With the conclusion of UC's season coming at the hands of Creighton and Doug McDermott (who, of course, couldn't make a shot against Duke) here at the Bearcats Beat I want to hand out my awards for the season that was.
The year didn't end as anybody inside UC would have like or hoped when it opened five months ago. And certainly not as well as when UC sat at No. 8 in the country in December. But that doesn't mean there weren't plenty of incredible plays, players, moments, games and performances worth chronicling.
Here we go (Reminder: These awards are mine and mine only, not discussed with coaches, players, staff):
Team MVP: Sean Kilpatrick
When determining the MVP, there was a need to assess true value. Should the dramatic change in the team without a healthy Cashmere Wright display his true value to the team? Of course, imagine what this team would have looked like without Sean Kilpatrick. In a closer battle than some would think, Kilpatrick takes this nod.
If the team needed a big shot or push toward the end of a game, it relied on SK. He finished the season averaging 17.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while earning Second Team All-Big East honors for the second consecutive season. His 36 points against Marquette marked the biggest win of the year and all his achievements came with a constant clawing, scratching, double-teaming and use of any other tactic imaginable by opposing defenses. His 3-point percentage dropped this season primarily because of so many times given the ball with five seconds left on the shot clock and nowhere else to go. The defensive attention made it more difficult for Kilpatrick but did open more one-on-one opportunities for other players.
A big decision awaits him this offseason, but nobody meant more to the Bearcats this year. Honorable Mention: Cashmere Wright, JaQuon Parker.
Most Improved Player: Shaquille Thomas
This award would have been up for serious debate only two weeks ago, that was before redshirt freshman Thomas left no doubt through an emergent postseason. Given an opportunity for more playing time by Mick Cronin with a switch to a more athletic lineup, Thomas took full advantage. Over the three postseason games Thomas averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds in an average of 20 minutes. Prior to that in regular season conference play he averaged 1.8 points in 1.5 rebounds in 9.0 minutes per game.
His confidence looked apparent on the biggest stage of the season when he piled in a season high 12 points using a variety of pull-up jumpers, layups and athletic plays. Oh, and he did this.
After a rocky first year, Thomas appears to have found himself while entering his second year of play in the program. With the departure of JaQuon Parker, his services will certainly be needed. Honorable Mention: Cheikh Mbodj.
Toughest Player: Cashmere Wright
We may never know the severe extent of Cashmere Wright's injuries this season. We know he had to have his shoulder popped back into place about six times, according to Cronin. We know he sprained his knee bad enough that he was supposed feel pain for about a month, but played through it midseason. We know the injuries severely limited his explosion and shooting stroke during the homestretch. Yet, there was Wright, playing hurt -- as he has his whole career -- racking up the most games played of any basketball student-athlete in UC history.
An argument in this category could be made for JaQuon Parker, but that probably means redefining toughness. Parker epitomizes toughness on the court as far as never quitting and finding a way against all odds. As far as leaving any personal pain or discomfort behind in a charge to lead the team, everyone this season takes a back seat to Wright. Honorable Mention: JaQuon Parker.
Best Moment: Rainbow Wright
There were plenty, but none combined to be as consequential, dramatic and amazing as Wright's buzzer-beater to beat Alabama at home. In my postgame piece here, I documented the shot from all angles.
People forget, Wright struggled mightily that game. He couldn't find a rhtyhm and only had six points. Yet, when he took the ball and dribbled toward the bucket only to find 7-foot center Moussa Gueye in his face. To fade away, manage to get the floater over his outstretched block attempt, slide into the first row of seats and bury the game-winner is one of the great moments in Fifth Third Arena history.
The most amazing part was Cash couldn't even see the rim and didn't know it went in until he heard the crowd reaction and saw his teammates charging toward him.
"I just shot the ball hoping," he said.
