This was originally published in The Athletic....
It’s been a long offseason if you’re a UC basketball fan.
There’s been way too much time to sift through the excruciating details of last spring’s NCAA Tournament meltdown against Nevada, but there’s also been the anticipation of seeing the Bearcats’ new home as Fifth Third Arena renovations have crawled toward completion.
In between, you could track the pre- and post-draft prospects of Jacob Evans and Gary Clark – something that should fill fans with equal parts pride for two of the program’s own making it in the NBA and dread thinking about how UC will move on without them.
There has also been a change on the coaching staff, and a significant one, given how long Larry Davis had served under Mick Cronin. A couple of the American Athletic Conference’s more name-brand programs also made changes at the top, which should shake up the league in the coming seasons, if not sooner.
Holdovers, like Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome, as well an established Bearcat brand of toughness and defensive prowess give UC a good chance at making the tournament for a ninth straight season. Cronin took some heat for the way last season ended, and last March’s early exit won’t be forgotten anytime soon, but even though the task of replacing what’s lost from last year’s team is daunting, the head coach’s track record suggests he’s up to the task.
With the college basketball season finally here, I posed five burning Bearcat questions to The Athletic's UC beat writer, Justin Williams…
1) It’s hard to talk about this season without referencing last year’s UC team, which, despite the lingering disappointment over the way their last game ended, still goes down as the best of the Mick Cronin era. Yet as good as the Bearcats were with an eventual first-round NBA pick, as well the league’s player of the year (who’s getting minutes with the Houston Rockets), and another senior who was responsible for his share of scoring, the team as a whole wasn’t immune to scoring slumps.
So take away Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington, and I think I’m like most Bearcat fans in wondering how, if last year’s team couldn’t go through the season without offensive lulls, this year’s squad can be proficient on offense. Yes, Jarron Cumberland is back, and I’m very bullish on his play-making ability and willingness to attack defenses. I think Cane Broome will benefit from playing off the ball. But while there’s some upside to any number of the less-experienced players, I’m wondering not only where the offense will come from consistently, but if they can score more often off of their defense and if they will indeed play faster. I’m also wondering if the half-court offense with Cumberland leading the way ends up looking the way it did when Sean Kilpatrick was a senior, when the ball would often stop when it found its way into the hands of the team’s best player. Tell me how these guys are going to score.
JW: It’s interesting, I talked to assistant coach Darren Savino about this a couple weeks ago, and got an unexpected answer: He’s more concerned with how the team will play on defense with so many young and less experienced players this season. What you said is what most people are (reasonably) saying: We know the Bearcats will be solid on D, but will they score enough? Savino, however, thinks the offense will figure itself out, but says the team’s typical stout defense isn’t purely a product of the system, and that with Clark and Evans gone, players like Cumberland, Trevon Scott, Nysier Brooks and Eliel Nsoseme will have to step up as much defensively as offensively, if not more.
Having said that – and I think Savino is being honest – scoring is and should be a concern. I think Cumberland will be fine in general, though he will have to adjust to the fact that he simply can’t afford to have an off night or get into early foul trouble. Broome has looked really assertive in the scrimmages and exhibition, and they’ll need Scott to be in the vicinity of double figures. They can probably count on a handful of easy put backs from Rashawn Fredericks, Brooks and Nsoseme from game to game. What I think will be interesting to see is who among Justin Jenifer, Trevor Moore and Keith Williams can consistently chip in. Doesn’t have to be double figures from any one of them individually, but if they can reliably get 12-15 points a night from that group as a whole, they’ll be comfortably in range of that 60-point threshold that Cronin’s defense has traditionally held opponents to. And no matter who is scoring and how much and how many other unknowns there might be, this team is still built on its defense.
The ball will be in Cumberland’s hands A LOT, and that combined with the pick-and-rolls will be reminiscent of the SK days. But I do think Cumberland’s stellar passing and Broome’s ability to create his own shot will help prevent the ball from stalling too often. If Cumberland is having an off night, or a team gameplans a way to hassle him, the chance to swing the ball to Broome and let him create is not something the team often had when Kilpatrick was around.
As far as the Bearcats playing fast in the half court – I’ll believe it when I see it.
To read the rest, go to The Athletic.