By Jon Rothstein
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Yancy Gates was the cornerstone.

Four years ago, the burly big man represented the focal point of Mick Cronin’s plan to lead Cincinnati back from college basketball’s purgatory. After a few inconsistent years to start his collegiate career, Gates turned into a productive player and finished his career with back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

After not being selected in last month’s NBA Draft, Gates is trying to catch on with the Detroit Pistons as a rookie free agent — his old team however, is preparing to start a new era.

Without the physical Gates to dominate the middle, Cronin is hoping his Cincinnati team can get out and run more next season with the hopes of maximizing their collective speed, skill, and athleticism.

“We’ll play faster,” Cronin said of Cincinnati. “We’ve spent all spring and summer playing how we were when Yancy Gates was out in the middle of last season. We’re trying to understand the concepts and details of the fast breaking style we’re trying to implement.”

That style should be easier to play because of the Bearcats’ talented back court. Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick, and Jaquon Parker all started last season and should form one of the better perimeters in the Big East — and maybe the nation.

“Whenever you have returning guards, you have a chance to have a great year,” Cronin said “Our guards are talented but more importantly they’re winners.”

The 6-foot Wright really became a complete player last season as a junior and seems set for a major encore in his final run as a collegiate athlete.

“If he stays healthy, his goal should be to be the best point guard in the Big East,” Cronin said of Wright, who averaged 10.9 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game last season.

The talented Kilpatrick is the type of offensive force that could lead the conference in scoring.

“Offense is an afterthought for him,” Cronin said of the 6-4 guard.

Parker meanwhile will slide back and forth between playing on the wing and battling bigger players on the interior as he did last season despite only standing 6-3. Also look for sophomore guards Jermaine Sanders and Ge’Lawn Guyn to be primed for bigger roles in their second seasons. Sanders is down 20 pounds and Guyn according to Cronin, has “gotten some confidence back”.

A wild card for the Bearcats on the perimeter will be 6-7 red shirt freshman Shaquille Thomas, who could wind up being Cincinnati’s best scoring option off the bench.

“He’s the forgotten guy,” Cronin said of Thomas.

Unlike the last few seasons, the Bearcats won’t have a focal point like Gates to throw the ball to in the low post. With that said, the trio of Cheikh Mbodj, Justin Jackson, and JUCO transfer Titus Rubles should give Cincinnati enough flexibility to play at a faster pace. Mbodj should be much better defensively after dropping 24 pounds and Jackson is one of the better energy guys in all of college basketball.

The skilled Rubles however, could be the most intriguing piece in the Bearcats front court.

“He’s a perfect fit for us,” Cronin said of Rubles. “Titus was a guard when he went to junior college and now he’s 6-8, 260. He’s a great ball handler and passer and a true face up player. I hope he can eventually become for us what Jae Crowder was last year for Marquette.”

There’s a general consensus that Syracuse and Louisville will be the two best teams in the Big East next season but Cincinnati should be in the mix to be right behind. The Bearcats have veteran guards, experience, and a coach whose built a program from the bottom up.

When Cronin began his tenure as Cincinnati’s head coach in 2006, he inherited a roster that was at best filled with decent mid-major personnel. Now six years later, he’s elevated the Bearcats into a perennial contender in the best conference in college basketball.

“There’s nothing harder than what I walked into six years ago,” Cronin said. “What I’ve learned is you have to always make sure you have players and you can’t lose the culture of winning. Right now we have a great culture in our program. That’s what we’re trying to continue.”

What do you predict for Cincy next season? Let us know in the comments below!