This week’s addition of 6-foot-5 shooting guard Lance Stephenson to UC’s 2009 recruiting class will have effects far beyond the instant upgrade it means for the Bearcats’ starting swingman position. Stephenson — a big shooting guard fast and strong enough to drive to the basket — is one of the rarest commodities in college basketball. (Google “Pitt’s Sam Young jams on UC — 2008” for evidence of its beauty.)
But for every poor Providence Friar or DePaul Blue Demon that Stephenson posterizes this year, there will be several Louisville Cardinals, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Connecticut Huskies who get abused by Deonta Vaughn and Yancy Gates. The Bearcats were a quality — if young — team before Stephenson. Now they’re one of the most complete starting lineups in all of college basketball.
Stephenson was once considered the top player in the 2009 class. He’s the kind of player that can lead a Sweet 16 run with minimal talent around him. And when the other positions are covered, this type of player can put a team over the top — Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the National Title during his sole college season.
That’s not to say that UC will be a Top-5 preseason team or National Title contender — there are nine other Top-10 players entering college basketball this year as well, many of whom are joining teams with other great players with experience. But what Mick Cronin had assembled before the addition of Stephenson — talented (though inexperienced) point guard, proven All-Big East shooting guard and monsterous, NBA-potential power forward — was already going to compete with the upper half of the Big East and for an NCAA Tournament bid. Adding a guy like Stephenson is going to make that group so much better.
College basketball is often guard-dominated. Because talented big men are a rarity, a scoring center can single-handedly dominate a game against a smaller team. But normally teams look to solid guards like UC has in order to keep smaller teams in games against better (read: bigger) competition. The combination of UC’s inside-outside talent is high. But adding an NBA-ready swingman is like adding a second Ace to a pitching staff — the team is that much more difficult to beat in a seven-game series.
Consider that Vaughn has been the Bearcats’ leading scorer in each of this three seasons. Gates will be every opponent’s primary target of inside defense. And Cashmere Wright was going to have to score during the times when Vaughn and Gates were bottled up. With Stephenson running around and Lebron-ing half the teams UC faces, everyone else is now going to follow a different philosophy: score whenever you want to.
It’s still not guaranteed that Stephenson will be eligible this year — gosh darn court case and amateur-status issues! — but it’s generally assumed that he will. Bearcat fans were already looking forward to this year's edition of the slow and steady progression of the program since Bob Huggins’ departure simply because the team was going to be better than last year. Stephenson is going to speed that progression up. And when he and Gates start jamming on Syracuse’s head on national TV, other top high school talents are going to look at those black and red jerseys and say, “Yea, that looks like fun.”