The Cincinnati Bearcats returned to prominence last season, reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament and finishing 26-9 overall. They lost to eventual national champion Connecticut and returned to national prominence for the first time since the departure of Bob Huggins.
Head coach Mick Cronin who has been much maligned, proved last year why he is one of the best young coaches in the country and has steadily improved his win total each of the past five seasons. No other team in the country can say that.
While Cincinnati lost five players from last year's squad, including two starters and their best defensive player in Rashad Bishop, they return their top four scorers on a team that is a preseason Top 25 in nearly every publication.
Here is a preview of the 2011-2012 Cincinnati Bearcats.
While the starting lineup is not completely set, it can be speculated who the five will be for the first game of the season against Alabama St.
Point guard: Junior Cashmere Wright averaged 8.9 points and nearly four assists per game last year and returns for his second year in the starting lineup. He had his third knee operation in the offseason and is as good defensively as any point guard in the conference.
Shooting guard: Senior Dion Dixon was the Bearcats second leading scorer last season, averaging 11.6 points per game. He is a team leader and defensive stopper for Cincinnati. Dixon will be counted on big time for Cincinnati on both sides of the ball.
Small forward: Sophomore Sean Kilpatrick lead the Bearcats last season in points per minute and there is a chance he will be brought off the bench for some offensive firepower as he still needs work on defense, but his 9.7 points per game in only 20.6 minutes can't be ignored.
Power forward: Senior Yancy Gates has finally developed into the player everyone thought he would be coming out of high school. He led the team in points, rebounds and blocks last season. He is one of the best players in the Big East and will be a force down low for Cincinnati.
Center: Junior-college transfer Cheikh Mbodj is likely to step into the starting role vacated by Ibrahima Thomas and start down-low alongside Gates. Mbodj is a shot-blocker and defensive presence who also has a refined offensive game compared to most junior-college players.
The bench for Cincinnati will be littered with young, talented players. The frontcourt will be highlighted by 6'8" sophomore Justin Jackson who saw 13 minutes a game last season as a freshman. He will be joined by high school teammate Kelvin Gaines. Gaines red-shirted last season and at 6'10" he has a tall and lanky athletic frame. Freshman Octavius Ellis will be the other big man off the bench for Cincinnati.
The backcourt will be highlighted by three freshman who are sure to get some serious playing time. 6'4" Jermaine Sanders out of Rich High School in New York city is rated in the Top 150 on Rivals.com and is a swingman who will be one of the first players off the bench for Cronin. Guards Jeremiah Davis and Ge'Lawn Guyn will provide some scoring punch off the bench. Junior combo guard Jacqon Parker will give the Bearcats some experience and a defensive presence.
Easily the Bearcats top recruit is 6'8" wingman Shaquille Thomas. Thomas is a nephew of former NBA star Tim Thomas and is rated one of the Top 100 recruits in the country according to Rivals.com. He was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA a few weeks ago, but will be allowed to practice after the first quarter and will have four years of eligibility starting in 2012.
The non-conference schedule for Cincinnati was not up to the standards of some last season and this year will be much of the same. The Bearcats play enough difficult games during the Big East season that a few tough non-conference games will be all they need to prepare them for the rigors of the Big East.
After opening with four cupcakes, Cincinnati takes on Marshall and Miami (OH) before traveling to Georgia and No. 15 Xavier the first week of December. The final non-conference game of the season will be a home game against Oklahoma.
As part of the Big East schedule, Cincinnati will play St. John's, Marquette and Villanova twice and the other 12 teams in the conference one time each.
The Bearcats have a good shot to go undefeated once again in non-conference play, but one loss is more likely. They should be slightly improved from the 11-7 record they had in the Big East last season and 12-6 sounds likely. A 24-7 overall record and fifth place finish in the Big East could be what the Bearcats are looking at heading into the season.