Mick Cronin’s Second Renaissance

[Aaron Doster | USA TODAY Sports]

[Aaron Doster | USA TODAY Sports]

The Bearcats used the 2016–17 season as a time for reinvention.

I consider myself blessed that Mick Cronin, the man that saved Cincinnati basketball from irrelevancy, revealed that he had another trick up his sleeve this year. As if piloting his emaciated 2006–07 team through the Old Big East gauntlet and finishing with a tournament win four years later wasn’t impressive enough, he’s been quietly rebuilding things again over the past few seasons.

There are 351 teams that compete in NCAA Division I basketball. Of those 351, just eight have made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last seven seasons: Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Michigan State, VCU, and Cincinnati. This means that 343 programs in America are aiming for the kind of program stability that the Bearcats have experienced. Despite this, Cronin decided it wasn’t enough. The reinvention in Clifton has been a process, but the results became obvious for the first time this season.

The Cronin coaching philosophy has always been about defense. It’s what Cincinnati is known for. “Coach,” said Troy Caupain, “He doesn’t really care about offense.” It’s true. When Cronin’s rebuilding phase reached completion with a 2011 NCAA Tournament berth, he did so with KenPom’s #55 offense. Solid, but nothing that turned heads. The following year, the team shot their way into the Sweet 16 with the #61 offense. In the three seasons that followed, the Bearcats’ average KenPom AdjO (adjusted offensive efficiency) was #103. Despite all of this, two of those teams spent time in the AP Poll Top 10 and the third won a tournament game against Purdue in overtime.

Cronin didn’t have to change anything. While his offense-be-damned approach experienced a great deal of success — especially in the regular season — a renaissance was happening behind the scenes with the addition of players like Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, and Jarron Cumberland. We started to see the fruits of this labor in 2015–16 when the AdjO spiked to #69 in 2015–16 with Clark and Evans carrying more of the workload on the offensive end.

Things exploded in 2016–17. Kyle Washington became eligible, joining forces with Evans and Cumberland to push the Bearcats to #33 in AdjO (as of this writing). The Bearcats haven’t finished a season with an offense ranked 33rd or better since 2003–04 (#12), and after enduring years of rankling from fans for assembling teams that couldn’t shoot or score, Cronin built one that finished with an Effective FG% of 52% — tops since 2003–04.

The best part of this offensive blossoming is that it’s purely additive. The defense hasn’t gone anywhere. The 2016–17 ‘Cats rank #16 in AdjD (as of this writing), matching their mark from the past two seasons. Cincinnati and Louisville will become the only programs in Division I to notch Top 25 defenses (per KenPom) in each of the last seven years. UC’s reputation as a defensive powerhouse hasn’t gone anywhere. Cronin has simply tossed in some scoring to go with it.

If you’re a fan of this trend, you’ll love next year’s team. The 2016–17 squad experienced their makeover despite significant minutes from Caupain and Kevin Johnson, two inefficient scorers more suited to UC’s 2014 plodding offensive style than their 2017 versatility. They’ll be swapped out next year for Cane Broome, a Sacred Heart transfer with lightning speed, and Cumberland, a sophomore-to-be who proved his mettle more than a few times this past season. Assuming the defense is as good as it’s been for the past seven years, the 2017–18 Bearcats will give opponents hell.

There’s going to be speed and spacing on the offensive end. The worst shooter in next year’s starting lineup will be Gary Clark. He’s a career 34% from outside, better than two of his fellow starters this season (Caupain and Johnson). Cronin will also have the ability to cram the ball down opponents’ throats by using Broome at the same time as junior-to-be Justin Jenifer. It’s likely that the 2017 AAC Champion SMU Mustangs will see the best two-headed speed duo to grace their campus since Erick Dickerson and Craig James wore red and blue in 1983.

Joining next year’s team as freshmen will be Trevor Moore, Keith Williams, and Eliel Nsoseme. Moore is a 6'5" shooting specialist. In 16 games in the Under Armour Association with his Houston Defenders, Moore took 172 shots. 149 of them were three-pointers. The kid likes to let it fly. Williams is a shooting guard from Brooklyn. In his 17 games in the Under Armour Association with New Heights, he averaged 15 points on 49% shooting, including 40% from outside. Nsoseme is, well, a typical Cronin big. He could be the next Rubles.

This new direction is part of why the loss to UCLA was relatively easy to stomach for me. It never feels good to have a season end early, especially with a team as fun as this one has been. However, things are truly looking up. This isn’t like 2014 when it was starting to feel like Cronin had forgotten that you need to score points to win basketball games. The Bearcats unfortunately met another untimely tournament exit, but this time it was due to their patented bad luck rather than their retrograde style of play.

Mick Cronin has redefined what it means to be a Bearcat. It isn’t just about defense any longer. We’re in the throes of the second Bearcats renaissance of the last decade and it feels great.