It’s hard to miss Sean Kilpatrick on the court. His uncommon size for a guard -- a full 6-foot-4 and 220 solid pounds -- makes you take notice, but it’s his presence, his all-business demeanor, that most clearly defines Cincinnati’s fifth-year senior. When you watch the Bearcats, you watch Kilpatrick, and it wasn’t any different last week at the World University Games trials, where even when surrounded by elite college talent, Kilpatrick clearly stood out.
Kilpatrick made the cut for the final 12-man roster that leaves Monday for the tournament in Russia, an event which should be a strong springboard for Kilpatrick’s final college campaign. A possible draft pick last year even with suspect shooting marks, Kilpatrick wanted to come back to what will be a relatively inexperienced Cincinnati team to keep refining himself and his game.
“That’s something I really wanted to do was mature my mental [approach],” Kilpatrick said last week after a trials practice in Colorado Springs. “... I really wanted to come back and mature myself. I know that I’m a lot older than the guys on my team, but I can always sit here and keep learning the game, especially at this stage, at the collegiate level.”
With the departures of second- and third-leading scorers Cashmere Wright and JaQuan Parker, the Bearcats don’t have a returning player besides Kilpatrick who averaged even six points a game last season. Between an impressive freshmen class and some of the last year’s returnees, Cincinnati will have to find some scoring options to support Kilpatrick, who was far from efficient himself last season.
To that end, head coach Mick Cronin is actually pleased that Kilpatrick won’t be around for the summer in Cincinnati, so some of the others on the roster can start growing outside of his ample shadow.
“It’s good that he’s not here because he’s such a strong leader,” Cronin said Monday morning. “it’s given me the opportunity to have other guys step up and show leadership and organize summer workouts.”
“Some of the other guys [haven’t] ever been asked to do those things,” he added. “They just followed SK and Cashmere Wright.”
As much as the other Bearcats mature and fill in behind Kilpatrick, it’s hard to imagine the team having success -- even in the moderately more forgiving American Athletic Conference -- without Kilpatrick having a big season. Kilpatrick is going to have to juggle the need to be the primary scorer with making better decisions than he did last season, when he shot just 39.8 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from the arc after hitting 37 percent from that range in each of his first two seasons.
That could be challenging, as Kilpatrick’s pro aspirations will be as a shooting guard, and he needs to be able to show he can make shots. He also will be, by far, the most experienced option when the season opens, so at least during the opening stage of the season, Kilpatrick will have to balance what’s best for the team and what’s potentially best for him.
Cronin doesn’t believe his senior will have trouble balancing and distinguishing between the two, noting that Kilpatrick realizes that his dicey percentages from last season were a red flag in terms of declaring for the draft.
“It’s not about shots, it’s about percentage,” Cronin said. “Anybody can score if they shoot enough. He has to impact winning and make the right play. When he’s at his best and getting good shots and getting to the foul line, he’ll make it easier for his teammates.”
Kilpatrick agrees with his coach, noting last week that he’s very aware of his need for better shot selection this season and also has been working on developing his left hand so he can better vary his attack. Being a possible national standout, though, hasn’t changed the underrecruited guard who was convinced to redshirt four years ago after a standout career at White Plains (N.Y.) H.S. He still comes to the court with the same approach and the same willingness to learn, which is highly appreciated by the coach who will need that from his senior.
The learning curve may be a little more pronounced this season than in past years and not just because of the experience level of the roster. Because Cincinnati doesn’t have the RPI heft of the old Big East to rely on anymore, the Bearcats have had to amp up their nonconference schedule this season. There will be more tests early, including a game with N.C. State, the Jimmy V Classic against Pitt, and a trip to New Mexico, so the days of Cincinnati solely walking over a bunch of guarantee-game foes at home in nonconference play are ending.
It’s at times like that when Cronin won’t mind Kilpatrick’s leadership kicking into high gear.
“It’s a great thing to have a guy [like that],” Cronin said. “So many kids are caught up in themselves and their plight to make the NBA, it’s a luxury to have a guy who’s focused on winning.”