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3-Point Preview: Western Carolina at Cincinnati

Are you ready for some basketball? A Friday night party? Well then head down to Fifth Third Arena to watch the first step of the much-anticipated 2015-16 season for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Its been a rough year for Cincinnati on the football field. Despite the reopening of Nippert Stadium and incredibly optimistic preseason predictions and musings, Tommy Tuberville's squad is just 5-4 and far from the American Athletic Conference front runner position many expected.

Well, this week there is something to lighten up the feelings in Cincinnati and it comes from the opening of the men's basketball season. While we here at Down the Drive may have learned an important lesson about hedging our bets when it comes to preseason predictions, with a host of returning talent from last year's NCAA Tournament team, the expectations are understandably high for Mick Cronin's guys. Friday night's opener against Western Carolina will provide a nice appetizer of what's to come during the next few months.

1. Cronin's Comeback

Last season may have had plenty of bright moments, but losing Cronin for an extended period due to health concerns certainly changed the narrative. Cronin was able to take part in Senior Day festivities, but he was not cleared to return to the sidelines until the end of March, meaning he missed out on Cincinnati's run in the NCAA Tournament, which included a tooth-and-nail battle with Kentucky. Since Bob Huggins left, Cronin has been a steady force on the sideline (we'll just skip over that one year of Andy Kennedy) and has been a major reason that the Bearcats have remained a basketball power over the past five years.

Cincinnati has been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last five seasons and another trip seems all but a certainty this year. Cronin's fiery presence on the floor might make opponents and referees uncomfortable, but it will do the opposite for anyone with affinity for Bearcats basketball.

2. Room for Rookies

With all five starters and several important contributors off the bench returning, one of Cronin's most difficult jobs will be spreading time to all the capable players on the roster. That job is made no easier by the additions he made in recruiting. Justin Jenifer and Jacob Evans III are both extremely talented freshmen who are actually more potent as offensive players than defensive wunderkinds. Jenifer can score on his own, but has the passing acumen of a young Tom Brady (OK, maybe not, but you get the point). Evans III has the potential to light the nets on fire every single night. But pulling Troy Caupain, Octavius Ellis or Shaq Thomas off the floor to insert either one will not be an easy proposition.

3. Meet the Catamounts

Programs that have unique nicknames don't get enough credit. There are about a billion Wildcats out there, but squads like Western Carolina stand out because they have more unique mascots running around on the floor. Granted, the Catamount is no UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug, but it's something.

Here's what you need to know about the Catamounts, other than it is an uncommon mascot. Cincinnati has won both previous meetings with them, including a 66-64 triumph in 2007 that came on a last-second layup from Marcus Sikes. Western Carolina went 15-17 overall last season, its 10th under Larry Hunter. It was it's third losing campaign in the last four years. Finding a new primary offensive option is the top priority for this squad, which lost James Sinclair (19.4 PPG) to graduation. Mike Brown (13.8 PPG) and Rhett Harrelson (11.8 PPG) are next in line.