As Cincinnati rolled to the airport after a win at Central Florida late Wednesday, Justin Jackson asked for his team’s attention. The senior forward had an announcement to make: Sean Kilpatrick, his longtime running mate, had become the school’s second all-time leading scorer.
“Everybody give my dawg a round of applause!” Jackson said.
Everybody did. Some also made sure to remind Kilpatrick that sticking around to score 1,990 points meant he was old. But when the shouting on the bus began, no one stopped it. That vehicle, at that moment, was the one spot in the country where Sean Kilpatrick wouldn’t be underappreciated.
“I’ll never forget about it,” Kilpatrick said.
As Cincinnati prepares for another mammoth AAC showdown with Louisville on Saturday, it is becoming difficult to overlook an emerging truth: Kilpatrick, a steely 6-foot-4 guard absent from preseason All-American lists, is arguably the nation’s most valuable player.
Kilpatrick averages 20.2 points, 4.4 rebounds. 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game for Cincinnati, which has won 17 of 18 for a record of 24-3 and the No. 7 spot in the latest AP poll. That production, while impressive, can be found elsewhere. But as of Friday, Kilpatrick’s Win Shares total – an estimation of how much a player’s offensive and defensive contributions lead to victory – was 6.1. It tied for second in the nation, one-tenth of a point behind Canisius’ Billy Baron, three-tenths ahead of Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
A closer examination also reveals an important balance: Kilpatrick’s defensive Win Shares total is 2.1, a top 20 figure. McDermott’s is 1.3. Kilpatrick’s offense-defense split demonstrates high end-to-end value for a national contender that maybe only Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet (5.6 Win Shares overall, 2.1 defensive Win Shares) approaches.
“I thought going into this year he was more than capable of being a first-team All-American,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. “The key was his shot selection and his shooting percentage. Obviously Doug McDermott right now is the best offensive player in the country. The thing S.K. brings, he brings defense to the table. I think if you look at certain guys on that (player of the year) list, the one thing about him, he plays both ends.”
Of course, Creighton wouldn’t win without McDermott’s wizardry, and no one can deny his value. But Cincinnati likewise doesn’t function without Kilpatrick’s efforts on offense and defense. Gritty, mostly selfless play defines the Bearcats, and Kilpatrick is the fulcrum for that.
It’s why the results of his final season have matched his hopes, whether or not the spotlight has come with it. “Really, I was just focused on winning everything,” Kilpatrick said. “I’m so focused on that. I really take pride in what I do on a daily basis just to get us to where we need to go, and that’s trying to win everything. The accolades don’t mean much to me.”
When Cronin saw his trio of seniors – Kilpatrick, Jackson and Titus Rubles – diving for loose balls during preseason preparation, he knew his team had potential. When he saw that group enforce demands for similar effort from everyone else, he knew most anything was possible.
Kilpatrick calls it a “code.” It isn’t written down, but it is understood, and it is unbending. As such the Bearcats rank fifth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, allowing just 91 points per 100 possessions. “We know the team that does the most dirty work is the team that wins at the end,” Kilpatrick said. “The three of us, me, Justin and Titus, that’s where we come from. We know when we were the team that did the dirty work, we wound up beating the teams we needed to beat. It’s been working for us for the longest.”
But that only goes so far, so Kilpatrick often enough carries Cincinnati the rest of the way. The previous meeting with Louisville demonstrated that. Before it, Cronin asked Kilpatrick to address the team without its coach present. He needed his senior to deliver a message, especially aimed at the inexperienced players on the roster, about what awaited them in the KFC Yum! Center. Kilpatrick talked about sharing the ball, making the first available pass when Louisville’s pressure ramped up.
Then when it all came crashing down, Kilpatrick let his production speak. The Bearcats blew a 17-point lead but kept feeding the ball to their senior guard in the stretch, and Kilpatrick answered by hitting all 11 of his free throw attempts in the second half, including four in the final nine seconds to cap a 28-point night in a critical 69-66 win on Jan. 30.
“To beat great teams, you’re not going to shut them out – you have to be able to answer them,” Cronin said. “And he gave us answers in the second half. He wasn’t the only guy. But when he banged in some shots on top of theirs, that really helped calm his teammates down.”
Said Kilpatrick: “I’ve waited all my life for big moments like that.”
Few do as much for a team as Kilpatrick, and even fewer do it for such a successful team. After another 23-point night featuring six three-pointers at Central Florida on Wednesday, Cronin asked a question – “I want to know who's a better guard in America than Sean Kilpatrick?” he said – that seems to have limited options for response.
In fact, on Saturday, Kilpatrick needs just 10 points to join Oscar Robertson as the only Bearcats in history to hit the 2,000-point mark in their careers. Being in the same exclusive group does not put them on the same plane, of course. But another big day in a nationally televised game against a Louisville team on a five-game win streak -- that would be another statement to applaud, and one hard to ignore.
“It doesn’t really matter to me if they overlook me or not,” Kilpatrick said, “because at the end of the day, the numbers and wins are what’s going to matter the most.”