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Player Development Under Mick Cronin

In order to be a successful coach at the Division one level, you have to do two things really well: recruit and develop players.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The screams are loud and sometimes prophetic. Getting a gaggle of twenty-somethings to not only listen - but believe in - what you're saying isn't a walk in the park. Pregame speeches, postgame lessons, offensive sets, defensive rotations, recruiting, scouting, gameplanning. But what if Johnny Basketball never improves? Is that his fault or the coach's?

First things first: any head coach who sticks around a program for 9+ years can develop players. The degree to which that development takes place is another question, though. And it's hard to compare various progressions.

Take freshman Gary Clark for example. The quiet 6'7" forward pulled down rebounds like no one else was on the floor this year - leading his team with Dennis Rodman-like 7.2 a game. Coupled with his 8 points and 53% shooting percentage, it's apparent Clark had quite the freshman year.

But would it have been better or worse if head coach Mick Cronin had been more, uh let's say vocal, in practice, pregames and postgames? Or would Clark have had a better or worse freshman year if he played under Coach K at Duke?

You can't compare either scenario. That's what makes this so difficult.

The talent pool at Cincinnati has gone from Wile E. Coyote in 2006 to Roadrunner in the present day, so it's easy to see why teams and records have gotten better year by year. But a lot of coaches can improve talent.

We're talking player development here, and the two best examples are, in my opinion, Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson.

Kilpatrick arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio as a ho-hum 3 star prospect and turned into a guy sinking long-range bombs in the NBA this year. He averaged 9.7 points while playing 20 minutes a game his freshman year. By graduation, he put up 20.6 a game while his minutes only increased 64%.

It's easy to compare Kilpatrick's progression to that of Justin Jackson since they were both on campus at the same time. Jackson was also a 3 star recruit who averaged 2.5 points on 12.9 minutes his freshman year. And by his senior year? He put up 11.1 points a game while his minutes merely doubled.

Two examples out of how many players? That's a fair question to ask - and I have two answers: I don't have enough free time to research every single player that's played more than a couple of years under Cronin and these were the best, most recent examples I could think of.

But it's a fair question to ask - especially when you look at some of the other 4-year players under Cronin. Was Jermaine Sanders and Ge'Lawn Guyn's development, for example, the same as SK and JJ? Absolutely not. But they most certainly improved. Both were guys who averaged very few minutes and the occasional basket a game to contributors who saw meaningful minutes and scored more than a handful of key points.

Now whether they could have flourished even more under different head coaches is a question we'll never know the answer to. Plus, you have to factor in the fact that Cronin wasn't as involved this past year.

Another interesting angle on the player development theme deals with the types of recruits the Bearcat program pulls in. There has been the occassional 5 star prospect, but by and large Cronin and crew have had more success bringing in lower ranked prospects and turning them into players that compile borderline top-25 and NCAA Tournament competing squads.

Is that because they don't want to deal with the headaches that come along with your standard rent-a-player on his way to the NBA? Maybe.

I'm not arguing that Cincinnati wouldn't take an NBA-bound prospect if the opportunity presented itself. What I do think, though, is that Cronin prefers to build this program similar to what Wisconsin has done: find the players - regardless of ranking - that fit your system and build the program from the inside out.

And, well, it resulted in 23 wins - including an NCAA Tournament victory - during a season in which the head coach missed more than half of the games and practices. Are we to the "promised land" yet? I don't think so. But if next year goes as I think it can, it'll be hard to argue the current approach isn't working.