For Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick, the NBA can wait

Published March 17, 2014, in The Journal News/

The major reason why one of the best players in college basketball returned for his final season had nothing to do with breaking records or reaching milestones.

No, Sean Kilpatrick’s motivation for returning to Cincinnati instead of pursuing a professional basketball career was a cause far from any court.

“Really, I thought about graduating,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s something that no one in my family did. I’ll be the first to do that.”

In the time that’s ensued since Kilpatrick decided to return for his redshirt senior season, he’s done more than just work toward a degree in criminal justice, which he will receive April 26. The White Plains graduate has established himself as one of the best players in the country this season, earning spots on several all-America lists.

While they might seem unrelated — Kilpatrick’s desire to graduate and his success on the court — the two go hand in hand.

“Maturity off the floor translates to on the floor,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “It allows you to play smart.

“He’s confident. … He understands the moment in the game.”

On Sunday, Cincinnati (27-6) drew the fifth seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament and will face 12th-seeded Harvard (26-4) Thursday in Spokane, Wash., at a time to be determined.

It’s been a long road for Kilpatrick to get to this point. At 24, he is an old man in college basketball terms.

Regina Smith, Kilpatrick’s mother, recalled how anxious her son was during his prep season at Notre Dame Prep and his redshirt season in 2009-10.

“Everybody is moving ahead, but I told him, ‘You can’t move so quick,'” Smith said. “‘Take your time; things will fall in place when it’s time to fall in place.’ That’s what he did. He took his time and did the five years, and now everything is falling into place.”

The choice to stay in school certainly has paid off. Kilpatrick ranks 15th in the country and led the American Athletic Conference in scoring at 20.7 points per game, in addition to averaging 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals. His production comes despite playing for a defense-minded Cincinnati team that ranks 226nd in the country in points per game (69.1).

Kilpatrick was named a first-team all-American by four media outlets — Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and Bleacher Report — and second-team by the United States Basketball Writers Association, becoming the first Bearcat to receive the honor from the USBWA since Steve Logan was a first-team pick in 2002.

Kilpatrick is also second on Cincinnati’s all-time scoring list with 2,127 points, behind only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson.

“I didn’t even think I’d get close to Oscar Robertson,” Kilpatrick said. “He’s such a legend. When they mention his name, now they’ve got to mention you right behind him. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Kilpatrick will likely have offers to play professionally, but a career in the NBA will depend on whether a team is looking to take experience over youth.

“It’s going to take a unique general manager to make the selection,” said Spencer Mayfield, who was Kilpatrick’s coach at White Plains and is also a 23-year NBA scout. “In the league, there is a herd mentality. … ‘Oh, got to get a younger player.’ But there are some guys with foresight to see the value in a player like him.”

Kilpatrick said the fact he could step into a role immediately, as opposed to a younger player still developing, is why he could be considered an asset in the NBA.

“If you want somebody to help you win games, Sean Kilpatrick is your guy,” Cronin said. “If you’re looking for a guy that can help you right away, he can help your team right away. He’s ready to play in the NBA right now.”

Kilpatrick still has at least one college game left, though.

Much like the approach he takes in his own game, Kilpatrick talked about the importance of the Bearcats’ being patient entering the NCAA tournament.

“You can’t rush into what you really want to happen for you,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s something that we’ve done in the past in the Big East. We really thought about games when it really wasn’t coming. … Just take it a day at a time. If we continue to keep doing the little things and the dirty work for our team, it will pay off.”