Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin has a veteran core ready to go for the 2011-2012 season, but maybe the biggest question on the table is how he will replace 4 year starter Rashad Bishop at the small forward position.
Cronin knows it will be a tough task to replace not only his best defender, but a guy that just knew what playing in the Big East was all about.
“When you've got a guy that is one of your all time leaders in minutes played in the history of your program, obviously you're going to lose some things,” Cronin said. “With Rashad it was intangibles like how to feed the post, a guy that gives you toughness and the type of things that don't equate to a stat sheet.”
Filling the void will be spread to a few guys on the roster, including sophomore scorer Sean Kilpatrick and junior JaQuon Parker. What they will need to replace more than anything is the knack for showing up in big games on both ends of the floor.
“The development of our program into a top 25 team, his toughness was a big factor in that,” said Cronin. “We've got some guys like JaQuon Parker and Sean Kilpatrick that are going to be able to fill that role and give us that type of toughness. Rashad had tremendous confidence in his ability to play at the highest level and the toughest games in the biggest venues he always played his best.”
Kilpatrick, who averaged 9.7 points a game in his freshman campaign, will now be counted on to expand his role and he learned a lot from Bishop about being a versatile defender.
“It's going to be huge shoes to fill because he was so versatile as a defender,” Kilpatrick said. “He could play the 1-4 and sometimes even the 5 because he was so strong. It's a big role but I'm prepared for it.”
Cronin quipped last year that Kilpatrick could “score 10 points falling out of bed” and for the most part that proved true as he provided an offensive spark off the bench. In his second year on the floor his coach is counting on him to learn from the mistakes he made a year ago.
“The best thing that SK brings to the table for us is that he can create offense,” said Cronin. “His weakness though was his strength, he's always on the attack. What he learned as the year went on is you can't attack all the time. You can't attack off one pass against Pitt because they're going to be waiting on you and you're going to turn it over. At times he looked like a freshman and at times he looked like our best player. That's what happens when you're a talented young guy.”
It is expected Kilpatrick will go from 20 minute a game spark to 30 minute a game mainstay in the 11-12 season, and the New York native is looking forward to the challenge.
“It will be good because I'll be on the floor a lot longer and be able to help my team win,” Kilpatrick said. “That's what I'm about is helping the team win and helping the players around me get better. It's going to be a tough season like last year, and maybe a little tougher because we have so many freshmen. I think we're ready for it.”
Cronin's expectations are lofty for Kilpatrick, and the jump from All-Freshman to All-League is the type of year the coach is looking for.
“We talk about playing well,” said Cronin. “When you talk about having an elite team and being a contender for a Big East Championship your returning players have to be healthy and play well. You're not just going to patchwork it together. We need him to go from a top 5 freshman to one of the better players in the Big East.”
When Kilpatrick is off the floor it will be the veteran Parker who gets the first crack at stepping in. After a promising freshman year, Parker got lost in the shuffle as a sophomore in part because he wasn't working hard enough to see the floor. It was a humbling experience, and one he vows not to let happen again.
“It just taught me hard work,” Parker said. “Everybody around me was working hard, and I was the only one that wasn't. Looking back I had a tough season and I'm never doing that again.”
With a bad season in the rear-view, Cronin is turning to Parker to cover some of the intangibles lost by Bishop.
“He's my “X” factor,” said Cronin. “He got lost in the numbers, and in the spring we talked and he said 'coach it's my fault, I got beat out and I didn't have a good off season'. He lived in the gym all summer, and he's in the best shape of his life. He's going to bring some of the things to us that Rashad brought to us. As a rebounding wing, offensive rebounding to us is very important. A lot of the things that don't show up in the stat sheet, hustle, toughness, defense, rebounding he is going to help us.”
While Parker spent first two years playing out of position as the backup point guard, a return to his natural spot on the wing is a much more comfortable fit. The only time he really got to play off the ball was late in his freshman year when Bishop was suspended for the Big East and NIT tournaments.
Kilpatrick remembers watching Parker play his best ball as a Bearcat in that stretch as he crashed the glass from the wing. Those memories along with the work Parker put in this summer give him confidence that he will return to form for his junior year.
“I remember our freshman year against Louisville he had a lot of big rebounds inside against guys like Samardo Samuels,” Kilpatrick said. “He's one of those guys like me, a late bloomer. On top of that he works hard, and recently I've seen him do things he has never done before.”
While both Kilpatrick and Parker know they are going to be required to fill the big shoes Bishop left behind, both are up to the challenge and ready to help lead the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the 2nd year in a row.