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September 18, 2009
The Bearcats haven't made the NCAA tournament since 2005, but the signing of touted wing Lance Stephenson could change the fortunes of Mick Cronin's squad in a hurry. Stephenson would've been one of the most sought-after players in the nation if not for a questionable reputation that was enhanced by some legal problems that didn't get resolved until the summer. There's no question the biggest question mark entering the season will be Stephenson's attitude and his ability and willingness to mesh with his teammates.
Deonta Vaughn should get his chance to finally play in the NCAA tournament.
Stephenson, who would've attended Kansas if not for the Jayhawks' signing of Xavier Henry, is a tremendous slasher who also is deadly from midrange and beyond the arc. His length and athleticism make him a pesky defender and a tough matchup on both ends of the court. Stephenson, though, sometimes yells at his teammates when things aren't going well and, at times, isn't responsive to coaching. That will have to change for Cincinnati's gamble to pay off. Stephenson isn't the only Bearcats forward with talent. Yancy Gates, a physical 260-pounder, is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. "He's a load," one opposing coach said. Also in the mix is Ibrahima Thomas, who started 34 of 40 games at Oklahoma State before being dismissed from the team seven games into his sophomore season. He was averaging 8.3 points at the time. Thomas won't be eligible until mid-December.
As vital as Stephenson is to the Bearcats, the catalyst for Cincinnati will be point guard Deonta Vaughn. A senior, Vaughn earned third-team All-Big East honors after averaging 15.3 points and 4.7 assists last season. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.3 points, and he has averaged at least 33 minutes per game in each of his three seasons with the Bearcats. In short, not many Big East players have been as consistent as Vaughn, whose goal is to play in the NCAA tournament before he graduates. Redshirt freshman Cashmere Wright, who missed the 2008-09 season with a knee injury, is expected to start alongside Vaughn.
There definitely is a sense of urgency surrounding the Bearcats' program. Vaughn, one of the better players in recent school history, is entering his final college season, and Stephenson is expected to turn pro after his freshman year. If Cincinnati doesn't make the NCAA tournament this year, it may be time to put Cronin on the hot seat.
Preseason rankings were compiled by basketball writers David Fox, Mike Huguenin, Jason King and Steve Megargee.