- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Highly-touted freshman Lance Stephenson of Cincinnati has been cleared to compete by the NCAA Eligibility Center and won't sit out any games, greatly enhancing the Bearcats' status as a Big East Conference contender.
"He was all smiles, but his parents were very emotional," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said of the reaction after he relayed the news to the Stephenson family just after 5 p.m. EST. "I told him not to doubt me. Everyone was panicked. I knew they would give us an answer by 5. I've seen this before."
Stephenson made his debut in the Bearcats' 86-58 victory over Saginaw Valley State Thursday night. He scored nine points, on 4 of 14 shooting, including 1 of 3 on 3-pointers. Stephenson played 18 minutes off the bench.
The issue for Stephenson, as has been the case with other high-profile freshman like Kentucky's John Wall, has involved unofficial recruiting visits -- who paid for them and where did the money come from. The NCAA's Eligibility Center was trying to establish a relationship of any extra benefits being received prior to visits.
Wall received a two-game suspension.
"They have a very close-knit family and they've tried to shelter him from these elements," Cronin said of the Brooklyn, N.Y. native. "They've tried to shelter them for four years. It was very frustrating for them."
Stephenson had been allowed to practice while awaiting his eligibility confirmation. He scored 22 points in 25 minutes in a public intrasquad scrimmage on Oct. 24.
Stephenson ran with the first team of point guard Cashmere Wright, guard Deonta Vaughn, forward Yancy Gates and center Anthony McClain.
Adding Stephenson immediately makes the Bearcats a serious threat to move up into the top six of the Big East.
"He's a tremendous competitor and he has high expectations for himself," Cronin said. "He came here to win. When you play in this league you have to have guys like that. His talent is unquestioned. He's a tremendous scorer."
Cronin said Stephenson's work ethic has been tremendous, although he still needs to continue to improve on his defensive effort.
"He's a super-talented freshman," Cronin said.
The Bearcats open the season against Prairie View A&M on Nov. 16 before playing Toledo Nov. 18 and then tipping off the Maui Invitational against Vanderbilt in the top first-round game in the event on Nov. 23.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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