Since the Big East morphed into what we now know as the American Athletic Conference no program has modeled consistency and excellence in men’s basketball on the level of Cincy.
The Bearcats haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since the 2009-10 season and lost a total of 18 regular season games in Mick Cronin’s last 3 seasons. But as excellent as recent Bearcat teams were in the regular season, the NCAA Tournament had become an albatross around Cronin’s neck. Specifically, the fact that the Bearcats hadn’t made it to the NCAA Tournament’s 2nd weekend since 2012.
Even with the long-term NCAA Tournament struggles and last March’s disappointing 79-72 flameout loss to Iowa in the Round of 64, I was stunned when Cronin left for UCLA. We’re talking about a guy who’s a Cincy alum and had spent nearly his entire adult life as a student, assistant coach and head coach at the school.
Instead of going for a continuity hire (e.g. a Cronin assistant) UC smartly hired a coach from their own backyard who won a bunch at the mid-major level: John Brannen of Northern Kentucky.
Brannen won 72 games in his final 3 years at NKU and made 2 NCAA Tournament appearances at one of Division 1’s newest programs. In addition, Brannen cut his teeth as an assistant at VCU and Alabama.
There have been ‘growing pains’ transitioning to the new staff including transfers (most notably: Nysier Brooks, Logan Johnson, Rashawn Fredericks) and uneven play earlier on in the current season.
The Bearcats needed overtime to get past UNLV and Valparaiso and lost to Bowling Green and Colgate. All 4 of those teams are currently outside the KenPom top 100. The Colgate game’s finish was so bizarre I’ll just let this story explain it.
January has been much kinder to the Bearcats, who are 6-2 in the month and 4-0 in the friendly confines of Fifth Third Arena. Red-hot Tulsa’s lone loss in AAC play so far came at Cincy’s hands in a 75-44 blowout. None of the 4 league opponents Cincy has hosted got any closer than a 16-point final margin.
Most of the early struggles can be attributed to senior Jarron Cumberland trying to figure out his role in an offensive structure that’s a bit different than what Cronin allowed for. Last season, Cumberland took an unbelievable 30.5% of the Bearcats’ shots in conference play and that number is down to 22.8% this year.
Disrupting Cumberland as the Bearcats’ point guard may be the key to the Cougars winning their 2nd game in as many tries in Cincy as Cumberland had 10 turnovers in losses to Tulane and Memphis. He’s the team leader in assists (74) and turnovers (59) by a wide margin, and as a team the Bearcats are 274th in Turnover %.
Jaevin Cumberland, Jarron’s cousin and an Oakland grad transfer, has been the team’s primary volume shooter on 3-pointers (131 3-pt FG attempts) and is making 35.1% of those attempts, mainly coming off the bench. Incredibly, the newer Cumberland has only taken 37 2-point attempts in 20 games.
Junior Keith Williams, a returning starter from last season, is averaging just over 12 points and 5 rebounds per game. Freshman Mika Adams-Woods has started the last 10 games, a stretch in which the Bearcats are 7-3.
In my opinion the most interesting individual storyline with this year’s Bearcats is junior big man Chris Vogt. Brannen brought Vogt with him from Northern Kentucky, although looking at his time at NKU he certainly didn’t look like a guy who’d do well with a step up in opponent quality.
Vogt is a listed 7’1” and 260 pounds, but averaged only 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a backup for NKU last season. In the current season, Vogt has nearly his scoring average to 13 points/game, good for 2nd on the team.
The frontcourt of Vogt and senior Tre Scott is going to make the Cougars work. Cincy is top 100 nationally in both offensive rebound % and opponent offensive rebound % and for as superhuman as they’ve been on the balance of the season, the Coogs have looked a little more human on the boards the last few games.
The Coogs will be the highest rated opponent (per KenPom) that the Bearcats have faced since hosting Iowa back in late December. A hypothetical Bearcat win today over the Coogs would immediately become their best rated win of the season and could revive their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Beating a program as good as Cincy twice in a row at their arena is a tough ask, although you would be foolish to ever count out this Cougar team.