Mick Cronin’s overhaul of the University of Cincinnati basketball program was destined to be a multi-year effort. No one could be expected to take over a program with one scholarship player and only the summer to recruit his first class and then immediately compete in the Big East. UC’s first two seasons under Cronin were going to suck because of the talent level available — even at the JUCO level — at that point in the game, and starting that late with such a sketchy group affected Cronin’s first full year of recruiting as well.
Heading into year three we got to see what a typical Cronin recruiting class should look like — the additions of Yancy Gates and Cashmere Wright were the types of moves that year-after-year keep a program stocked with the talent to consistently compete with the Big East’s best. Wright’s injury hurt this year’s team badly because of the lack of depth left over from the previous two years. But that doesn't make up for this team's complete meltdown down the stretch, which concluded with an opening-round Big East Tournament loss to DePaul, which hadn't won a league game all year. Fans are upset, with good reason, about how the team ended the season, even if it overachieved during the middle.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that serious changes are coming to a team that, on paper, only has room for a couple of additions next year. In addition to adding Wright, who is expected to fully recover from his ACL tear by summer practice, the ’Cats will add Sean Kilpatrick, a 6-foot-5 freshman shooting guard out of New York. These two alone aren’t enough to make UC a top-six team in the Big East, though Wright will make a big difference.
What’s interesting about the current situation is the fact that Cronin has been recruiting more kids than it would seem he has spots for. Last summer Cronin got a verbal commitment from former NBA prospect John Riek, a 7-foot-2 Sudanese center who to date has not been cleared academically to join the team. In January Cronin accepted a transfer from Oklahoma State, 6-11 center Ibrahima Thomas, who will be eligible to play December of next year. There has been little news made public on the Riek situation, so this looks like a simple switch.
What has been made public is that Cronin is still actively recruiting for next year. UC is said to be in the mix for four-star swingman Terrell Vinson, and rumors suggest Cronin is looking for another point guard as well. An October spinal chord injury caused sophomore forward Kenny Belton to miss the season and, considering the depth of talent moving ahead of him at UC, Belton might decide to transfer to a smaller school. But that’s only one potential spot.
Rumors also suggest that a number of UC’s sophomore class are unhappy with their playing time/roles, which would only make sense if a couple of them were actually playing well. From the outside it seems like Cronin is more frustrated with what they lack (talent, work ethic, attentiveness?), and this was demonstrated when sophomore guard Alvin Mitchell sat on the bench wearing is warm-ups during UC’s Big East Tournament loss to DePaul on Tuesday. Mitchell was suspended for the last few games of last season and could be on his way out. But it really wouldn’t be surprising to see any of the other young players go with him, aside from Gates.
This still leaves the Bearcats with the question of whether Mike Williams will be granted a sixth year of eligibility. Considering the lack of development from any of the team’s current wing players, they’d be much better off if he can return. But if he’s denied that year it opens another scholarship, should Cronin believe there are still players available that can immediately help the team.
All of these situations will be cleared up soon, as UC will find out early next week whether they’ve been invited to the NIT or if their season is done (Cronin said Wednesday that the Bearcats will not accept an invitation to the CBI or Collegeinsider.com Tournament). Once the season is officially over, he'll meet with his players and release the appropriate press releases regarding their futures.
When Cronin told The Enquirer about the school’s decision to forgo the lesser postseason tournaments, he also commented on where the program will go from here: “You’ve just got to push forward. You’ve got to gain experience and upgrade talent. We have gained experience and we’ve got to continue to upgrade our talent.”
He could have said that the team needs to learn from its mistakes this year and get tougher before next season. But it seems like upgrading the talent is his preferred choice.