I don’t know when I’ll end up posting this, but I’m writing this on Monday. My brain is still running at warp speed trying to process what happened yesterday and one of the few ways I know how to process things is by turning the page entirely. Trust me, I’m aware there are large-scale questions surrounding the program. I’m not hiding from those, but I certainly don’t have the answers, and until I come up with some kind of solution I’m not going to join the complaining. That's not good for anything.
What I can do is look ahead to next season and help put this disaster in the rearview mirror. It won’t do much to calm anyone’s nerves about the black cloud hanging over the program, but it’s something.
This is the end of an era. Phase 1 of the Cronin era was 2006-11, as Mick frantically rebuilt the program from the ashes to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2011, just three short seasons after winning 13 games. Phase 2 stretched from the 2011-12 season until Sunday, as annual tournament trips became the expectation. The 'Cats were also pre-renovation in this area, playing in that old barn we called The Shoe. This era notably featured the transition from the Big East to The American, which required a change in Cronin’s approach that led to the rebirth of Cincinnati basketball. There were face-of-the-program guys in Sean Kilpatrick, Troy Caupain, and Gary Clark. This was supposed to end in a grand culmination this March. Gary Clark was supposed to cap his incredible four-year career with a trip to the Final Four, and the road was paved for that to happen. Cincinnati was supposed to close the book on Phase 2 by planting its flag at the top of the mountain, finally returning to college basketball elite. That didn’t happen. Gary Clark is gone, and Phase 2 goes out with a death rattle.
So, what does Phase 3 look like? Two things are important to know here. First, there's no denying a pall is hanging over this program. Cincinnati basketball has ducked and dodged questions about March success for too long, and sooner or later someone will have to answer for how they managed to lose in the first weekend with Cincinnati’s best team in nearly two decades. Second, and most importantly, is the fact that beneath the undeniable muck are some good things and some reasons to be, I dare say, excited by the time November rolls around. Sue me.
The Bearcats have a new arena on the way. We’ve all talked about this, but mostly from a fan’s perspective. New Fifth Third, like New Nippert before it, will be a much better place to watch a game. However, this is far more important from a perception perspective. If you’re a recruit, it’s very easy to buy into playing in what will arguably be the best on-campus arena in the country. The overhauled arena will be great for season ticket sales, it will be far better for media, and it may even help Cincinnati land things like College GameDay that have been elusive. Having a new home will change how the program looks and feels from the inside out, and it's not something to be underestimated.
From a personnel perspective, next year could look wildly different. It’s going to have a bit of a Trust The Process feel to it, as the Bearcats will lose a lot of talent this offseason. Trust The Process is welcomed if it’s coming off a Final Four run. Nobody wants to slide into a “rebuilding” year after the previous regime flamed out. If Jacob Evans elects to return for his senior season, which I believe is doubtful, Cincinnati will be good to go and could even be AAC favorites again.
Briefly though, let’s assume Evans leaves. This is what that turnover would look like.
- Cane Broome should slide into the starting point guard slot to offset the offensive vacuum Evans leaves behind. Mick is a big Justin Jenifer fan, but I’m not sure how valuable his distribution skills are with far fewer weapons to get the ball to. I think a senior version of Broome playing 30 minutes a night could do some real damage. (Again, this is all assuming Evans leaves. With Jake back, maybe it makes more sense to start Jenifer again.)
- Keith Williams, who I believe has more long-term upside as a starter than Trevor Moore, slides into the off-ball guard slot, forming a one-two punch with Broome that could really slice up defenses in the lane. I could see Moore getting a starting job, I guess. I just think Williams ultimately has the versatility you want from a starter and I think Mick would agree.
- Jarron Cumberland slides up to the wing, which he’s able to pull off because of his size. Given his tendency to attack the rim and create shots, maybe he’d play more of a guard role to handle the ball more frequently. Either way, he’s going to be next year’s workhorse. Expect lots of highlights.
- At the power forward is Trevon Scott, a kid who really blossomed this season. Scott probably isn’t gonna average 12 points per game, but he’s the Swiss Army Knife, doing a little bit of everything and serving as 2018’s glue guy. His defense will go a long way to replace what Gary Clark leaves behind.
