Ladies and gentlemen, we are just 10 days away from the silver lining of a Cincinnati winter: college basketball. The Musketeers tip off against Farleigh Dickinson at home on Nov. 9, with Coach Chris Mack attempts to rebuild a program riddled with transfers. The larger hope for the Queen City, for a change, lies with the Bearcats, as UC takes the floor against Tennessee-Martin on Nov. 11 in Fifth-Third Arena.
With a slough of Midwestern teams rounding out the national polls (Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan filling the top five spots in both the AP and the USA Today rankings), it's easy to be excited for the region. Even closer to home, though, the Bearcats have made their national claim in the AP Top 25 with a No. 24 ranking.
ESPN also places UC in the No. 24 slot, likely with recognition of UC's postseason surprise in 2012, a Sweet Sixteen run that ended to with a loss to a fellow Buckeye public school, Ohio State. The Bearcats return three starters from that squad, a trio of guards that can rival almost any D-I program's backcourt. Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright, and JaQuon Parker all are extremely talented ball-handers who can shoot the lights out (all three averaged over 10 points per game last season--well, 9.4 for Parker, but close enough).
The largest concern for the Bearcats will be the absence of Yancy Gates, who controlled the post extremely well (and dropped Xavier's Kenny Frease in one punch, but that's not necessarily a stat Coach Mick Cronin is trying to replace). Gates averaged 8.9 rebounds and 12.2 points per game last season, a big hole to fill, but Cronin has the option to deploy Cheikh Mbodj, Justin Jackson, and David Nyarsuk in his place. Mbodj and Jackson each had significant playing time last year, while the junior transfer Nyarsuk, from Mountain State, is a "dunking machine," according to ESPN.
Cincinnati should walk over teams their first four games (Tennessee-Martin, Mississippi Valley State, North Carolina A&T, and Campbell) until meeting Iowa State and then #18 UNLV or Oregon in the Global Sports Invitational.
The Bearcats were selected in the Big East preseason coaches' poll to finish fourth (1. Louisville, 2. Syracuse, 3. Notre Dame), Cincinnati's highest preseason conference ranking ever. Many feel the Bearcats are severely underestimated, though, and see them as the dark horse who could spoil it all.