David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
It is February 22nd and the Cincinnati Bearcats are sitting at 19-8 overall, 7-7 in the Big East. There are four games left in the regular season, plus at least one Big East tournament game. If UC can win another game or two a NCAA Tournament birth is assured. It remains theoretically possible for the Bearcats to make a run to the sweet sixteen. But I wouldn't place the percentage at anywhere above 10 percent. In other words we have entered the lame duck portion of the season.
A season that began with alot of promise has seen all of it evaporate. From December 27th to now the Cats have gone 7-8. UC has lost 5 of their last 8 with the only wins coming against bottom feeders Rutgers and Seton Hall, with what amounts to a shock victory over Villanova. And it is not as though Mick can look at one area to pinpoint, correct and fix. Free throw shooting, actual shooting, shot selection, poor basketball IQ and the occasional turnover rate have all hampered the Bearcats ability to win games. Its not a secret or a surprise that all of those are offensive issues.
This team without a lock down defender of a Dion Dixon variety, let alone Rashad Bishop, is still a breathtakingly effective unit. They move well, challenge every shot, and protect the rim. Over the last 8 games teams have averaged just 58 points per game. Defense is not the problem, well at least its not the whole problem.
When Mick Cronin took over the program way back in 2006 the program was at its lowest ebb since the Tony Yates era. Recruiting basically tanked as the long, sordid Huggins to Kennedy to Cronin transition played out. Mick had to start from scratch as recruiting officially bottomed out with the 2006 class.
Cronin did what teams with less talent than the opposition have done since the beginning of time. They slowed the pace way down, try to make the game as ugly as possible and hope to sneak by winning on the margins. And it worked. UC increased its win total for five straight seasons, returned to the NCAA tournament for the 26th time. The Bearcats were built back up on little more than the toughness of the team. The number one adjective to describe the Bearcats has become tough. Ask any coach about UC they will say that they are tough. Ask any media member the same and with little variation they will talk about the toughness of the team.
Its not an accident either. Mick Cronin recruited toughness. Since getting the program back on solid ground he has brought in a slew of guys who's main attributes have been being tougher than the other guys. But there is a limit to just how far toughness can take a team. At a certain point you have to be able to execute, particularly down the stretch.
Looking at the roster right now the limitations of focusing so heavily on building the tougher team are apparent. This is a team that can't shoot, from the field, the line or from deep. The offense is stagnant. At the moment no one is particularly capible of creating shots, either for themselves or for others. There isn't anyone who can generate good shots in isolation. There isn't a big who can get a good shot from the post.* The lack of skill is apparent.
* According to Hoop-Math.com, UC is shooting just 53 per cent at the rim on the first shots of poessions with the shot clock between 11-35 seconds. To generalize that any possession that ends with a UC big posting up for a shot is, more or less, a coin flip
Watching UC basketball has basically become exactly like watching the US Men's National team.The attempt to watch a team full of athletes succeed in a game that, for the most part, rewards skill and technical ability over brute athleticism. Its possible to win with that style, but there is a glass ceiling to it. At some point a winning team has to execute offensively, particularly down the stretch, not botch crucial possessions in an comically inept manner.
The reinforcements are coming, that is why I think the program can still move forward, theoretically at least. Shaquille Thomas is a guy with a lot of offensive ability, but he is out of the rotation because he is a minus defender. Jeremiah Davis III is red shirting this year due to injury, but he is another guy who has a good feel for the game on the offensive end. Though I do fear that he might have ceded the basketball equivalent of most favored nation status to Ge`Lawn Guyn. Davis has his issues defensively, namely lapses in concentration/attention to detail. Guyn doesn't, even though he is much more limited offensively, everyone knows what Cronin values more, and its not getting buckets.
As much as I have knocked Cronin's recruiting methods from previous classes he has really gone out and targeted more offensively skilled guys in this recruiting class. Summit Country Day's Kevin Johnson has a very polished offensive game, and he is capible of stretching the floor with his shooting. Troy Caupain led the Richmond area in scoring and was player of the year in the area. Jamaree Strickland is something of a rarity here at UC, a big coming to Cincinnati with post moves already in the bag. Jermaine Lawrence is the most talented forward to come to UC since...I don't know, Eric Hicks? The only outlier might just be DeShaun Morman who is a crazy athlete, but might have his greatest impact on defense.
While this team has been brutal to watch, I have a feeling that that will change next year, It has to. Mick has taken the all toughness, all the time strategy about as far as it can go. If Mick wants to make UC elite again the offense has to get better, drastically better. The talent will be there