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Full Bearcats student sections show progress of the program

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Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright caught wind of the development as Monday progressed. Their Twitter accounts blew up with students letting them know they'd be attending the opening exhibition against Grand Valley State.

Even as word spread that afternoon student tickets sold out, the sight still made an impression walking on the floor 15 minutes prior to the opening tip of the 2012-13 season.

"For it to be sold out on the first day?" Kilpatrick said. "That's crazy."

The scene looked crazy to anyone whose followed the recent history and rode the ups and downs of attendance issues at Fifth Third Arena. The last time an exhibition game sold out a student section, Kenyon Martin's jersey wasn't retired in the rafters, rather on his back.

These exhibitions have traditionally been reserved for what essentially amounted to a small pocket of diehards, a few resting security guards and four freshmen looking for a quiet spot to study.

Students stood for bathroom breaks not breakaway baskets.

Yet, here were the Bearcats, taking the floor in a glorified practice and not a soul in either student section sitting. The middle sections both jammed to near capacity. The masses cheered and booed as if Syracuse just took the floor.

As the nine-point halftime lead stretched to the eventual 80-60 final, the sections predictably thinned out to half their original size. No matter. Point taken.

Wright spent the last three years playing to an uninspired smattering for preseason run-ins. He knows what the student sections looked like in comparison to Monday.

"Not even close," Wright said. "It means a lot. It means we are improving. People actually want to come see you now. It means you're actually doing something."

UC did quite a lot, actually. For Brad Wurthman, Associate AD of Marketing and Strategic Communications, this scene began as a rough sketch in the summer. Enticing the students to match the excitement of the team on the floor would be challenging, but not impossible.

The UC staff decided to open the student section up as a general admission ticket for the first time in 22 years. Instead of any ticket bought and going unused left as empty seats in the front rows, everyone was motivated to come early and pack the front.

That meant, instead of students waiting until midway through the game to show, if that, the section filled before one Kilpatrick 3-pointer touched the net.

Also, UC created a loyalty program that tracks when students enter and leave the arena. Unused tickets now go noticed and chances for tickets to the Crosstown Classic, Big East tournament and NCAA tournament hinge not only on using tickets, but how long those students stayed in the building.

Once inside Fifth Third, Wurthman also assured the atmosphere would be worth staying for. He placed UC student DJ Magnificent atop the North section with a full setup and he handled the music for all non-band entertainment. And he didn't play Party Rock Anthem. A significant victory in itself.

For Cronin and the basketball program he hopes to guide for 20 years, this night was about more than Xavier tickets, seating arrangements or Gangnam Style. This was about checking off another box on his wishlist of how Cincinnati basketball should look.

"That's a huge step for our program," Cronin said. "Talking for a guy that wants to be here and build. Recruits will see that. The students are here every game like that it matters."

The next step will be adding the season-ticket holder fan base to the contingent of students. A total of 5,375 showed up for the exhibition -- still more than seven non-conference games and both exhibitions last year by up to 900 people per game.

With a student section larger than any in the Big East, according to Wurthman, the difference of a regular student section through the non-conference portion of the schedule could be a game-changer, both short and long-term.

"The students are the key," Cronin said. "You love to have your fans at every game but the students are the backbone because they are the ones that are going to bring the enthusiasm to the arena."

During a Monday night practice in October, against Division II Grand Valley State, the backbone was heard loud and clear. And considering recent history of these tilts, that's saying quite a lot.

I would love to hear all your feedback, questions, comments or otherwise. Shoot me an email at pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter at @pauldehnerjr.

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