When the American Athletic Conference coaches made their preseason picks back in October, the Cincinnati Bearcats received nary a sniff in regards to which team would win the league. No. 11 Louisville was the unanimous choice and rightfully so, with the Cardinals returning most of their key contributors from last season’s national champion squad. But the Bearcats were picked to finish fourth in the conference, behind the Cardinals, UConn and Memphis.
Yet on March 6 it’s Mick Cronin’s team that can win a share of the regular season title, and his three senior starters are the biggest reason why. Justin Jackson, Sean Kilpatrick and Titus Rubles have set the tone all season long, not only in regards to production but also leadership, and that was once again the case in the Bearcats’ 97-84 win over No. 20 Memphis.
Kilpatrick scored a season-high 34 points, making 11 of his 18 shots from the field to go along with a 10-for-11 night from the foul line. And it should be noted that to solely use Kilpatrick’s percentages (41.3% FG, 34.3% 3PT entering Thursday’s game) for the season to gauge his impact on the Bearcats would be a serious mistake.
The primary offensive option on a team that has just one other double-figure scorer (Jackson: 11.0 ppg), Kilpatrick is the focal point of every opposing game plan and yet he continues to produce. And amongst players who have a possession percentage of 28% or higher, Kilpatrick ranks fourth in the nation in offensive rating per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Simply put, Kilpatrick’s an All-American.
But he’s had help in leading Cincinnati, with fellow seniors Jackson and Rubles providing that assistance. On Thursday Rubles established a new career-high with 24 points, and Jackson added 13 to go along with nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots. With this triumvirate taking the majority of the shots Cincinnati shot 53.3% from the field, and their ability to take advantage of a Memphis team that did not defend particularly well played a factor in Cincinnati’s shooting.
What also helped was 14 Memphis turnovers, with Cincinnati converting those mistakes into 20 points. The Bearcats aren’t a running team, as they rank 319th nationally in adjusted tempo, but they managed to score 14 fast break points while limiting the Tigers to eight. This all factored into Cincinnati establishing a season high for points in a game, surpassing the 80-point mark for the first time since early December.
Does Thursday night’s performance represent a significant breakthrough for Cincinnati offensively? Probably not, considering their production for much of conference play. But it does represent a fitting home finale for a group of seniors who have exceeded expectations all season long. And given how well Cincinnati defends, Kilpatrick and his teammates could be leading their team deep into the month of March.