Finding Cincinnati's Ceiling

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

Mick Cronin has been in Clifton long enough, and with enough winning, to leave us with plenty of track record to dissect. In a year where it's hard to ascertain what to make of the team, maybe we can find some wisdom in the past.

When I try to predict the future for this year's bunch, one idea I can't shake is that they haven't seemed to find themselves yet. Even in UC's modest eight-game win streak, they weren't exactly cruising. They needed overtime twice, were locked in a battle with .500 Wichita, and won four other games by single digits. While some might see this as an area of concern, I think it might be a good thing, especially when combined with their 21-4 record.

A narrative that persisted years ago, and not without merit, was that Cronin teams peaked too early. Mick is the master of getting his teams to March, but for years it seemed as if they hit their stride in February only to get to the postseason and quickly falter.

It should be no surprise that perhaps Mick Cronin’s best job at 'saving the peak' came in the 2011-12 season—his deepest tournament run. That team suffered a disastrous loss to Presbyterian early, followed by a home stinker against Marshall. When the Xavier brawl—and the suspensions that came with it—happened in December, it threatened to knock the entire season off the rails. The Bearcats rallied together, however. They won ten of their next 11 games but didn’t hit a groove until the second half of February with victories over Seton Hall, #17 Louisville, and #8 Marquette that slingshotted them into the Big East Tournament, where they beat #13 Georgetown and #2 Syracuse. In the NCAA Tournament, they handled a tough Texas team with relative ease before knocking off 3-seed Florida State. They finally collapsed in the Sweet Sixteen, at the hands of an Ohio State team that went on to lose to Kansas by two points in the Final Four.

After that, the ability to gel at the right time to maximize tournament success went missing for a while.

The 2012-13 team exploded out of the gate, winning its first 12 games; 13 of its first 14. They hit New Years Day at 13-1 with victories over plenty of good teams: Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Oregon, Alabama, and Xavier. They peaked at #8 in the AP Poll, but the wheels fell off the cart quickly. The Bearcats went 8-9 in their final 17 games of the regular season, got hammered by Georgetown in the second game of the Big East Tournament, and wound up as a 10-seed, facing an underrated Creighton bunch in the first round. The 'Cats probably did well to lose by four points to the Bluejays, but it left a lot of fans wondering what happened to the top-10 team they had in December.

By the start of the 2013-14 season, the Bearcats had lost mainstays JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright to graduation, and fans wondered if the cobbled-together Senior Big Three of Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, and Titus Rubles would be enough to fight for the AAC’s first championship. The season started unassumingly. Aside from a home victory against a decent NC State team, the Bearcats didn't turn many heads, landing at 7-2 through their first nine games. A 44-43 grudge-match victory over Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden lit a flame, and the ‘Cats proceeded to win their next 15 games. By the second week of February, Cincinnati was 22-2, undefeated in the new AAC, and ranked #7 in the country.

In the next three weeks, they got stunned by SMU in Dallas, lost at home to Louisville on a Russ Smith buzzer beater, and lost at UConn in what I call the Teddy Valentine Game. Another hellish loss, this time to UConn in the AAC Tournament, slid the Bearcats to a 5-seed, where they squared off against another underrated mid-major: Harvard. Cincinnati lost to the Crimson, bringing to a quiet close the winningest season in 12 years. Again, we all wondered how a team that was running like a well-oiled machine in February had managed to go 1-2 in the postseason.

I don’t know that the 2014-15 season even had a peak. Frustrating losses against Ole Miss and Nebraska stained the early weeks before an overtime win against San Diego State seemed to right the ship. All of that vanished on the morning of December 20, when Cronin revealed he’d be taking an indefinite leave of absence to attend to a medical emergency. The Bearcats got walloped that afternoon by the Rams, and turmoil threatened to engulf the season. Interim head coach Larry Davis did a marvelous job of keeping the train on the tracks, staving off a three-game losing streak in mid-February to get Cincinnati back into the tournament where they beat Purdue in overtime before losing to #1-ranked Kentucky.

The 2015-16 campaign was cursed beyond belief. Despite five regular-season losses by two points, the Bearcats finished 22-9 for the second straight year. Predictably, given the aura of that season, they went 0-2 in the postseason on a pair of the most gruesome losses imaginable.

Shrugging off losses to Rhode Island and Butler early in the 2016-17 campaign, the Bearcats stormed to a 15-game win streak as they’d done in 2013-14. After—once again—climbing to #7 in the AP Poll, they—once again—lost to SMU in Dallas. They finished the regular season strong, winning five of their last six. They hammered Tulsa to open the AAC Tourney and finally got the postseason UConn monkey off their back with a decisive win over the Huskies. The ugly loss to SMU in the tournament championship game seemed like the wheels coming off a tapped-out team, but the Bearcats turned around and made easy work of Kansas State to open the NCAA Tournament. They were rewarded with a game against UCLA and the Lonzo Ball buzzsaw, bringing to a close a 30-win season for the first time since 2002.

Just like in 2013-14, the Bearcats opened 2017-18 with seven straight wins against largely uninspiring opponents before dropping two consecutive big games. Again, just like 2013-14, the Bearcats used it to fuel a streak. They won their next 16 games before losing back-to-back games against Houston and Wichita State. Cincinnati rallied to win the final five games of that season, the AAC Tournament, and the opening NCAA Tournament game against Georgia State. In a move that defied all narratives aside from the worst, the Bearcats lost to Nevada in the second round after building a 22-point second-half lead.

What can we learn from all of this?

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

[photo by Emily Witt | OhVarsity!]

I think this year’s team is one of Cronin’s most interesting because it’s hard to tell if they’re already overachieving at 21-4 or sitting on untapped potential like the 2011-12 team was. I think it’s easy to look at the record, compare it to preseason expectations, and see the negative side. I wouldn’t fault someone who said, “This team was supposed to struggle on its road to the tournament. Just because they’ve turned heads by winning 21 of 25 doesn’t mean they’re any more talented than the team I expected to finish the regular season 22-9.” In some sense, I think that’s fair. Since the trainwreck loss to ECU in January, this team’s biggest strength has been coming out on the right side of close games against mid-tier AAC teams. Save for the 24-point blowout against Tulsa, their biggest win in the last ten games is an 11-point victory in Wichita that came primarily as a result of a massive momentum swing on a Shocker double technical. Meanwhile, the only team they played in that stretch that’s likely to make the tournament is Houston, and UC lost that game. Skeptics have an easy case to argue this 9-1 stanza is a bit of fool’s gold.

The more exciting argument lies in looking at these numbers and thinking that there’s a chance this team is better than its shown, or at least more equipped for March than its resume might make it seem.

For those looking for comparisons in odd places, the last time a Cronin-coached team lost an absolute stinker was that Presbyterian game in 2011. That team won a fair bit (like this year’s team has done) but didn’t find its groove until the final five games of conference play. That team seemed to make its mark by merely hanging around long enough (albeit by beating some big teams) and giving themselves time to click into place. Might something similar lie ahead in the next three weeks?

In 2013-14, the Bearcats ran most of their offense through a single reliable contributor: Sean Kilpatrick. The comparisons to Jarron Cumberland are simple, and the last two games of this season have not done much to ward off the similarities. Truthfully, the reliance on one offensive threat hurt Cincinnati in 2014. Get this: Kilpatrick was UC’s leading scorer in each of the final 19 games that year. When he had an off night, was taken out by the opposing defense, or didn’t get enough help, the Bearcats lost.

Here's a difference though: The Bearcats honestly had no choice in 2014. UC's second-leading scorer was Justin Jackson, who averaged 11 points per game. Their third-leading scorer was Titus Rubles, who averaged 7.3 points per game. Both of those guys had great seasons, but neither is what any would call offensively reliable. They also aren't guards, which are infamously crucial in March. Next on the scoring list, at the #4 and #5 spots, were Shaq Thomas and Jermaine Sanders. The Bearcats finished with KenPom’s #98 offense that season, and it’s pretty clear why.

While this year’s team also has a clear alpha, they have secondary options. Keith Williams has emerged as a strong #2 at 10.9 points per game. Trevon Scott has been relatively efficient despite a limited role as an offensive weapon, yet he’s averaging nine per night. The real x-factors come at the #4 and #5 spots—Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome. One has been a pleasant offensive surprise. One has struggled to get in a rhythm. If Broome can continue the mini-resurgence he's had the last two games, and if he and Jenifer are playing well in a couple of weeks, look out. Cincinnati’s offense is leagues better than it was five years ago. While they have the luxury of leaning on one scorer, the metrics say they don’t necessarily have to. Their offense is ranked 37th.

The last time the Bearcats finished with a top-40 offense was in 2016-17. That team reached the AAC title game, earned a 6-seed, and cruised to a first-round NCAA Tournament victory. Doesn’t all of that seem plausible for the 2019 team, at least at this point? That bunch might have been more likely to make a run in March, even a small one, if they hadn’t been part of a matchup of 30-win teams in the second round, something that had happened just once prior in tournament history.

While the 2013-14 comparisons are easy, I think the comparison to the 2016-17 group might be more relevant. The Bearcats do rely heavily on Jarron Cumberland, but they have other scoring options. Their offense is better than it was expected to be. Imagine if Kilpatrick had several scoring guards to help in 2014… or just imagine if the 2016-17 team were more unproven.

For those who believe in that peaking narrative, the 2016-17 group seemed at its most potent in early February when they were 22-2, 11-0 in the AAC, and ranked #11 in the country.

Much like the 2011-12 team, this year's Bearcats almost seem to be hanging tough and biding their time until something clicks. They're 21-4, but have they had a moment where we all thought, “Holy crap, this team is good”? I don’t think so.

Does that mean they aren’t that good? Or could it mean that there's another level they haven't found yet? I guess we’ll find out soon.