The headlines surrounding these Bearcats may be Sean Kilpatrick and defense, but the determining factor in their success will be the emergence of everyone else. That process enjoyed a promising step forward Saturday.
CINCINNATI -- The first 3-pointer clanged off the rim. An easy jumper slipped out. Even a layup couldn't find the net.
Sean Kilpatrick was having one of those days.
In the recent history of UC basketball, that meant the Bearcats would be having one of those days. Points either flowed through No. 23 or possessions died.
Yet, on this day, with Kilpatrick missing every shot that didn't come from the free throw line the Bearcats offense thrived against an 8-3 team from the Big 10.
This was supposed be the year of Kilpatrick. In so many ways as he ascends up the ranks of the program's all-time leading scorers it will be. But the true potential of the 2013-14 Bearcats will be discovered when Kilpatrick doesn't hit shots more than when he does.
That's why in the big picture of judging the potential of this team, Saturday's 74-59 win against Nebraska may be the most promising of any this season.
"I like our chances if we score 70," Mick Cronin said. "SK is not getting 50. We got guys with talent we just have to keep telling them we have confidence in them."
All the secondary pieces received a confidence injection Saturday. And just in time for conference play.
As Kilpatrick hit just 2 of 13 shots from the floor, instead using 17 of 18 shooting from the free throw line to manufacture offense, the rest of the team shot 50 percent from the field.
Stats are just numbers. They can be twisted to fit nearly any narrative. The definitive signs of encouragement came from the timing and method in which those contributions came.
As Nebraska hung around in the first half, freshman Kevin Johnson picked up the offensive slack posting a career high of 11 points before halftime. He hit a 3, he drove to the bucket, he pulled up for a jumper, he ran the floor.
Johnson played like he was back at Summit Country Day.
"We know what he can do," Kilpatrick said. "He's a prolific defender. He can actually shoot. When he is going like that, that's a huge lift. I am happy when he scores. That is something we need the most."
Once Nebraska began dropping 3-pointers -- they would finish 9 of 20 from deep -- UC felt the game pressure. Each time it was matched. More importantly, each time by a different player.
The ball made its way into the post on three consecutive possessions at the beginning of the second half and each time Justin Jackson used a post move to deliver.
Spins, follow rebounds, lefty lay-ins. There was no sign of the Mean Face, it was instead replaced with a look of confidence that can only come from three consecutive double doubles.
Where did this come from? The change into a bruising, center in the Eric Hicks mold created a post player the Bearcats can confidently throw the ball in to. They did on this day to the tune of 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"He loves the fact he's part of the offense now," Cronin said. "His hands are on the ball, he's a willing passer, he loves to pass the ball out of the low post. He's taking his time a lot more."
Once Nebraska chipped the lead to three points with under 10 minutes remaining the pressure again returned. Only then came the moment for freshman Jermaine Lawrence to make an impact. He answered with a putback and jumper on back-to-back possessions to stretch the lead back seven. The lead would never be closer.
Involving all the pieces was freshman point guard Troy Caupain. Without him the 31 bench points wouldn't exist. During the Christmas break he's turned a corner along with the other freshman. The game takes on a different feel now with him at the helm. After a steal in the lane or rebound he instantly pushes the pace.
Caupain played 24 minutes providing five points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and zero turnovers.
He's uninterested in facilitating, he's interested in creating. Now, he's learning how to do so.
"He's got his head up," Cronin said. "That's the first thing we noticed during the recruiting process, when I went to see him as soon as he get the ball his first dribble his head goes up. He does not panic during pressure and his head is always up."
Pushing the pace and involving others will be a key for this team that needs to limit its half court possessions and live in constant search of transition points.
This defense will always be there. Cronin will assure as much. Their goal is to rank first in the nation in defensive and offensive rebounding. The former isn't far-fetched. They've now gone 20 consecutive games holding opponents under 70 points. The largest active streak in the country.
Turning this season into a swan song to remember for Kilpatrick won't be about his 19 points per game or even the top-ranked defense in the country.
It will be about everyone else. On Saturday, everyone else offered the most definitive reason to believe yet.
"There's more than two options now," Kilpatrick said. "Instead of all teams looking at me and Jack, they are looking at everyone now because everyone is more aggressive. That's something we have really been implementing in practice Everyone has to be more aggressive and be able to show their game. You can't be timid because now it's about to be conference play and we need as many scorers as we can have."
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