Troy Caupain celebrates a three-pointer against Iowa State. (foxsports.com)
We’re on the cusp of basketball season, and I could not be happier. Between the struggles the Bearcats have endured on the football field since September and the talent Mick Cronin has in his locker room this year, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited for the season to tip off.
One thing I always make note of before opening night are the storylines to follow. I know the season ultimately boils down to wins and losses, but things are much more exciting if you can follow smaller, more nuanced developments throughout the season. Losses are much more palatable if you can look back and say “Tough night, but that Jarron Cumberland kid is going to be special.”
Sports, especially at the collegiate level, are filled with drama. Here’s what to watch for this season:
- Is the “curse” over? Last season a black cloud seemed to be following this team. Despite its talent and depth, they could never get over the hump or mange to bring home the big wins. The Bearcats lost 11 games last year. Eight of those were by decided in overtime or by four points or fewer. Another was a loss to Xavier. That makes nine of 11 losses that eat at you. If the Bearcats play just as well as last season, but manage to make an extra play in those big games, we’re looking at a very successful year. From a sheer mathematical standpoint, it’s highly unlikely that kind of “bad luck” continues.
- Can the offense adapt? Mick Cronin has more talent and scoring ability than he’s ever had. Troy Caupain will be a senior who has shown the ability to take over at the end of games. Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are both strong offensive threats down low. Jarron Cumberland is young, but should be able to throw some points on the board. Jacob Evans may be Cronin’s most talented scorer ever. This is not the team Mick took to battle in the Old Big East. These kids can score, and competition isn’t nearly as tough. Five or six years ago, Mick was forced to play a grind-it-out game in order to limit possessions and hang with more talented teams. With competition and talent being inferior in the AAC and the Bearcats having an array of scorers, Mick needs to open things up a little bit. I’m not saying UC should play like the Golden State Warriors, but it would be smart to let these kids run a little bit. Playing a slow, grinding game would squander a lot of talent Mick has dressed in red and black.
- How good is the AAC? Fingers crossed, but the AAC might be better top to bottom than it’s ever been. Of course, the bottom of the conference is still awful, but I don’t think most of those teams will be putrid. The upper crust is clear-cut. The middle, with teams like SMU, Houston, and Memphis will likely surprise some. Temple, ECU, and UCF will at least be respectable. Tulsa, USF, and Tulane will struggle, but they have solid coaching that should keep them from being the kind of 325 RPI team that murders your strength of schedule.
- Who wins the conference? Cincinnati was the preseason favorite, receiving six votes to UConn’s five. However, as Cronin pointed out at media days, that’s essentially a tie. UC and UConn will enter the season as virtual co-favorites, and the battle figures to be proven talent (Cincinnati) vs young potential (UConn). The showdowns between these two will continue to be must-see, as the most underrated conference rivalry in America rages on.
- Will the Bearcats face Duke? I’m trying to contain my excitement on this one, because UC must first get past a very good Rhode Island team in the third game of the season. Howver, a game against #1 Duke would be incredible. If you win, it’s a marquee victory in program history. If you can hang tough in defeat, it will still be a really nice boost to RPI and KenPom rankings. I’m rooting hard for this matchup.
- Troy Caupain: I’ve called it the “SK leap,” but it should probably be called the “K-Mart leap.” Troy Caupain has built a very solid career for himself at Cincinnati. Staring down his senior season with the preseason accolades to match, can he make the leap from good player to great player? For this team to reach its ceiling, it needs an alpha dog. Caupain has that inside him, but will it come out for 35 minutes per game for an entire season? For the Bearcats, Troy may be the biggest factor separating a good season and a tournament win from a great season, a conference championship, and an appearance in the second weekend of March Madness.
- Kevin Johnson: The local kid is in a pretty good spot. It’s rare that a one-dimensional scorer can play starter’s minutes without having to worry about adding other dimensions. In a starting lineup that will be filled with weapons, all Kevin has to do is hit open shots and play Bearcat defense. The Bearcats need him to be JaQuon Parker. He doesn’t need to score a ton, but he needs to out-hustle everyone on the floor and be the glue guy that covers up team mistakes with strong individual defense. Nobody will be talking about KJ this year, but that’s what makes his season so fascinating. Without him in the lineup, this is a vastly different team. Players like him tend to be my favorites, and I’m hoping he can put a good senior year at the end of his tenacious tenure in Clifton.
