-2 punch" in the country, let alone in the Big East.
The Bearcats will also have a lot of back court depth, as juniors Larry Davis and Rashad Bishop, sophomore Dion Dixon, and freshman Sean Kilpatrick will compete for minutes.
As ridiculous as it may sound, Wright may be the most valuable of the three starting guards.
There really isn't another point guard on the Bearcat roster.
Sure, Vaughn can slide over and do a serviceable job, but having your senior leader playing out-of-position (especially on a team with this much talent) is less than ideal. Wright was a top 100 recruit before hurting his knee, but he will be entering this season with no college basketball experience after rehabbing a knee for a year.
While he will take a while to get back to his pre-injury form, the Bearcats will not need much more out of Wright than to avoid turnovers and get the ball to Stephenson and Vaughn in places where they can score.
Up front, Cincy will be strong as well.
Yancy Gates, a sophomore who entered Cincinnati with a lot of hype but had an up-and-down first season, could be headed for a breakout year. He is a load to handle on the block and when he goes to the glass hard, but he was incredibly inconsistent finishing in and around the basket.
The biggest issue is that Gates is a bit of a head case, allowing his emotions to get the best of him at times.
They do lose Mike Williams, a workhorse in the paint who decided not to apply for a fifth year of eligibility, but senior Steve Toyloy should be more than ready to fill his shoes.
The x-factors up front will be seven foot junior Anthony McClain and 6'11" transfer Ibrahima Thomas.
Thomas averaged 8.3 ppg and 3.9 rpg in seven games with Oklahoma State last year before deciding to transfer. He will be eligible to play after the fall semester ends, and his ability to hit shots from the perimeter could make him an excellent complement to Gates on the inside.
McClain has all the length in the world, but he has yet to prove he has the strength, coordination, and ability to be a significant factor at this level.
I foresee one major problem: Stephenson and Vaughn are both volume shooters, meaning they take a lot of shots.
Will there be enough shots for both of them?
Will Stephenson be able to defer to the senior Vaughn, or vice-versa if Stephenson turns out to be an All-American at this level?
If Gates continues to develop, will he be able to handle being the third or fourth option?
With just Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson on the roster, the Bearcats could probably make a run at the NCAA tournament.
If Cashmere Wright is healthy and effective, and Yancy Gates is a threat in the post, Cincinnati might be the third-best team in the Big East. I don't think a 25-win season and a trip to the Sweet 16 is out of the question if Stephenson and Vaughn are able to co-exist.
But with the number of volatile personalities on this roster, Mick Cronin will have his work cut out for him.