This was originally published in The Athletic...
The idea was for Justin Williams and me to exchange emails about the 2019-20 UC basketball season and publish them for your reading enjoyment, something similar to what we did before the football season.
As emails were being exchanged, Justin also had to handle the news of Mike Bohn’s departure for USC, pay close attention to Saturday’s UC football win over East Carolina and, most importantly, witness the birth of his second daughter.
So our back-and-forth didn’t go on as long as we’d hoped, mainly because I figured interrupting Justin and his family while they are getting to know their new addition with questions about things like Tre Scott’s offensive improvement and nonconference scheduling would be bad form.
Still, we managed to cover most of what was on our minds …
Mo: You’ve already written a billion words on John Brannen, and your profile of him offered a look into his life and work ethic that I wasn’t sure we’d ever really get. So much about him feels like a departure from the previous 13 years, but the maniacal competitiveness that you documented reminded me a lot of Mick Cronin, so I’m not sure the new coach is as different from the old one as many think.
But I do expect the Bearcats to play differently, and you can count me among those appreciative of the effort and intensity with which Mick’s teams played but excited to see a UC team that’ll be allowed to open up a little more on offense. Give me a sense of how you think Brannen’s personality will be reflected by his first UC team, which player stands to benefit the most from his system and if anything will be compromised on the defensive end.
Justin:I do think Brannen and Cronin’s personalities are significantly different, but I agree that both arrive at the same, common endpoint, which is an unflagging desire to win. I suppose any coach who makes it as far as they have and has had the success they’ve achieved has some amount of that sprinkled in, but these two seem to embody it more than others.
It’s interesting. This is about the time every year when someone would ask Cronin about the team playing at a faster pace in the coming season, and he would tease that thought experiment along, and fans would start to talk themselves into a more up-tempo Bearcats offense. And then the games would start and there would be a 64-56 loss to Ohio State or a 55-54 victory (in overtime!) against Iowa State and all of those hopes would get destroyed. I always thought that was a bit unfair — Cronin had his system, and it worked, at least in the regular season — but a lot of those Uptempo Truthers are finally going to get their wish. Brannen’s philosophy is by no means run-and-gun, but it’s all about pace, on both ends.
At the risk of eye-glazing with advanced metrics, last year’s NKU squad had an average offensive possession length of 16.8 seconds (82 out of 353) and an average defensive possession length of 18 seconds (296 out of 353). All of which means they moved pretty darn fast on offense and managed to force long possessions on defense, the latter thanks to intensive full-court pressure. I don’t know how close this year’s Bearcats will come to matching those figures (they were the most extreme on either end in Brannen’s four years with the Norse, so it might take some time to get there), but needless to say, it is a very different brand of basketball than UC fans are accustomed to.
I’ve said this a few times this offseason, but I think for all the talk about the offensive tempo, the defensive mindset is most indicative of Brannen’s coaching personality. That certainly sounds familiar to Bearcats fans, but again, it’s a wholly different approach. Cronin’s defenses coiled themselves around opponents and choked the offensive life out of them; Brannen’s philosophy is more dynamic and aggressive. The point totals should be different on both sides of the scoreboard, but in Brannen’s ideal scenario, the defense will be modified more than compromised. How good the Bearcats are this season might hinge on how closely that ideal is reflected on the floor.
Trevon Scott is probably the safe answer for the player who will benefit the most. He has worked with Brannen all summer, and the two have a strong personal relationship, plus his skill set (good passer, improving outside shooter) and high basketball IQ mesh well with the new coach’s system. The “expanding brain meme” answer is Jarron Cumberland. It would be the obvious one for many, considering he’s the team’s best player and the conference’s preseason player of the year, but he missed a decent amount of practice time this offseason with a foot injury, so he’s still playing his way into shape. But Cumberland is also a gamer, so if he can quickly get up to conditioning speed (a reasonable assumption) and completely buy into Brannen Ball, there is legitimate All-American potential there.
All of this flows into a discussion I had with someone the other day. With football, the media get spring ball and a month of fall camp to see the team in practice and really dig into the roster and position battles. We don’t have that same luxury with basketball, due to the way the offseason is structured and the crossover with football coverage. The exhibition against Thomas More, an overmatched NAIA school, was the first extended look at a team that features a new staff, a new roster and a new system. There are a lot of unknowns. To that end, what are your most intriguing questions or storylines entering the season, of either the exciting or concerning variety?
To read the entire exchange, go to The Athletic.
(Photo: Getty Images)