(Tim Heitman | USA TODAY Sports)
In case you haven’t been here from the start, the Two Cents & Sense series started off as a one-off post. The football team opened the 2016 season with a victory over UT-Martin that was anything but resounding. People were running up to the ledge after an opening-weekend victory, and — seeing as my role in these parts is that of a calming voice — I hopped on here in an effort to calm the waters. Five months later, and it feels like we’ve come full circle a bit.
The Bearcats lost. They looked pretty terrible. The AP voters are going to have a nauseating case of I TOLD YOU SO in a few hours. All of it really sucks. I’m just here to tell you that this team is no less good than it was two days ago. This loss will undoubtedly have tournament implications, but that’s a different conversation for a different day. Here’s everything that happened against SMU and why I don’t think the sky is falling just yet:
- Jacob Evans was everything he wasn’t in the first game against SMU. After getting bottled up by the Ponies in the first meeting, he flourished in Dallas. He battled for 38 minutes, delivering 15 points with five assists on 5-for-12 shooting (more on that in a bit).
- Kevin Johnson is coming into his own. He had his mistakes, but others are better at pointing those out so I’ll just focus on the good. His senior season reminds me a bit of Yancy Gates. Both were local kids that seemed to dawdle for three years before something clicked. Gates used his senior year urgency to power the Bearcats to a Big East Championship Game appearance and the Sweet Sixteen. Kevin Johnson doesn’t have Yancy Gates talent, so his growth is less dramatic. Regardless, the maligned veteran has been coming into his own this season, and has been a much bigger contributor than in the past. On Sunday he delivered 13 points to go with a pair of assists, rebounds, and steals. He had a couple sweet breakaway dunks that were, unfortunately, UC’s only real interior scoring.
- The first half was pretty solid. It was clear the Mustangs were willing to concede the three-point line in an effort to protect the paint and command the glass. The Bearcats responded by simply shooting well from outside. It took a substantial late first half run for the Ponies to tie the game at the break. The Bearcats shot 46% in the opening period to just 31% by SMU. They figured to be a few key adjustments away from a good second half and a victory.
- Troy Caupain didn’t show up. I have to tell it how it is. Troy is one of my favorite Bearcats ever and he’s typically a driving force in these kinds of games, but he was a complete phantom on Sunday. When the Bearcats were rudderless and desperate for a bucket, Troy was nowhere to be found. He shot 0-for-7, which is his second worst shooting performance in his 126 career games in Cincinnati. Considering the opponent, the stakes, and the way his teammates desperately needed him, I think it’s fair to say that this was the worst game of his career. I knew things were in complete meltdown mode when Caupain was rung up on a 5-second violation when trying to inbound the ball. Freshman mistakes from the team captain in a pivotal road game are terrifying.
- Gary Clark wasn’t much better. Gary, to his credit, at least seemed to be playing his heart out. He was a key to the UC victory in the last meeting, so SMU really dialed in on him, holding him to just six points on 2-for-7 shooting. Every time he got position down low, he was muscled out of the way. The Mustangs weren’t giving him anything. Of his two buckets, one was a three-pointer, which means that one of the league’s most dominating interior players was held to just a single two-point basket (which was a mid-range jumper). SMU found the answer to Gary’s problem. He still contributed 12 rebounds, which is impressive against a team like SMU, but the Bearcats needed points and he wasn’t able to give them any.
- Kyle Washington is extraordinarily frustrating. I’m trying to think of a more talented player who does more face palm-y stuff and I can’t. He’s just so erratic. He’ll have a two minute stretch where he looks like an All-American and then spend the next two minutes hoisting contested 19-footers and committing blatant, stupid fouls because he fell asleep on defense. Games like UConn make games like SMU even more maddening because I know he’s better than this. He’s the most gifted interior scorer the Bearcats have had since the Huggins era and he seems determined to shoot himself and his team in the foot sometimes.
- The whole team went ice cold and never recovered. The Bearcats led by nine points after a Kyle Washington jumper with 16:09 remaining. At that point, Jacob and Kevin were carrying the offensive load, shooting 5-for-7 and 4-for-5 respectively. Troy and Kyle were incredibly erratic, and the rest of the team was a non-factor. The Bearcats had a three-possession lead and were in phenomenal shape if their hot shooters kept moving and under-performers like Kyle or Troy found their shot. Instead, a famine arrived. Jacob and Kevin — the offense’s driving forces — combined to shoot 1-for-1o the rest of the way, and nobody else woke up. SMU used an astounding 21–2 run to turn a nine-point deficit into a ten-point lead. It was unbelievable.
- Mick Cronin deserves some of the blame. I think this may be the first time this season he’s been listed as a negative. He entered the game with a take what you can get mentality, evidently okay with the fact that his team was hoisting 68% of their shots from outside the arc in the first half. It worked out okay because everyone was shooting well, but for some reason there was never a moment when the team collectively said “Okay, this isn’t a longterm solution. How about we get into the paint.” On top of that, there were several other questionable decisions. Why toss Quadri Moore into a game of that nature only to see him get shredded in 60 seconds? Why not try to make Jarron Cumberland more of a factor in a game that needed free throw attempts and scoring? Why not call a timeout sooner during the SMU avalanche in the second half? It’s also hard for me to believe that there was nothing Cronin could do to stem the tide during that run by the Ponies. I don’t care how good the other team is or where the game is being played, a 21–2 run should never happen, especially for a team with this kind of talent. I wouldn’t trade Mick Cronin for the world, but I also feel like it needs to be said that he got out-coached just as much as his players got outplayed.
- Losing to this team in this fashion is bruuuuutal.
The Bottom Line:
This is far from the end of the world. Notice how much of the stuff I noted in the negatives is abnormal. Troy and Gary were absolutely eliminated, Mick Cronin seemed as lost as the rest of us, the entire team went historically cold, and the Bearcats lost by single digits in a brutal environment to one of the best teams on their schedule.
It’s cool if you’re miserable after that loss. I am too. But please don’t try to extrapolate to the rest of the season. We saw a really hot team finally turn in an abysmal performance on the road to another really good team. I’m gonna crumple this one up and throw it away. If UC shot 16-for-20 from outside against USF, we wouldn’t announce that this was an elite three-point shooting team. We’d say that was an absurd outlier, it was cool, and that’s it. In the same way, Sunday’s game was something we aren’t used to, and something that isn’t a sign of things to come. This isn’t a bad team. That performance was an outlier, it sucked, and that’s it. I’m moving on.
In volume one of OhVarsity Mail Truck (read it and submit questions!) I explored the phenomenon of late-season Cronin slumps. Every good Cronin team has faltered for a semi-extended period of time at some point between late January and mid February. This team has been scorching hot, but now it’s that time. This team must isolate this performance to a single game. Contain it and it’s not an issue. Let it spread and the resume is going straight down the toilet.
The Bearcats have a Wednesday road game against bottom-feeder USF in a building where they have struggled. They return home for games against Tulsa and Memphis — two teams with mediocre resumes but NCAA Tournament-type talent. These are all games the Bearcats should win, but they have to regain focus and return to what has made them great. I’m confident they’ve got this.
Everything will be okay. Just keep winning.