No. 13: Cincinnati Bearcats

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Midnight Madness is Friday. So we’re kicking off our college basketball coverage with our men’s preseason Top 25. Look for five teams posted a day, all this week.

2010-11 record: 26-9 (11-7), 4th in Big East (tied)
Lost in NCAA tournament first round

Coach: Mick Cronin, 87-76, 6th year (156-100 overall)

Last NCAA miss: 2010

2011-12 roster [click here]
2011-12 schedule [click here]
2010-11 team stats [click here]

The good: Four starters are back from a team that won 26 games and the program’s first NCAA tournament game since 2005 – which also was the first Big Dance bid since it joined the Big East. Yeah, it was a good year.

And with Yancy Gates, Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon and Cashmere Wright returning, there’s reason to expect even more in 2012. Kilpatrick emerged as a reliable scorer and the top outside shooter and should see his minutes increase significantly. Dixon, a senior, blossomed after more playing time, as did sophomore Cashmere Wright.

But it’s Gates who holds the key to Cincy’s potential. The 6-9 senior can be a force inside and thrived during the Bearcats’ crucial Feb-March stretch, averaging 16 points a game and leading the team in rebounds and blocks.

The bad: That non-conference schedule. The Bearcats once again have a weak slate, filled with the likes of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Jacksonville State, Northwestern State, Wright State and Chicago State. Yes, Xavier’s on there, but that’s standard when it comes to a hated crosstown rival.

Some (Jim Boeheim) might say a Big East schedule is tough enough, so why play tough teams during the non-conference? Cincy started 15-0 last season, but didn’t seem prepared for league play, starting 6-6 before winning five of its last six regular-season games. A little more seasoning might help them avoid slow conference starts.

Also, the Bearcats won’t have freshman Shaq Thomas, their top incoming freshman.

The unknown: Gates thrived late last season, but only after Cronin squashed a potential mess. Gates, upset about a loss at Pitt, complained about not getting the ball enough. That earned him a suspension, then long stretches on the bench before finally regaining a starring role. It paid off, too.

Gates credits that move with a focused offseason in which he dropped weight and worked on his conditioning. But will the old Gates emerge? That question might linger all year, but Cronin and Gates maintain they’ve worked it all out and won’t see any more issues.

I’ll buy that. Now, about that brutal Big East schedule …

Counting down the preseason Top 25

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