When Cincinnati hosts Memphis in the best game on the schedule Thursday night, the Bearcats will have a chance to do something the program hasn't done in 10 years: get in position to take home at least a share of the conference title. The AAC is not the old Big East, but the conference is as strong at the top as any in the country during its first year, with five teams having a legitimate chance at a run to the Sweet 16.
Cincinnati wasn't supposed to be one of those teams when the season began, but Mick Cronin's club has spent much of the regular season in the driver's seat for the conference title. For a team that started the season unranked, the Bearcats' climb to as high as No. 7 in the polls has been a testament to a great defense and an offense that has just enough behind three seniors.
If Cincinnati isn't supposed to be in this position, then Sean Kilpatrick personifies the entire campaign. Kilpatrick definitely wasn't supposed to be here -- not as a 24-year old fifth-year senior, not as a top-five candidate for the Wooden Award, not as someone who could barely even dribble with his left hand when he enrolled in school.
That is not a joke.
"You’re talking about a guy who had to redshirt because every time he dribbled the ball with his left hand he lost it for two years," Cronin said. "And now at the end of the game he’s running pick and rolls like a point guard creating wide open shots – going left."
The basketball world has a tendency to write off its young players who don't develop quickly enough, but Cincinnati has never had that problem with Kilpatrick. The Bearcats have given him time to become one of the best players in college basketball, even if it's been a long and taxing process.
Kilpatrick will enter March Madness four months older than Paul George, eight months older than John Wall and two years older than Kyrie Irving. There's a reason why Kilpatrick isn't much of an NBA prospect -- Draft Express has him as the No. 31 senior in this year's class -- but it's doubtful the Bearcats care much about that right now. Kilpatrick will have plenty of opportunities to make money playing basketball when this season is over.
Kilpatrick spent a year in prep school after starring at White Plains High School in New York. He was originally a St. John's commit, but was swayed by Cronin to go to Cincinnati. As soon as he got there, he was asked to take a backseat -- a redshirt -- to a more highly-touted recruit: Pacers star Lance Stephenson.
It's important to understand where Kilpatrick came from to appreciate where he is today. Kilpatrick became only the second player in Bearcats history to score more than 2,000 career points during a hard-fought, one-point loss to Louisville on Feb. 22. The only other player to do it? Oscar Robertson.
Not bad company, if you can get. It underscores the fact that Kilpatrick has been one of the most valuable players in college basketball this year by any measure. There's no telling where the Bearcats would be without him, but they certainly wouldn't be neck-and-neck with Louisville for the conference crown.
Kilpatrick ranks No. 5 in KenPom's Player of the Year standings, behind only Doug McDermott, Jabari Parker, Russ Smith and Nick Johnson. He's become an excellent two-way force this year, helping the Bearcats to become the No. 4 team in KenPom's defensive efficiency rankings while still carrying the vast majority of the nightly scoring load.
Kilpatrick has averaged more than 34 minutes per game from the time he was a sophomore, but Cronin has been wise to get him out of blowouts early this season. Still, when the game is on the line, there's no doubt where the ball is going. Kilpatrick has played 37 or more minutes in eight of the Bearcats' last nine games, including all 40 against UConn and Louisville.
On a team that only has one other player (fellow senior Justin Jackson) averaging double-digits in points, Kilpatrick is one of 27 players in the country averaging more than 20 points per game. That list includes plenty of players from schools like Evansville (D.J. Balentine), Niagara (Antoine Mason) and Texas Southern (Aaric Murray), but not many that have had to deal with the type of competition there is in the AAC.
It's a testament to the conference's strength that Kilpatrick might not even be the Player of the Year in the American. Louisville's Smith, UConn's Shabazz Napier, Memphis Joe Jackson and SMU's Nic Moore all have to be in the mix, too. Still, six years after graduating high school, Kilpatrick likely doesn't care about the awards. He's exactly where he wants to be, and will have the chance to put an ending on his own story in the tournament. It's been a long time coming, but sometimes the payoff is worth the wait.