Catatonic In Clifton
Well, the arena is beautiful.
That’s about the extent of the unquestionably good observations from my horrid Wednesday night at Fifth Third Arena.
I’ve spent the last couple weeks saying how I’m not ready for basketball. The season started earlier than it has in the past, the Bearcats have been lighting it up on the football field, and my personal life has been a whirlwind. I was not in the basketball zone. Unfortunately, neither was the team.
Next year’s edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary will have a replay of this first half under the definition for “sleepwalking.” The Bearcats looked like they were in a REM cycle. Despite the new arena, the opening night buzz, and the big name opponent, the ‘Cats were lifeless and disoriented.
I expected jitters. I expected shooting struggles. I even expected defensive lapses. I never expected the team wouldn’t be ready to play. Through the entire first half and a sizable portion of the second, they just didn’t have it.
They got up off the mat eventually, though. The team’s first real spark? Freshman point guard Logan Johnson. LoJo ferociously pestered his man on the defensive end and forced a miss, springing the crowd to life. Eventually, an OSU lead that had swelled to 16 was down to just four with 59 seconds remaining.
Ultimately, it was too little, too late. Bearcat fans are not expecting 30 wins for the third year in a row, but a strong showing against an in-state opponent on opening night of the new arena would’ve been nice. Instead, I fear Cronin & Co. have opened up a can of worms. This was not the time and place for this kind of showing.
The Cumberland Conundrum
Second Half Jarron Cumberland has to be Every Night Jarron Cumberland. After a ghostly, scoreless 0-for-3 in the first half (aided by a predictable, yet bizarre benching following two fouls) Cumberland was what UC will need him to be. He unloaded for 22 points after the break, serving as the Bearcats’ offensive rock and hitting the huge three-pointer that brought that game back within reason in the final minute.
In my eyes, Cumberland’s two biggest stumbling blocks this year will be offensive passivity and defensive attention.
One of Jarron’s great strengths is his passing ability. He’s not a selfish player. It’s the reason he was able to so successfully take a back seat on the offense for two years, despite displaying tremendous talent and scoring ability. This year is different though. Jarron has to be selfish at times, and he did it in the second half. 22 points in a single half is not something you’ll see very often in the Cronin offense.
The other roadblock could be defensive attention from opponents. It’s no secret that the UC offense has to run through Cumberland. The scouting report on that end of the floor is not written in secret code. Teams will come into games against the ‘Cats trying to stop Jarron. He’s gotta be good enough to make that irrelevant.
That being said, a scoreless 0-for-3 in the first half is an indictment of both Cumberland and Cronin. I don’t care how unselfish you are and I don’t care how much attention the defense is giving you. It’s your team now, kid. Scoreless halves—especially at home and especially in a big game—simply aren’t an option.
Credit to him for waking up in a big way, but it’s alarming that the opening half of the season’s first game didn’t feature Cumberland trying to stuff his defender through the basket.
The Big Issue
Just as I said fans are not expecting another 30 wins this season, I’d say fans are not expecting dominant interior play. Gary Clark is irreplaceable and Kyle Washington may be the best offensive big man Cronin has ever had in Clifton. The remaining big men are not those types of guys, nobody expects them to be, and all of that is fine. Cronin once made the NCAA Tournament out of the Big East with Cheikh Mbodj, junior Justin Jackson, and junior Titus Rubles patrolling the paint. (I like all of those guys, but that group at that age was not exactly a dominant force.)
Despite the vastly decreased expectations, Wednesday night was not a tremendous showing for Nysier Brooks and Eliel Nsoseme.
There were missed rebounds, there were missed put-backs, there were defensive lapses, and there was even a 6’11” player that had a dunk stuffed by the rim. If the season ended today, Yakety Sax is the theme song for the UC frontcourt.
These guys are better than this. That doesn’t mean Mick should let this become a trend.
Trevon Scott, while underwhelming, was not a detriment on a night where that’s a compliment. Watching this game it was hard not to start connecting dots and yearning for more small lineups where Scott plays center in order to get an additional guard or wing on the floor. This worked for the Bearcats in 2011-12 (when they had no choice following suspensions due to the Xavier Brawl), and it seems to match up with what worked well for Cincinnati Wednesday.
This team will likely struggle to score. Their biggest asset is athleticism, defensive intensity, and a repository of guards that are worthy of playing time. If the “offensive gameplan” isn’t working, I’m strongly in favor of playing four guards and pressing. Create havoc, rattle the opponent, and try to score points in transition. It felt like UC’s only reliable offense against Ohio State, and you gotta think it’ll work on just about anyone.
I am not ready to cut bait on Brooks or Nsoseme, but Wednesday was certainly not a promising outing against a team with a weakness inside.
This is a weird, annoying comment I have to make: The arena was actually so different that it made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was simply an Opening Night issue I’ll immediately get over or maybe it will take a few weeks to settle in, but that beautiful new place on campus doesn’t feel like home yet. It was a fantastic setting, but it felt like last year at NKU a bit, as if a ton of UC fans were cheering on the Bearcats at someone else’s arena. Surreal feeling.
Logan Johnson might be a diamond. His high school tape is impressive and his early UC showings have continued the buzz, but the brief flashes we saw Wednesday have me all-in. This kid has gotta have more playing time. His offense is what drew me in when he committed to UC, but it was his defense that put me over the edge against Ohio State. The energy he brings is worth floor time alone. Give me the turnovers. Give me the fouls. Give me the stupid freshman mistakes. LoJo is worth it already. On a team that will likely need sparks, he could be a blowtorch.
The bright spot? This is all one game. People are ready to cut players, fire coaches, and write off the season on November 7, but that’s a mistake in any program, especially one boasting a coach that has weaseled his way into the tournament eight consecutive times. There will be more frustrating games like this, but things will be okay. I feel confident saying this team will not shoot 27% every night. The Bearcats have a great arena and enough talent to win games in the AAC. They’re bridging a tremendous gap with in the wake of their best graduating class in decades. While they gave you basically nothing to cling to Wednesday, give it a few weeks.
It’s incredibly cool that we can shake off this loss with a big football game this weekend. See you Saturday.