I will never forget the first time I saw Sean Kilpatrick in action.
It was Sunday, January 18, 2009 and Sean had already signed to play for UC the next fall. The Bearcats were scheduled to play at Providence the following night and Sean’s prep school team took part in a showcase event in Boston that afternoon. I was living there at the time and Mick and Hep Cronin planned to drive up from Providence to meet me at the game.
Unfortunately, a massive snowstorm made it impossible for the Cronins to make the one-hour drive and I was one of maybe two dozen people who showed up at Chelsea High School for the event.
My timing was as lousy as the road conditions. The night before, Kilpatrick scored 28 points in a game played in New York City, but his entire team (including Sean’s roommate and future Syracuse standout James Southerland) appeared sluggish in the loss I witnessed to Bridgton Academy.
“That was a long day,” Sean recalled when I asked if he remembered the game. “The bus ride up there was hectic because of the snowstorm. It was crazy. It was interesting to see you there because I didn’t think anybody was going to make it because of that snowstorm. You weathered the storm. You’ve been following me since I was in prep school and that is something that I’ve always appreciated from you.”
And while I didn’t see him have a good game, Kilpatrick’s coach assured me I would not be disappointed when he got to Cincinnati.
“You didn’t see much of a performance today, but Sean’s basketball ability is not a concern,” Notre Dame Prep head coach Ryan Hurd told me at the time. “The kid performs. We’ve played 19 games now and this is maybe the second time he didn’t play well. I have no doubt that he’s going to go to Cincinnati next year and put up really solid numbers.”
Not a bad call huh?
In Saturday’s loss to Louisville, Kilpatrick joined Oscar Robertson as the only players in school history to score more than 2000 points. Sean finished the game with 28, making it the 16th time this year and 33rd time in his career that the fifth-year senior has scored 20-or-more in a game. In Cincinnati’s last eight games, he’s averaging 25.3 points.
“We often talk about his leadership and what kind of person he is, but there’s not enough talk about his raw ability and what kind of basketball player he is,” said Cronin. “He has evolved into a big-time player. I’ve been around some guys that were drafted in the Top 20 and dominated college basketball, but he’s as good a guard right now as I’ve ever coached in my 18 years.”
“Coach Cronin’s had my back for the five years since I’ve been here,” said Kilpatrick. “He’s never let me down and I’ve tried my hardest to never let him down.”
Kilpatrick’s individual brilliance and the team’s unanticipated climb into the Top 10 has led to talk in recent weeks – especially from my WLW colleagues Mo Egger and Lance McAlister – that the University of Cincinnati should retire his uniform number.
“I’ve never thought about that and I don’t really know the criteria,” said Cronin. “That’s pretty strong because there have been a lot of great players here, but obviously I’m on SK’s side at all times.”
“I’ll leave that up to the President of the school and Coach Cronin if he has anything to do with that,” said Kilpatrick. “At the end of the day, I’m just somebody that goes to school here and tries to help the program. It’s an accomplishment to hear talk like that because I never knew that I would be in this position, but it’s something that I’ll leave up to them.”
Oscar Robertson, Kenyon Martin, and Jack Twyman are the only Bearcats to have their numbers retired, but there’s a Wall of Honor in the practice gym featuring seven former All-Americans that seems certain to eventually include Kilpatrick.
“Looking up at that wall and seeing the greats that have played here is something that inspired me every day to come in and keep working,” said Kilpatrick.
More than his scoring total or helping UC make four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, Kilpatrick’s legacy should focus on his work ethic and dramatic improvement over his college career.
“You’re talking about a guy that if he took two dribbles as a freshman he lost the ball,” said Cronin. “He literally got it stolen every time. I asked him if he was trying to make a run for best bakery instead of Servatii’s because of his turnovers. It was unreal. That’s how far he’s come. Through hard work, will, and determination, the guy is one of the best players to ever play here.”
“I’ve worked my tail off for this,” said Kilpatrick. “This hasn’t been given to me – I’ve earned it.”
“We came in together and I’ve seen Sean grow from a boy to a man,” said Justin Jackson. “And from a good player to a phenomenal player. He’s a great guy, a leader on and off the court – he’s a leader when he’s not even trying to be a leader.”
“He accepts the responsibility of showing up every night,” said Cronin. “That’s why he’s an All-American. That’s why he’s going to play in the NBA. And that’s why he’s the Player of the Year in this conference. He shows up every night. He has tremendous work ethic and character.”
I certainly didn’t know I was watching one of Cincinnati’s all-time greats in a mostly-empty high school gym on that Sunday afternoon more than five years ago.
“I came in here not highly recruited and who knew that I was going to end up being this way?” said Kilpatrick.
“He’s the most underrated great player that has ever played here,” said Cronin. “You had better enjoy him while you can.”
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