(L-R, Justin Jackson, Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick)
The most noticeable thing after UC's recent win over (then #16) Louisville at Fifth Third Arena was what happened afterward.
The game was not a sell-out, but the student section was full. This coming off a highly disappointing home loss against St. John's. When it was easy to walk away in disgust, the students returned loudly and were rewarded with an inspired performance.
While nine players participated, three were notable for their contributions on the court during the game and on the press tables afterward. Led by true freshman Justin Jackson who plays each contest with passion usually reserved for a Final Four game, some of the younger Bearcats exalted the crowd and acknowledged their enthusiasm.
Following Jackson (who is brilliantly establishing fans with his enthusiasm) Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright also jumped on the baseline press tables and waved to both student sections.
Sure, it's part pro wrestling and it's "showmanship" but it also shows the audience that you need to grow that you care. The students become alums and eventually have to pay. If you give them no fond memories, you likely lose repeat customers.
What I saw in this game were the building blocks of this program.
Just as Nick Van Exel, Erik Martin, Terry Nelson, Kenyon Martin, Melvin Levett, Tony Bobbitt and others have done in the past, these three athletes "played to the crowd". That's because they are "student-athletes".
Let's not kid ourselves and recognize these guys as "equals" to the student population, but by recognizing their classmates they at least try to establish a "bond" that can only serve them well in the future.
Mardy Gilyard realized as much in football and you'll be hard pressed to find another Bearcat gridiron great that had such a relationship with his fans. Connor Barwin paraded the Big East trophy around Nippert in 2008--also connecting with core fans that'll never forget that scene.
Fans have to feel their players care and Jackson, Kilpatrick and Wright have demonstrated that with their approachability and their willingness to share the moment.
If they play like they did against the 'Ville, UC might have to invest in stronger, sturdier press tables. Although the entire team's performance was admirable and gutty, Jackson, Kilpatrick and Wright showed why they could be the nucleus of the future.
Jackson's minutes have increased over the season and you're now seeing what I described here over the summer...a guy with a tremendous wingspan, ultra-high energy, that will begin as a ROLE player. Against Louisville, Jackson fulfilled his role marvelously.
In 20 minutes, his hands were everywhere. His numbers don't "wow" you, but he's a player that does his best work AWAY from the ball. What he gave you playing half of the game though would net you six points, eight boards, six assists and a couple blocks if you extended those numbers out.
You can't always base a game's numbers on extrapolating numbers, but it always makes for interesting discussion. As I've pointed out before, based on "points per minute", Sean Kilpatrick has been a more effective first-year player than Lance Stephenson was.
"SK" over 40 minutes (based on Louisville numbers) would have 31 points, and three to four steals and rebounds. Cashmere Wright would've had 28 points, about five rebounds and three to four assists and steals.
Still, playing just 23 minutes (Kilpatrick) and 29 (Wright), UC's guards were quite productive.
"He (Cashmere Wright) probably had his best game since he's been here," coach Mick Cronin said. "SK banged in some shots that widened out their zone."
For Wright, the improvement was the result of fairly simple advice (and here's hoping it continues).
"Coach Cronin told me from the get-go to reduce the play calling and just attack, attack, attack." Wright said.
When he does, few can stop Cashmere Wright from finding the hole. Not everything goes in, but Wright can pretty much drive by anyone.
And, let's not forget, Wright has TWO more years to play.
Justin Jackson has THREE years to go and already has had more of an impact than a lot of former Bearcat greats had as freshmen (go ahead, look it up.)
Sean Kilpatrick and his "old school" game also has THREE years remaining. (If "old school" means consistently making set shots, runners, floaters and taking it to the rack, perhaps "old school" should become "new school"?)
That means (hopefully) more post-game celebrations and an extended relationship with the students. Without a student presence at games, it's tough to have any "advantage" at home.
Ask Duke, Pitt, Kansas or any other school you can think of that has students all fired up and filling up arenas with energy. One source feeds the other.
"They support us all year," Kilpatrick said. "They deserve something like that."
Just like the Iowa cornfields, if you build it, they will come.