Best Play: Jackson dunk off deep pass vs. MVSU
In a non-conference game against Mississippi Valley State, the highlight play of the season occurred when JaQuon Parker attempted a steal near midcourt. As he grabbed the ball he was nearly falling out of bounds, but instead of safely tossing it into play behind him he launched a rainbow pass to Cashmere Wright down the floor. Wright didn't just track down the pass, he immediately flipped into a behind-the-back bounce for a trailing Justin Jackson, who put the exclamation point slam on the end. Phenomenal plays all around. Honorable mention: Wright buzzer-beater vs. Alabama, SK over Marquette.
Best Game: UC 71, Marquette 69 (OT)
Best Individual Performance: Sean Kilpatrick
No Cashmere Wright. A Top 25 team in the house. Allowing 50 points in the second half to the Golden Eagles. Heading to overtime. Sean Kilpatrick dropping 36, including the game-winner on a rival. Yeah, this game had it all. Epic swings in both directions and ended up with heroics from the team's MVP. Was an incredible game and the best night to be in Fifth Third Arena all year.
Kilpatrick always can be counted on for offense, but beyond his 36 points this night illustrated the intangibles that make him a special player. He withstood the mental grind of being denied the ball with a 94-foot faceguard the majority of the second half and overtime that limited his touches. He happily allowed his teammates to take advantage of the space. He then made one of the most athletic, instinctual plays of the year tracking down an overthrown pass near the sideline to save valuable seconds from running off the clock in OT. And after the game he jokingly referred to Cronin as "the little guy." He did it all. Here was the full game story from that night, all about his Kilpatrick's signature game at UC.
Honorable Mention Game of Year: Creighton, @Syracuse, Alabama.
Honorable Mention Best Individual Performance: SK vs. Iowa State (32 pts, 5 rebounds, 5 steals), Cashmere Wright vs. DePaul (20 points, 7 assists in 22 minutes before injury)
Best Storyline: Cheikh Mbodj Senior Day
Certainly my favorite gameday story to write this basketball season. The parents of Cheikh Mbodj flew in from Senegal for the week of his Senior Day game against South Florida. They hadn't seen him play basketball live in six years and hadn't seen him at all for two years. What happened next? Mbodj churned out the best 25 minutes (second half/OT) of his UC career, including a crazy block to help save the game.
This came after his parents walked out to mid-court with him before the game, all dressed in native garb. Mbodj was smiling ear-to-ear in the postgame press conference when he talked about it and one of the true good kids in college basketball finally had his great moment. And it couldn't have come at a bigger time considering how important the win against USF would prove to be toward UC's postseason aspirations. Honorable Mention: Cashmere Wright steals record #FindPuffy
Best Quote: Justin Jackson
In a win against Rutgers Jackson showed off his game-changing energy with 7 points, 6 blocks and 7 rebounds and a new career high for number of #JustinJacksonMeanFace's. I wanted to get to the bottom of what type of energy goes through him when he makes a big block like the one that landed on the SportsCenter Top 10 that night.
After a few attempts to elicit the answer where he said he couldn't explain it, I fired one more attempt asking him if he could try and do his best. He then snapped off this gem to me and it fit perfectly:
"It's like getting a new pair of shoes," he said.
Best Atmosphere: The Crosstown
Concerns were abound regarding the move of The Crosstown downtown following the 2011 brawl at Cintas Center. Had this event been neutered? Did these games belong on the home court? Would people show?
What it turned into was a US Bank Arena split down the middle with an electric feel of the two fan bases cheering against each other not only in pregame warmups but as teams made runs during the games. There were no lulls as there can be if the home team falls behind in these games. Every basket, every run was filled with a fury of energy from one side of the arena. It had the feel of an NCAA Tournament game only with the fiercest of rivals on both sides.
Certainly, tweaks to pricing points and other exterior elements will be necessary, but it provided the best atmosphere of the season. Honorable Mention: Ring of Red vs. Marquette, Final Big East Tournament MSG.
As always, I want to hear from you! What were your favorite games, moments, plays and performances. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my winners and send me your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr.