The Bearcats kicked off the postseason, immediately finding themselves locked in a shootout with the conference's second-best offense. In the season's biggest game, Cincinnati had to lean on Jarron Cumberland, Justin Jenifer, and Trevon Scott to keep racking up points and avoid a potential slip to the dreaded 8/9 game next week.
If you'd described this situation to me in September, I'd have broken out into cold sweats.
It's March 2019, though. This team stopped making sense a while ago. They got 60 points from those three, pulling out an 82-74 victory that was a lot hairer than the score makes it look. Neither team bothered much with defense for 40 minutes, and for 38 of those, neither wanted to back down on the offensive end of the court.
The Bearcats hitched themselves to the Cumberland locomotive and decided to ride it until the wheels fell off.
He approached it patiently, spending much of the first half deferring to his teammates and getting others in a groove before grabbing the wheel down the stretch and laying out the finishing touches of his 26-point, eight-assist, four-rebound masterpiece with disaster on the line.
He had assistance from pint-sized flamethrower Justin Jenifer, who stuck with his usual mode of operation, hitting a three in the first two minutes and following it up with four more. Early in the second half, he found himself at 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, a sign the Bearcats were going to keep fighting a team that was punching with all its might.
Don't overlook Scott's contributions, however. Given the situation, I'll call his 17 points and 12 rebounds the best game of his career. He'll get lost behind the LeBron and Kyrie show of Cumberland and Jenifer, but he was vital for a team that absolutely refuses to make things easy. Friday night's naseau-inducing tilt came right out of the 2018-19 UC playbook. The fact that it ended in victory, regardless of how grizzly the first 38 minutes appeared, should allow fans to exhale until morning.
What I saw Sunday was unlike anything I'd seen from the Bearcats. What I saw Friday, however—the entire frustrating, heart-pounding, exhilarating mess—was just what I'd seen time and time again.
The Bearcats, the ones that make it ugly but make it count, are back. As long as they keep slugging their way into the win column, I'll take it with my Pepto Bismol in hand.
My goodness, SMU is tough to play. The Ponies won a physical game Thursday over favored Tulsa, earning the right to play Friday against top-25 Cincinnati. They made it a game for more than 38 minutes while playing just seven guys. Only six played for more than five minutes. It defies logic.
Occupying the other end of the spectrum from a rotation standpoint are these Bearcats. I'll couch my next statement by admitting my certainty that Cronin knows far, far more about basketball than I do, but: Doesn't it seem like ten guys are overkill in a game you desperately need to win? Don't get me wrong; I love the bench mob of guys like Mamoudou Diarra, Logan Johnson, and Trevor Moore. And yes, each of those guys contributed in their own way Friday, but March is typically when you see Mick shrink things down to seven or eight guys. Shortening the rotation on a back-to-back tomorrow might seem counterintuitive, but I wouldn't hate tightening things up to get more minutes out of the key contributors, at least if the game is in question.
Trevor Moore's four rebounds will be forgotten by most, but I noticed. A couple were big. Cane Broome's seven points were much-needed as well. Keith Williams, meanwhile, had a night he'd like to forget. He seemed out of sync from the start. That’s usually not his style, so look for a bounce-back Saturday.
The Bearcats tee off against the winner of Temple-Wichita State in less than 24 hours. Either present challenges. The Owls are the tougher team, and therefore the more prominent resume booster, but the Shockers brought a horde of fans to Memphis, despite seeming to be the more comfortable victory. Just find a way to win, and I'm happy. Get me to Sunday, and the rest is gravy.