- Jacob Evans: Troy has the weight of the team on his shoulders, but there may not be a player facing more personal pressure than Jacob Evans. With all the hype, it’s easy to forget that Evans had a pretty spotty freshman year that showed only glimpses of greatness. Of course, all signs point to that continuing consistently, but that’s not a given. If Troy isn’t the most important player on this team, it’s Jacob. The Bearcats need him to have a big year and be the consistent, versatile scoring threat they haven’t had since Sean Kilpatrick graduated. The potential and the talent is there, but that doesn’t mean it will happen overnight. Evans has the best NBA potential of any player in the Cronin era. Will we see that in 2016–17?
- Gary Clark: The quietest member of the Big Three needs to quit being so quiet. CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein called him “silent yet violent.” That’s an amazing nickname, but it’s not what Cronin wants from him. Gary has the talent to be a dominant, intimidating player. Cronin has worked for three years on getting him out of his shell, and we haven’t seen it happen fully yet. The K-Mart comparisons are unfair, because they’re totally different players and it’s hard to expect a kid to be just like a #1 draft pick. However, the similarities in the confidence aspect of their careers is striking. Once Kenyon came into his own, he was a different player. Gary already has two great seasons under his belt. If he can be reborn as an in-your-face leader on the court, look out.
- Kyle Washington: This will be one of the most interesting and obvious storylines this season, and it’s not something you’ll have to pay close attention to. If Washington buys into the system and successfully plays his role the way Mick wants him to, he’ll look like a good player. If he tries to be someone he’s not and forgets what Mick has been forcing on him, the team will struggle, he’ll look bad individually, and he won’t get the same kind of minutes he would otherwise. Kyle loves to shoot, but that’s not always what the team will need from him. If he can correctly pick his spots, the whole unit will look much smoother and more successful. Each player on the team has an important role to fill, but if Washington doesn’t play his, the Bearcats will be in trouble. He’s the only good option at center. He’s a great fit on paper, but he needs to be a great fit on the court.
- Jarron Cumberland: Considering he’s (nearly) a Top 50 player and he’s from Cincinnati, Cumberland looks to be one of the biggest recruits in Cronin’s tenure. He’s built like an absolute tank and has a scoring prowess that’s beyond his years, especially by Bearcats standards. He’s in the perfect spot this year, because he’ll get significant minutes (15–20?) and he’ll be a big contributor without facing any pressure to by the guy. All he has to do is back up Johnson and Evans while scoring some points and not giving up buckets on the defensive end. He’ll probably be slow to come around defensively, but the system and the rest of the team is good enough that Cronin should be able to essentially make that a non-factor this season. He’ll be asked to do big things in the future, but all he has to do this year is give us a taste of that. Also, be on the lookout for at least one explosive game from him. He can be a J.R. Smith type of player. If he gets hot, he can go off.
- Justin Jenifer: Last year, Jenifer’s only real job was to soak up a few minutes on the floor while Troy Caupain quickly caught his breath on the bench. This year, that will still be a factor in his role, but he’ll also have the opportunity to do a lot more. I’ve now heard several people say that Justin was the team’s most improved player this offseason. His style of play is exciting and not something the Bearcats have had in a while. If he can truly have a breakout year, this team is going to be so much better for it. It sounds like he’s learned to make the smart, easy plays rather than the difficult, flashy ones. If he can be responsible with the ball and create open shots, Cronin will be able to play Troy off the ball at the shooting guard position while Jenifer runs the offense. Overall, I’m not convinced this would be a fruitful endeavor, but I’m a fan of anything that adds an extra dimension to an offense that’s historically been pretty simple. I love the position Justin is in because he won’t be forced to do a ton, but he can seize a larger role if he earns it.
- Quadri Moore: This is an interesting one. After two seasons of looking for signs of life from Quadri, I think we’re finally seeing some. Physically, he looks better than he has. Mentally and emotionally, he looks more engaged. He had a pretty solid preseason, which surprised many. It comes at a perfect time, because the Bearcats will actually need something from him this year. With thin front court depth, he’ll have to give his team some strong minutes so big men like Gary and Kyle can rest. He’s a versatile player when he’s playing to potential, and he’ll be an important wrinkle for the ‘Cats.
- Tre Scott & Nysier Brooks: I’m not quite sure what to expect from these two, which I suppose is a storyline in itself. I think they’ll be what Justin Jenifer was last year, where you take whatever you can get and play it by ear. Mick could use any depth he can get in the front court, so if Scott or Brooks impress, they’ll earn themselves some minutes. Overall, I think they’ll be seen in limited spots, especially in game against weak non-conference teams and — god forbid — in case of injury.
These are the things I’ll be following closely as the season goes on. Let me know what you’re looking for. College basketball can be one of the most unpredictable sports, so it makes storylines like these even more fascinating. If a few of these go in UC’s favor, it will be a great season. On the other hand, if a few of these fall apart, the Bearcats could find themselves trying to sneak in the back door of March Madness when the final weeks of the season roll around.