That's exactly how fifth-year coach Mick Cronin feels about the Bearcats after returning earlier this week from a three-game trip to Canada.
Stephenson led the Bearcats in scoring at 12.3 points a game with Vaughn second at 11.7. But they took a ton of shots, 693 between them, making just 285 (41 percent). The rest of the team shot a combined 1,388 times, making 605 (44 percent) of them.
If Cronin can deliver on his optimism and get the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament in his fifth season after losing two of his most talented players then it will be quite a feat.
"We've got a good team," said Cronin, who indicated this might be his best Bearcat squad in his tenure. "We have a lot of guys who will be able to show off how good they are. We might have five guys who average double figures. We're more cohesive. We're better offensively. We averaged 85 points on the tour. Our guys are taking everything serious. I was so happy with the Canada trip because we dominated all three games. We never let anybody in the game. The guys played great."
Cronin says the Bearcats got positive play out of point guard Cashmere Wright. The sophomore underwent scope surgery on his left knee, the same knee that he injured two years ago, forcing him to miss his first season. Wright played in 34 games last season, averaging 5.4 points a game. He led the Bearcats with 17 points in their final win over the University of Ottawa.
Cronin also got stellar play out of freshman Sean Kilpatrick, a 6-4 sophomore guard who redshirted last season. Kilpatrick scored 17 points against Ottawa while Yancy Gates (15 points, five rebounds) provided Cronin the assurance that he will have a dominating presence inside.
It was an early snapshot of his team over a three-day period but Cronin is convinced he's got a squad that can separate itself from the middle of the Big East, a collection of teams that might include Louisville, Connecticut, Seton Hall, Marquette, St. John's and Notre Dame. To truly believe the Bearcats can be behind Georgetown, West Virginia and the league's likely favorites -- Pitt, Villanova and Syracuse -- might be wishful thinking.
But Cronin is convinced he has the squad to surprise the Big East's upper echelon.
"We're not devoid of a star," said Cronin, who added that 6-8 freshman forward Justin Jackson should soon be cleared to play this season after not being certified in time to make the trip to Canada. "We've got one in Yancy Gates. He may not average 20 [points] a game, but he's a good passer. He's grown up a lot and he's had a great summer, kept his weight down, and he'll command a lot of attention."
Cronin can spin the nonconference slate as challenging but if the Bearcats are as improved as he says, the schedule offers opportunities to pick up plenty of wins. The Bearcats play a rebuilding Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, host rival Xavier (their toughest nonconference game, by far), play Dayton in a neutral-site game at U.S. Bank Arena (as part of an exempted tournament in which both Dayton and Cincinnati get three guaranteed home games prior to playing each other) and a "sneak" road game at Miami of Ohio. That's it. The repeat games in the Bearcats' 18-game Big East schedule are against predicted cellar-dweller DePaul, fellow middling team St. John's and top-four-team Georgetown (the schedule still hasn't been released yet due to scheduling issues with teams that share their arenas with professional teams).
Cronin's win totals have improved every season at Cincinnati -- from 11 to 13 to 18 to 19. He faced a no-win situation after taking over a Cincinnati program only a year after Bob Huggins' departure. But now in his fifth season, there will be less patience.
Cronin loves that the Bearcats are still not considered a contender, even though the players and staff think otherwise.
"We've got to win the games we're supposed to win," Cronin said. "We gave away some games. We've got to win those games. We've also got to have a great preconference. We've been on the cusp but we didn't get over the hump because of the immaturity and losing games in the last 30 seconds. We've got a hungry team, a team of veterans, too. We weren't always mature enough in our league. Teams always go up and down, and you've got to fight through it. Talent isn't always the answer. I do think the best teams in the Big East are Pitt, Villanova and Syracuse."
It's still up for debate whether Cincinnati can be in a second or third tier in the Big East -- below the aforementioned teams but high enough to be in contention for an NCAA bid. After a successful offseason trip to Canada, Cronin doesn't wonder whether that's possible. He's convinced the Bearcats are ready to make that leap in the Big East.