(David Butler II — USA TODAY Sports)
In their first challenge of the season, the Cincinnati Bearcats fell short at the hands of the Rhode Island Rams. It looked a lot like the key games last season, which is terrifying. However, I think this team is much better than last year’s group, so I’m not gonna give up hope after one tough loss. There is more than enough to get excited about, and we saw a lot of it tonight, even in defeat. Here’s what happened:
- Jacob Evans is off to an All-American start. ESPN’s John Gasaway put him in the early Player of the Year race — which I’m not brave enough to do — but the point remains. His sky-high expectations were warranted, and he’s averaging 23.3 points per game this season. Again, he’s a sophomore. Against Rhode Island, he shot 8-for-12 for 25 points and threw in six rebounds. It’s becoming clear that he’s the type of reliable scorer that a Mick Cronin team needs. To top it off, he seems to shine the most in the biggest games. The Kilpatrick comparisons will keep coming.
- Kyle Washington is magical. I won’t drone on and on, because I’ve done it after every game, but he continues to score consistently and confidently in the post and come up with big baskets.
- This team survived for a while despite not playing perfectly. Throughout the first half, they held a comfortable lead because they made shots and maximized the few mistakes Rhode Island made. Basically, we have enough offensive ability to cover up mistakes… to a certain extent. This hasn’t been the case in the past, and it will make a difference this season when UC needs to withstand a shaky half like they did in the first against Rhode Island.
- It’s only November. The Bearcats got thrown into the fire in their third game, which can never hurt. The season is very young, and the ‘Cats have a chance to do what they couldn’t do last season and learn from a tough loss and use it to better themselves. I’m not freaking out quite yet.
- Troy Caupain fell short when the Bearcats needed him. I love him to death, but in a game like this, UC needs him to be better than 4-for-14. He also missed the front end of a key 1-and-1, which is something you expect from a freshman (Cumberland also did it), not the preseason favorite for conference player of the year. I can’t sit here and say his mentality was wrong, because he took his shots and attacked the rim. But he needs to be a bit pickier and more controlled. There were times when it seemed he was looking only for the foul, it didn’t come, and he ended up with a wild brick for a layup. He simply has to be better, especially in big games.
- Kevin Johnson might be an issue. I went through this with Shaq Thomas, but there’s a certain point as a fan when you have to come to grips with the fact that a player you want to succeed isn’t going to do it. I think I’m getting there with KJ. In my season storyline piece, I wrote that his narrow skill set should be covered up in a lineup that is filled with dynamic players. I might have been wrong. He shot just 1-for-4, had a pair of turnovers, and three personal fouls. To top it off, he made some key defensive mistakes. I’ve said that I’m not sold on the idea of playing Justin Jenifer at point guard, but I think it’s worth a shot. There is a time and a place for KJ, but I’m starting to think it’s not as a starter.
- Get used to these kinds of games from Washington. He’ll do fantastic things like score 23 points and jaw at the other team’s bench. He’ll also do terrible things like take awful shots in big moments and score zero points after jawing at the other team’s bench. I can’t remember the last time a player went from fantastic to awful this quickly in the span of one half.
- It’s last season all over again. The Bearcats worked themselves into a close game with a few minutes remaining, at which point they blew key offensive opportunities, made horrendous defensive mistakes, and fell victim to the opposing team making everything they shot. Sound familiar? This team is better than last year’s team, but they just lost a game that last year’s team would’ve lost. I hope this doesn’t become a trend. It shouldn’t.
- Gary Clark disappeared. This actually may be the scariest part of this game for me. With Kyle Washington acting like a scoring machine in the paint, Gary was pushed off to the side. He scored just four points on 1-of-5 shooting, meaning he didn’t get nearly enough tries and wasn’t in a rhythm for the few chances he got. Gary and Kyle need to figure out how to co-exist, especially offensively.
- The bench did nothing. They shot 1-for-3 for four points. Needless to say, that’s not great. Justin Jenifer looked over-eager on defense, picking up two fouls to go with a pretty three-pointer he had in the first half. Jarron Cumberland really looked like a freshman, and was lost in all facets, aside from a wonderful assist to set up that Jenifer three-pointer I just mentioned. I need to see a bit more from Jenifer and Cumberland, but I think we’ll see a lot of games like this where they combine for single digits. UC will use a really short bench in close games.
Gorgeous dish from Cumberland to Jenifer. (Video via ESPN/Bearcats TV, GIF by OhVarsity)
- The second half defense was putrid. After a solid first half that saw UC give up just 31 points, they were gouged for 45 after halftime. Remember the Butler game last year? UC held a good offense to 28 points in the opening half. They gave up 50 in the second. Lock down defense is only worth the investment when it locks down everyone. Trampling mid-level teams is nice, but you can’t afford to get broken by every big time opponent like UC did last season and tonight.
- No Duke game. This will be the biggest fallout of the non-conference schedule. The Bearcats missed a chance to add a key win to their resume, and missed a chance to add #1 Duke to their RPI numbers.