I was raised an Ohio State fan. My whole extended family is Buckeyes. I even live in Columbus now. Because of this, I’m known as The Bearcats Guy pretty much everywhere I go. This usually brings questions. As fall began, it was, “How’s the basketball team looking this year?” My standard answer went something like, “They’ve got talent, but it’s probably gonna be up and down. They can win any game on their schedule, but they can also lose any game on their schedule. I think they’ll ultimately figure it out. I’m a little biased though.”
It didn’t take a genius to sense this roller coaster coming, and we’ve seen that through three games. Against Ohio State in the opener, it was the spitting image of how I pictured the lows: Not much energy. Not much leadership on the court. Offense that looked rudderless. Ice cold shooting.
Against NC Central, it was better. A 22-point victory with offense and defense winning out late and young stars (like Keith Williams) emerging when Cincinnati needed them.
On Friday night it was back to a low point for much of the evening. The defense was unengaged, Jarron Cumberland looked reluctant to grab the reigns on offense, and Milwaukee waltzed their way to a halftime tie in Clifton. Things eventually turned around, though. At least a little bit.
Cane Broome showed up for the first time this season with 17 points at an efficient 8-for-12 clip. Logan Johnson came off the bench to get things moving with six assists. Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks bullied overmatched Milwaukee bigs to the tune of a combined 27 points and 20 rebounds. All five starters reached 12 points. Even the abysmal free throw shooting came around. After starting 4-for-12, the Bearcats hammered home the last eight attempts to put the game on ice.
It wasn’t a reassuring night in Clifton, but I’ll stand by my statement on Twitter. I’ll take November adversity in victories, especially with this team. It was a theme in Mick’s postgame presser (a classic installment Friday), but this team has a lot of growing up to do.
Again, all of this was expected, to an extent. This program lost three incredible players and leaders after last season. In college basketball, it usually takes struggle to knock things into alignment. Freak out all you want (it’s not exactly unwarranted), but Cronin has piloted eight consecutive teams to March Madness, and this isn’t the least talented of those.
It’s a long road, and we’re hitting all the bumps I saw coming. There will certainly be better nights, and there will certainly be worse ones. But if you accept the fact that this team probably won’t win 30 games (last the last two years), there is excitement and intrigue to be had. I’d encourage fans to ride out the storm.
I’m a little biased though.
Looking at the nuts and bolts of this one, is it fair to say the team missed Justin Jenifer? UC’s starting point guard was stuck at home with a stomach bug. He brought six assists, defensive energy, and vocal leadership on Tuesday. Without him tonight, an offensive attack that looked rudderless against Ohio State started to look similar. Milwaukee is an inferior program, so the Bearcats got their 70 points, but it rarely looked fluid.
For a moment it seemed like it may cost UC the game, but the Bearcats saved things and it lead to two revelations:
Cane Broome is back. Without Jenifer there to run the offensive “system” (100 sets of quotation marks on that word), much of the steady offense was Broome attacking. He came into Friday shooting 1-for-14 on the season and lost his starting job to Keith Williams earlier this week. Jenifer getting sick opened the door for Broome to start again, and it may have been a blessing in disguise. On Friday, 1-for-14 gave way to 8-for-12. Cane has to be a big part of Cincinnati’s scoring, and he got his confidence back.
Logan Johnson, it bears repeating, needs more minutes. The offense came closest to looking like a cohesive system with the freshman on the floor. It feels like more playing time will only help Cincinnati, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of Justin Jenifer—the guy who has brought the energy and work ethic most consistently through three games. Most won’t like this thinking, but Mick Cronin and The Athletic’s Justin Williams will back me up on this. There was some good discussion on Twitter. I don’t know how this is gonna work, but I’m also not a multi-million dollar basketball coach. From where I’m standing, Johnson and Jenifer need as many minutes as possible. Make it happen, Mick.
The big men, for the time being, are working. They were a horror show against the Buckeyes, but they’re rightfully beating up on front courts from MEAC and Horizon League teams. Don’t expect Nysier Brooks to be putting up double-doubles every night in the conference slate, but I’m hoping games like Friday can instill some confidence. He’s big, strong, and should be able to grab a handful of points and rebounds each night without playing out of his mind. If Brooks can find his groove in November and December, it’s going to pay dividends for a UC team trying to recover from losing the intimidating threat that was Gary Clark.
Keith Williams! He wins the award for Guy I’m Most Surprised By. Way back in March, I predicted Williams would by the starting shooting guard, writing, “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 just think Williams ultimately has the versatility you want from a starter and I think Mick would agree.” Watch Friday’s game and that prediction seems genius, but I honestly didn’t expect to be this correct, especially this early. Williams is exceeding my expectations. I’m interested to see what Cronin does with the starting lineup when Jenifer is healthy now that Broome has awoken.
Jarron Cumberland has to learn to grab the bull by the horns, and Cronin agrees. He hasn’t been bad, per se, but there have been six halves played this season and the second half of the OSU game was the only time where it looked like this was, emphatically, Cumberland’s team. When the big opponents come, he probably won’t get 39 points from Brooks, Scott, and Williams. He’s gotta learn to be the feisty attacker we saw against Xavier way back in 2015. He’s the best player on the team and he’s gotta stop blending into the crowd. He’ll get there.
I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of Rashawn Fredericks, considering this is a team in flux and he’s got experience being the alpha dog at a JUCO program. There was a brief moment this offseason where it seemed like he may start for this team out of the gate and now he’s shooting 1-for-7 on the year at 11 minutes per game (and shrinking). I think he can be a nice piece if Cronin can find a way to get him going.
This team is back on the court Monday night. Love the short turnaround after a rough outing. Keep working out those kinks.