- The center position could go a variety of ways, but I have a hard time envisioning anyone other than Nysier Brooks getting the starting job. He’s clearly Mick’s guy and he can be a valuable rim protector and rebounder. I think there are questions with how Brooks fits into a system that's a bit quicker than he is, but I'm not sure I see a clear alternative unless Cronin feels comfortable going really small and starting Scott at the five.
- Trevor Moore has gotta be your big spark off the bench next year, assuming he doesn’t surprise me and earn a starting job. He’s a sturdy defender and a confident shooter. He could never quite string together consistent shooting as a freshman, but it’s also hard to get into a rhythm while playing 12 minutes a night in the conference slate. Now that he’s got a year under his belt, look for him to make the infamous freshman to sophomore leap. He knows how the game works at this level and an inevitable increase in minutes should do well for his shooting.
- Justin Jenifer is still a valuable piece, because any time you’ve got a guard with a 3.57 assist to turnover ratio, you’ve got someone who will earn minutes. As I said, I think his value goes down next year with fewer players to distribute to. Maybe he can stir up a tad more offense, but I'm guessing we see Jenifer playing alongside Broome either way. I think there’s a good chance we see some real small lineups like Jenifer, Broome, Williams, Cumberland, and Scott. I also think there's a very small, outside chance Jenifer earns the starting job alongside Broome if neither Williams nor Moore step up. Again, unlikely. But it would be fun.
- Eliel Nsoseme feels like a fan favorite. Many will campaign for him to start, but I don’t see it. I think he’s got great upside, but upside doesn’t earn starting jobs. The only underclassman to start in the frontcourt for Cronin in the last eight years is Gary Clark. Nsoseme will get lots of minutes off the bench in relief of Scott and Brooks. He played just 5.7 minutes per game this season, but that’ll change drastically next year. I’m guessing Eliel sees the largest minutes increase on the roster.
- Mamoudou Diarra… oh man. As President and Chairman of the Mamoudou Diarra Fan Club, I’m excited for next year. For those who like upside, Mamoudou is Mr. Upside in the flesh. He’s aiming to earn a redshirt this season, so we may have four years of Diarra left. Unfortunately for the fans, I still think Mamoudou is still a year off from making a serious impact. He’ll earn minutes next year, to be sure. But his otherworldly athleticism likely won’t manifest itself into on-court success quite yet. I expect him to be a Keith Williams-type guy next year, playing in basically every game but only logging about 10 minutes or so. This is all a guess because Diarra is hard to put a finger on. We don't know when that development will happen, so this all could look different come November.
I’m always the first to admit that I’m not a scout. I watch enough basketball to read a player and his skill set once he gets to UC and gets a few games under his belt, but that’s a far cry from estimating the impact a current high schooler will have on the Bearcats next season.
Cincinnati’s highest profile recruit is point guard Logan Johnson. His brother plays in the NBA, and Logan has the type of skills that help you make the connection to a currently-successful pro. The Bearcats are deep in the backcourt, so I don’t see Johnson being a key piece in the rotation, but he’ll play. Expect Mick to get him as many minutes as possible, because both Broome and Jenifer are seniors and will hand the reigns over to Johnson in 2019. Super athletic guards are good. Think of Johnson as something like a point guard version of Keith Williams.
Cincinnati’s second recruit is a kid named LaQuill Hardnett. For those who haven’t watched the highlights, he’s a 6’7-8” wing from Philly via Baltimore. UC doesn’t have a perfect comparison, but the best way to describe him might be “What Jermaine Lawrence was supposed to be.” Hardnett is a big man with great ball skills. Seriously, he played point guard on a team that won back-to-back state titles. It’s hard to say what impact he’ll have on next year’s team, but it may benefit him that he’s not quite a guard or a big man. He can steal some bench minutes from everyone from Moore to Nsoseme to Diarra, and those will add up.
On top of all this, we ultimately don’t yet know what Jacob Evans is doing, and this team would look quite a bit different if he surprises me and returns for his senior season.
Call me crazy, but I’m excited for Phase 3. I know a lot of people will not be, and that’s because we weren’t supposed to enter next season without even a measly Sweet 16 trip. The looming questions about the program’s issues in March remain, and I don’t expect answers. However, I’m a Bearcat for life and there are much harder things to get excited about than a crop of new faces playing in a shiny new arena against an exciting schedule.
Bring it on.