For one afternoon at least, it was a throwback in Clifton.
With departed wing Jacob Evans back in the building to receive his 2018 AAC Championship ring, the Bearcats took advantage of their role as the superior team and cruised to an easy win, just as they did so many times a year ago. The result was a 72-62 triumph over Wichita State in front of an equally sleepy, sold-out Fifth Third Arena crowd.
Would a resounding, 25-point victory have been sweet on the heels of the loss in Houston? Yeah. Do you get bonus points for beating a team by 25? No, and the Bearcats played as if they knew it. Nobody in white seemed to feign interest in facing the 12-11 Shockers, not even Jarron Cumberland—who still managed to waltz his way to Cincinnati's quietest 27-point, six-rebound, five-assist game in ages.
If Sunday's contest has any impact on Cincinnati's season outside of a nondescript 10-point win on the resume, it may be in its potential role in re-sparking Keith Williams and Cane Broome.
Williams, who scored in double figures in the first six games of the AAC slate, had done it just once in the five games since. He tallied 15 Sunday, buoyed by an impressive 9-for-10 at the stripe.
Broome, meanwhile, continues to ride the senior-season rollercoaster. Perhaps Sunday was the second step in a consistent stretch. He's now scored double-digits in back-to-back games for the first time since December 1 and hit multiple outside shots in back-to-back games for the first time since the first two games of his UC career, if you can believe that.
The reassuring night from the guards came on an afternoon when the frontcourt had what amounted to a disastrous outing on the offensive end. Nysier Brooks and Trevon Scott combined to shoot a paltry 2-for-14 from the floor, good for just six points. While the 14 rebounds, six blocks, and four assists shouldn't be discounted, these kinds of games from the bigs will eventually bite UC. Cumberland, Williams, and Broome combining to score 54 of Cincinnati's 72 points is impressive but isn't the type of thing Cronin is satisfied with as the calendar reaches late February.
It seems like confidence is a factor, which is both understandable and a tough thing to be battling this late in the season.
The remainder of the Bearcats' regular season won't be nearly as forgiving as the visiting Shockers were. KenPom predicts UC to be locked in single-digit battles the rest of the way, so freebies under the basket won't be something to take lightly.
Unlike a year ago, Cincinnati still has plenty to clean up. Just like last year's 31-win group, however, none of it mattered. Sunday was probably the last time we'll have the luxury of taking a team lightly and glossing over mistakes. The home stretch is here, and the Bearcats will need to sharpen up if they'd like to put the finishing touches on a surprisingly successful season.
The first test looms Thursday against 19-5 UCF. Dust off your lunch pails.
It was great to see former standouts Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain in the building, both taking advantage of the NBA's All-Star break. Those two contributed an awful lot to UC, and the fans know it. The ovation they inspired may have been the loudest of the night.
I mentioned this earlier, and I refuse to harp on it, but... the energy in that crowd. Woof. Attendance this year has been fantastic, but the next task will be finding a way to restore the calamity the old, dingy Fifth Third Arena was good at delivering. I think we've all gotten a little too spoiled by the new digs and the back-to-back 30-win seasons. Hopefully, the last three contests coming against a pair of AAC stalwarts and an old C-USA rival can help reignite the environment.
Cincinnati's defense has again overtaken its offense in efficiency. As of this writing, the Bearcats rank 37th in AdjO and 35th in AdjD. As good as the offense has been, I think we all knew deep down that this day was coming. It would have been far too weird for a Cronin-coached team to finish the regular season with offensive metrics that beat out defensive ones. With several games coming against strong defensive units, it was bound to happen sooner or later.
While Cumberland's efficiency has slipped as he's been forced to carry a more significant offensive load in recent games, the scoring output is hard to shrug off. In the last five weeks, it's become an abnormality when he fails to score 22 points. Cumberland is averaging 24.1 since the near-disaster in Tulsa. Sean Kilpatrick had a similar stretch in February of his senior season, five years ago. The fact that Cumberland is matching it as a junior has to send shivers down the spines of opposing coaches. At this rate, a senior season for Teddy may yield Cincinnati's best single-season scoring performance since the '80s. Anyway, that's a conversation for April.