The Bearcats are back!
…At least in the win column. Tuesday was far from a perfect showing for a team riding 61 wins over the last two seasons, but a 73-51 win over North Carolina Central is a significant improvement over the abysmal opener against Ohio State. I’ll take progress for now. The team has a run of three games in the span of seven days against low-tier opponents leading up to a trip to Florida for the Emerald Coast Classic—an event that will bring more serious opponents like George Mason and perhaps Baylor.
For now though, there is some time to work into a groove after an arena-opening game that threw them from preseason directly into the bright lights of ESPN without their three leaders from a season ago.
Those departures are still being felt. For one, communication on the offensive end of the floor isn’t there yet, and communication on the defensive end comes in spurts. But Tuesday may have provided a very early glimpse on what success in the wake of Clark, Washington, and Evans could look like.
Mick Cronin was clearly unhappy with Cane Broome’s 1-for-10 showing in the opener, because he yanked him from the starting lineup. Broome didn’t get much action in the first half (Trevor Moore was first off the bench) and finished with just 14 minutes of action, shooting 0-f0r-3 with two turnovers. He was the only Bearcat to play but not score.
I’m not worried about Cane Broome… yet. He’s probably the team’s second most natural scorer behind Jarron Cumberland, but you have to worry what effect Cronin’s manufactured adversity will have on him. Broome needs to respond well or it’ll negatively impact the team. He’s a massive part of what success will look like this season.
Broome’s replacement in the starting five was Keith Williams, a first-time starter who showed glimpses of greatness last year but ultimately looked like a freshman. Williams shot just 39% from the field a season ago, and just 11% from deep. On Tuesday he made Cronin look like a genius, paving the way for Cincinnati with career-bests across the board. He poured in a team-high 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting, four rebounds, three assists, three blocks, and two steals. He also did an alarming amount of work in the paint, giving off JaQuon Parker vibes. That’s a great thing if you ask me, and I bet Cronin would agree emulating a player he liked enough to hire is a good call.
I’m not ready to anoint Williams as this team’s 30-game starting shooting guard, but Tuesday was a head turner. If he can continue to turn his confidence and athleticism into offensive and defensive production on a consistent basis, suddenly Mick has another body to lean on.
Point guard Justin Jenifer had one of his better games in red and black, providing a defensive spark with energy that translated to two steals and nearly forced more. We don’t have proof that Jenifer will be an offensive weapon across a full season (and he doesn’t necessarily need to be), but he’s putting in the work. In an interview at the end of the TV broadcast, he said he was in the gym working on his shot at “11:30 or 11:45” before the team’s 2 p.m. shoot-around. (Tom Gelehrter and Terry Nelson backed this up.) It paid off with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, including 2-for-3 from deep in just 22 minutes. He also racked up six assists.
I understand the skepticism from the fans, and Jenifer tends to be the poster boy for the type of player that Cronin loves roughly four times more than the fan base at large. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard, but he doesn’t make mistakes, he’s careful with the ball, and he does the dirty work. Cronin loves the kid, and it’s easy to see why if you look past the quiet offensive production. He’s not going anywhere in the starter’s role for the time being, so you might as well get used to it. Games like Tuesday will make that easier.
One of my favorite story lines coming into the season was Trevon Scott. He redshirted as a freshman before playing second fiddle for two years on a team that boasted Gary Clark and Kyle Washington in the front court. He’s a player fans recognize, despite getting his first career start just last week. The departures of Clark and Washington meant thrusting Scott from 11 or so minutes per game into a full-blown starter’s role where he’ll be expected to contribute significantly on the defensive end while scoring on a regular basis.
He’s embracing the opportunity.
He cruised to a career-high 12 points on Tuesday, shooting 6-for-6 and making it look effortless. Seemingly out of nowhere, the kid can shoot. On a first half possession that had gone sour, he bailed out his team with what was essentially (although not technically) a three-pointer. He hit a baseline pick-and-pop in the second half. The kid has range, and if he can stay consistent from there he’ll never start a game on the bench again. He can significantly ease pressure on the center position with games like tonight, and I think we saw that as Nysier Brooks started to come back to life after a dreadful opening game. His five points, seven rebounds, and two blocks are all this team needs if everything else is in working order.
On Tuesday afternoon, I took to Twitter to plead for more minutes from Logan Johnson. In just 10 minutes without a field goal against Ohio State—his first game at the collegiate level—you could see glimpses of what he can be. LoJo got 18 on Tuesday and responded with eight points to lead the second unit while throwing in four rebounds and two assists. There are probably more minutes for him out there (although maybe not many), and if he can remain a multi-tool player, there’s no reason he can’t be the first or second guy off the bench for 35 games. The kid is a natural, and has every bit of the makings of the program’s next Sean Kilpatrick, Troy Caupain, or Gary Clark.
I haven’t talked about Cumberland yet. He might be the team’s only reliable player, and therefore its least interesting at this stage of the season. He played 24 minutes with ten points, three assists, two rebounds, two steals, and a block. There will be plenty of chances to write about Jarron, so I’ll save my keyboard for now.
There are things to work on, to be clear. Going 6-for-12 at the foul line won’t cut it, Cane Broome going scoreless won’t work, and allowing a MEAC team to shoot 47% from deep isn’t something Mick Cronin will tolerate long-term.
But for a team simply trying to find itself in the wake of UC’s most significant talent vacuum in decades, Tuesday was a start.
I said it after the Ohio State quagmire, but college basketball is a marathon. The Bearcats may have yelped at the starter’s pistol, but they’ve taken the first step on what’s sure to be a tough journey. They’re officially in the race.