With the season complete and with some much-needed momentum heading into the offseason, I've put together a two-part list of who will return to UC next season and what needs to happen in order for the Bearcats to complete their comeback by earning a berth to the NCAA tournament. I'll break it down player by player and I'll look into the future to see where this team will stand next year.
Here we go:
Mick Cronin: Let's start with the man most responsible for the turnaround and also the man with the most to lose. Cronin will enter his fifth year at UC next season, and let's just get this out in front: if he doesn't make the NCAA tournament, the heat he feels next year will be like nothing he encountered this season. If he falls short again, I think his job will be in jeopardy.
Cronin, I think, has done a phenomenal job getting this team, which had only one scholarship player returning when he picked up the pieces left by the destruction of the Bob Huggins era, from the cellar of the Big East to the middle of the pack. Yes, the Bearcats' conference record was 7-11, and yes, people are probably tired of Cronin referring to his team as young and that the Bearcats were close to winning so many games if only they had gotten some breaks.
But look at his win total: it's increased every season. Look at some of the teams UC has beaten: top-25 non-conference opponents and top-of-the-line Big East foes. At the very least, Cronin has brought UC back to the point of respectability. Now, I understand that's not enough for most fans, and yeah, I can agree with that. People don't want respectability; they want their teams to compete for conference titles. I think Cronin can take this program even higher, but it needs to be next year. Otherwise, all bets are off.
Rashad Bishop: The first question obviously is this: will he be back? I'm not sure, and for now, Cronin isn't talking. I'm guessing he'll return (he was spotted hanging outside the team locker room following its NIT games), but if not, UC didn't seem to miss a beat without him. What Bishop brings to this team is his perimeter defense and the ability to hit an occasional 3-pointer. But if he's a distraction, perhaps his attributes aren't worth it.
Bishop, out of anybody in this junior class, has been the most consistent on the court, and although Bishop doesn't strike me as a typical senior leader - not in the same way that Deonta Vaughn tried to be this year - he would be instrumental to next year's team. He's just kind of there in the background, usually playing good defense and occasionally making an impact on offense. You don't base your team on him, but he's usually pretty good to keep around.
Davis: What happened to
Ibrahima Thomas: He really seemed to hit his stride in the final few games of the season, and he showed some of the potential Cronin talked about last year as Thomas waited out his transfer season. He showed his rebounding ability, he showed he could shoot the ball a bit, and he showed he can bring a certain energy to the team. He only has one year of eligibility remaining, but I think he'll have a strong season next year. He might not be a star, but he'll be a solid starter for this squad.
Darnell Wilks: He was the player most helped by Bishop's absence. In the final five games of the season, he averaged 20.6 minutes and 6.8 points. This, after playing a total of 21 minutes the seven games before that. His athleticism can't be denied, and his dunking ability can be jaw-dropping. But the team will need more than that next year from Wilks. He showed he can be a strong contributor. Can he be more than that? If Bishop isn't around, he might need to be.
Anthony McClain: Maybe without Steve Toyloy around any more, McClain will have a chance to earn more playing time (he averaged 4.2 minutes per game this year). But at this point, we pretty much know what McClain is capable of giving this team. A little bit of rebounding against teams that aren't quite as big, and a guy who can make a layup if the ball caroms to him. Other than that, I'm not sure what else Cronin can get from him.
Part two: Analyzing the junior, sophomore and freshman classes