The days and weeks leading up to the start of a sports season is always an exciting time. There is unfettered hope and anticipation. You can consume preview after preview and opinion after opinion that will either shout praises or spell doom, but in essence, it is all just for fun. Nothing said before the first tip-off, kick-off, pitch or puck-drop really makes all that much of a difference.
However, making predictions is one of the most tried and true traditions of the calendar year in sports. In February and March, the sprinklings of baseball prognostications begin to come through, then football preview magazines line shelves in every store you can see once the summer heats up. Finally, when the wind turns cold once again, the sports world turns to basketball and hockey to feed that prediction addiction.
Well its high time we at Down the Drive provided our own strain. Below you will find some predictions (some bold, others less so) about the upcoming season.
1. Octavius Ellis will win American Athletic Conference Player of the Year
You can take your Nic Moores and your Daniel Hamiltons, I'll stick with Ellis. No matter your feelings about his reputation, there is no denying that Ellis is one of the best players in the AAC. His blend of wicked athleticism, scoring ability, defensive acumen and good ol' fashioned glass cleaning makes him a highlight reel in the flesh. He led the Bearcats in scoring (9.9 PPG), rebounding (7.2 RPG) and blocks (2.0 BPG) last season and all signs point to even more this time around.
Of course, you're probably saying to yourself, "But what about Moore, the defending POTY?" With the turmoil facing SMU, the Mustangs may be in for some rough sledding, which would in turn hurt Moore's candidacy, opening the lane for Ellis, who was a second-team all-conference choice last year, but will get a bump with the departure of players like Ryan Boatright.
2. Shaq Thomas will realize his full potential
Pardon the vague aspect of this prediction. Thomas has always had enormous promise. From the day he signed with Cincinnati as a four-star prospect, we have all waited for him to "arrive". I say this is the year. Thomas is a senior now, he has been molded in Mick Cronin's system and he could be in for more time on the court this season, at least based on the first exhibitions of the season. He played a team-high 28 minutes and scored 18 points in the win over Grand Valley State. I like Thomas as a dark horse candidate for all-conference third or even second-team honors.
3. Cincinnati will score 70 points per game
Before you start laughing just hear me out. The Bearcats may have only put up 62.1 points a game last year, but some things have changed. The new 30-second shot clock will force Cronin's crew to pick up the pace, which will lead to more shots and ideally more made shots. Cronin has said before that he wants to improve on offense and speed things up and the Bearcats did look a little more spry in their two exhibition games. Kevin Johnson also made comment on the uptick on offense.
"I think the pace of our offense is a lot faster. It gives us a lot of opportunities to get out and run. Passing has definitely been a lot better," Johnson said after the exhibition with Bellarmine. "But it all starts with the flow and I believe today our pace and flow was really good."
Other than a new game plan, some new personnel will help as well. Justin Jenifer is an exceptionally gifted passer and should open up more looks when he subs in for Troy Caupain, who is a solid distributor in his own right. Additionally, Jacob Evans III is more scorer than defender, a rarity in Cronin's recruiting strategy.
4. The Crosstown Shootout will go to the Bearcats
Cincinnati has lost back-to-back games against arch rival Xavier. Last year's matchup was one for the ages, with the Musketeers stealing a 59-57 win at Fifth Third Arena. This year's contest should be just as good, but Cincinnati is loaded with returning talent, while the X must replace point guard Dee Davis and leading scorer Matt Stainbrook.
5. Quadri Moore will play more than 500 minutes
Moore was a real disappointment as a freshman. His production was lacking and his suspension and posterization by Willie Cauley-Stein stand out as the "highlights" of his season. In total, he finished with 213 minutes logged. Getting to 500 won't be easy, but Moore has shown steady signs of improvement during the offseason. Cronin made comment about it after the team's second exhibition contest.
"He has really worked hard to get in shape. I think that’s the difference. If you just watch him run up and down the floor he’s in such better shape that it’s going to help him make shots more," Cronin said. "He’s a very cerebral player. For him to get on the floor it’s a matter of defense and rebounding."
Someone or a few someones will have to pick up some of the time that Jermaine Sanders left behind. Granted, the bulk of that will likely go to Evans III, Jenifer, and Kevin Johnson, but I like Moore to be a rotation mainstay as well.
6. Troy Caupain, Farad Cobb, Ellis, Thomas and Gary Clark will be the starting five
Caupain, Ellis and Clark are easily in the starting lineup. All three were starters all last season and the trio is the life's blood of the Bearcats. Caupain runs the point and creates on offense, Ellis does everything on both ends of the floor and Clark is a low-post force with budding skill in other areas as well.
The other two spots are less certain, but we got some clarity during the exhibitions. As stated before, Thomas played a team-high in minutes against Grand Valley State and he did so from the starting lineup. Cobb was the other starter in the game, but Kevin Johnson scored 19 points in the second exhibition. The two-guard spot will be where there is most turnover, as Cobb and Johnson will likely play in a platoon situation, with Johnson providing 3-point shooting off the bench.
As far as allocating the rest of the minutes, I fully expect that Jenifer and Evans III will be tested in fire, with Jenifer acting as a backup to Caupain and Evans III slotting in behind Ellis or Thomas. Somewhere around 10 to 15 minutes per game for each is reasonable.
Joining Evans III as a replacement at either the three or four spot, Moore will be a handy piece off the bench and Coreontae DeBerry will work nicely as a decent stand-in for Clark with his ability to clog the lane and protect the rim, although Cronin will need to make sure to keep more offensive options on the floor when DeBerry is subbed in.
7. Cincinnati Will Win the American Athletic Conference
Surprise, surprise, the Cincinnati site picked Cincinnati to win the conference. Well I don't much care if you are not shocked by this prediction, it's going to come true. SMU and Connecticut are both strong teams, but the rest of the league got worse. Temple lost some players, as did Tulsa, and most of the bottom half isn't all that strong to begin with. Aside from such anecdotal evidence, Cincinnati is also a strong pick from the analytical side. The Bearcats ranked 14th in Ken Pomeroy's 2016 preseason rankings, higher than any other AAC team.
The real shining glory, however, is that Cincinnati is packed to the brim with returning talent to go along with plug-and-play freshmen Jenifer and Evans III. On top of that, having Cronin on the sidelines for a full season has to be worth a couple wins.
With a league title in hand, I also expect the Bearcats to be no lower than a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and for it to make it to the second weekend.
There you have it. You might as well hibernate until March and wake up and find that all these things came true. Or you could just binge watch Bearcats basketball, beginning with Friday's tilt against Western Carolina, like a normal person.