When Mick Cronin blindsided Sean Kilpatrick with the idea of redshirting as a freshman, the Cincinnati guard admits he didn't want to do it.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 2: Big East
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• Patience has paid off for Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick
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Kilpatrick scored nearly 30 points per game during his four years at New York's White Plains High School. Never once had he considered voluntarily sitting out his first year of college.
"I still remember the day like it was yesterday," Kilpatrick said. "I was like, 'What? You want me to redshirt? Are you crazy?' I felt as if I was ready, but Coach Cronin said, 'SK, trust me.' And when he said that, I told him I'd go with what he was saying. If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have been here."
All the times Kilpatrick had to watch games in street clothes from the bench or explain to friends back home why he wasn't playing have turned out to be worthwhile now that he's entering his fourth year in the program. The 6-4 junior has emerged as one of the Big East's top scoring guards, a transformation he credits partially to the year he spent working relentlessly in practice and in the weight room because he could only sit and watch during games.
He treated every practice that year like a game, a mentality he has kept because he saw how quickly he improved because of it. He became more patient and less turnover-prone from observing Cincinnati's wings from the bench and realizing the importance of picking one's spots rather than bull-rushing to the rim at every opportunity. And he improved his oft-criticized perimeter shooting stroke by watching film of Ray Allen and staying after practices or games to take hundreds of extra shots while emulating Allen's high release.
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Had Kilpatrick played as a true freshman, he'd probably have logged only a handful of minutes per game behind freshman phenom Lance Stephenson and veterans Rashad Bishop and Deonta Vaughn. Instead he still has two years of eligibility remaining after leading Cincinnati in scoring at 14.3 points per game last season, shooting a solid 37.8 percent from behind the arc and helping the Bearcats to their first Sweet 16 since 2001.
"He didn't want to redshirt because he's a competitor, but I think he'd have had a tough year because he was turning the ball over too much in practice," Cronin said. "He could have really struggled and you never know, it could have affected his confidence. Redshirting allowed him to be more prepared to play his first year, and he made it a positive because of how he worked in practice every day."
It was easier for Kilpatrick to have faith in Cronin's decision to redshirt him because of the relationship he had already built with the Cincinnati staff on the recruiting trail.
Whereas many other Big East programs shied away from Kilpatrick because of questions about his unusual shooting form and lack of all-around game, Cincinnati showed greater faith in his potential. Cronin appreciated Kilpatrick's work ethic and uncanny ability to score and figured he could tweak the release point of his jump shot and shore up some of the other weaknesses in his game once he got to college.
"When it comes to putting the ball in the basket, you either can or you can't," Cronin said. "A lot was made of the fact he had kind of a push shot, but every time we got film on him or we went and watched him, he'd have 25 or he'd have 32 or he'd have 34. We didn't have to teach him to score. We just had to refine his shot, get him to slow down a bit and teach him how to read defenses."
The late signing of Stephenson coupled with the presence of Vaughn and Bishop gave Cronin the luxury of sitting Kilpatrick a year to have him work on those facets of his game. It wasn't an instant success -- Cronin still had to pull Kilpatrick late in road games as a redshirt freshman because he got over-aggressive and turned the ball over too often -- but by midway through last season Kilpatrick was Cincinnati's best player.
He helped carry the Bearcats in Yancy Gates' absence after the brawl with Xavier, averaging 17.5 points per game during the next 11 games when Cincinnati went 10-1. He scored 18 points and dished out five assists in an upset victory over Syracuse in the Big East semifinals. And he lit up Florida State's stingy perimeter defense for 18 points in Cincinnati's Round of 32 NCAA tournament victory.
To keep improving this offseason, Kilpatrick focused on shedding weight and adding muscle to make himself leaner, quicker and harder to guard going to the rim. He worked with a personal trainer, shed 10 pounds and reduced his body fat by cutting fried food and and fast food out of his diet and eating more salads and leaner meats.
"All my life, I was brought up with fried chicken, burgers and french fries, so making the adjustment was extremely hard," Kilpatrick said. "I just stayed disciplined. I knew if I wanted to take my game to another level, I needed to change my body around."
With a more explosive Kilpatrick leading the way, Cincinnati is primed for another big season this year. They've won more games than the previous season each of Cronin's five years on the job, a trend that could conceivably continue even though the Bearcats notched 26 victories a year ago.
Joining Kilpatrick in the backcourt are senior point guard Cashmere Wright and do-it-all wing JaQuon Parker, both of whom are coming off their best years in the program last season. The departure of Gates deprives Cincinnati of its best low-post scorer, but quicker, springier big men like Justin Jackson and highly touted freshman Shaquille Thomas will allow the Bearcats to play at a faster pace this season.
If Kilpatrick is Cincinnati's unquestioned leader, he fits the mold of some of the Bearcats' past greats under Bob Huggins. Like Nick Van Exel or Steve Logan, he wasn't a celebrated addition when he signed or a finished product when he got to campus, yet through hard work and discipline he has built himself into one of the nation's top guards.
"He's taking the same path as Van Exel and Logan," Cronin said. "Nobody was trumpeting their signing. There were no major press conferences, no all-access pieces on signing day. But they could put the ball in the basket, they could make plays and they could play offense. That's exactly what [Kilpatrick] is doing for us."
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