Bearcats Through 10: How Good Can This Team Be?

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

The Bearcats have officially played 10 games. Unbelievably, we’re about a third of the way through the regular season already. With that in mind, let’s pause briefly to evaluate where we are and whether or not this team’s expectations have changed.

After what I’ll call The OSU Debacle, I’m sure few thought we’d be looking at 9-1 right now. If you’d asked me in September, I would’ve told you 9-1 was entirely possible. If you’d asked me at halftime of The OSU Debacle, you’d have gotten a different answer and maybe a rude comment or two.

It has been talked about and will probably be talked about increasingly moving forward, but I think we’ve found ourselves in a Mick Cronin System year. The same system that may have hamstrung the Bearcats last year by micromanaging the offensive possessions of a team with two NBA players is a huge part of what has Cincinnati exceeding expectations going into the heart of December. On paper, the roster looks like “Jarron Cumberland, Cane Broome, and Some Other Guys I Have No Choice But To Trust.” In practice, things are coming together.

Say what you want about the Mick Cronin System, but the roster and cultural stability it brings is what makes years like 2014-15 happen. A team with that roster and no head coach should not have made the tournament, won a game, and gave undefeated Kentucky a battle. Say what you want about the Mick Cronin System, but its what keeps UC winning an average of 26 games per year (over the last eight seasons) and prevents them from ending up in a situation like the team across town: A first-year head coach with a confusing roster held together by three graduate transfers and half a roll of duct tape.

So what about this year? Going in, I had predicted this team would be hot and cold, up and down. What’s changed after 10 games?

The ups and downs have come. The OSU Debacle, a dismal showing against Milwaukee, and a rock fight against UNLV have punctuated the low points but two of those ended in UC victory. Meanwhile, the team has aced tests against respectable opponents George Mason, Ole Miss, Northern Kentucky, and Xavier.

I said it before the season, and wrote about it after the Milwaukee escape, but I pegged this team as the type to nail a couple of big wins and drop a couple of head-scratchers. I did not expect this to be the type of team to string together gutty wins. The bouquet of George Mason, Ole Miss, NKU, and Xavier seemed to almost certain hold at least one loss for a team piecing things together.

The ‘Cats are being propelled by Keith Williams’ emergence as a #3 scorer, Trevon Scott’s success as a rock-solid big man, and just enough Justin Jenifer points and assists to keep the offense stirring.

Skeptics will say it’s a matter of time until Williams comes back down to earth a little bit, that there’s no way he can continue to average 11 points while shooting near-average from outside all year. They’ll also say there’s no way Trevon Scott continues to give you 75% of Gary Clark’s production.

Let’s pretend that’s all true. You know what else though? This team has several pieces that have yet to fall into place.

Jarron Cumberland has not quite settled into his role as alpha dog yet. He’s scoring “only” 15.3 points per game and shooting just 41% from the field. He’s a guy UC fans expected to ride until the wheels fall off and he’s averaging just 27.5 minutes so far. These are numbers that scare AAC coaches.

Cane Broome, Cincinnati’s clear #2 scorer, is averaging “just” 9.8 points per game, and doing it without any kind of outside shot. He was 39% from outside last year and is riding 19% at the time of this writing. That figures to get better, but until it does he’s learning to dissect defenses in the lane. Some of what he’s done attacking the basket is unreal, and scoring nearly double figures off the bench without a signature aspect of his game is remarkable.

Rashawn Fredericks, a guy some people thought would start at one point, has yet to contribute much of substance as he’s catching up to division 1 speed. That figures to change. Trevor Moore, a relative mainstay on last year’s team, is just now showing some signs of life after a terribly cold start to the season. Eliel Nsoseme, a rebound vacuum in a basketball jersey, is providing strength off the bench despite still playing with a splint on his shooting hand. Logan Johnson is finding ways to be a spark as a freshman but hasn’t seemed to crack the rotation as much in big games, which I think will start to change.

The defense, while it shouldn’t be a surprise, is excelling thanks to a great blend of length, athleticism, and basketball IQ. It would have been fair to expect a slip in that area, but the Bearcats sit at #18 in AdjD right now, a drop from #2 last year, but right in line with the top-20 defenses of 2014-15, 2015-16, and 2016-17. More stunning is the AdjO, which is #58. Most would agree last year’s team was the most offensively talented of the Cronin era on paper. They finished at #49. The fact that this team is within shouting distance after replacing Gary Clark, Jacob Evans, and Kyle Washington is phenomenal.

Through 10 games, this team’s record has exceeded reasonable expectations, and they’re getting help from unexpected places. But I’d argue this team is dealing with more buried treasure than fool’s gold right now, and it’s crazy to think that what we’ve seen so far may be more underachievement than overacheivement.

Am I ready to predict 27 wins and an AAC Championship? No, although KenPom’s algorithm thinks it can happen. This team will still have to deal with adversity, and we don’t yet know how they’ll handle it. The fact that they’ve largely skirted it thus far is remarkable enough. Things are looking far more stable and promising than the roller coaster I predicted in September. I thought the Bearcats may find this type of rhythm after 20 or so games.

They seem to have gotten there in 10.