What's that sound? It whispers through the trees. It rustles the leaves. It slowly builds in the distance, an unrelenting drum beat that grows louder and louder as October ends and November begins. It is the sound of balls bouncing and shots falling. It is the sound that all the loyal followers of the round ball game know so well. And, like the silver bell in the "Polar Express", it can only be heard by those that truly believe.
Well, college basketball believers (specifically those of the Cincinnati Bearcat variety), that sound has reached its dramatic crescendo. Tonight, the Bearcats return to the hardwood to play an exhibition against Grand Valley State. Let us rejoice.
Now you may be saying to yourself, "But this is just an exhibition. It doesn't mean anything. I hate you, Phil, and you have a terrible singing voice."
Let me stop you there. I will agree with two of your points. First, tonight's tilt is just an exhibition and will not affect the regular season standings. Secondly, while uncalled for and largely irrelevant, it is true that I was not blessed with golden pipes or even bronze ones.
However, one of your points is dead wrong. Tonight's game does mean something, and, no, not just that Cincinnati basketball is back. Tonight's game is an opportunity to really get a look at the 2015-16 Bearcats and what we might be able to expect from them in the new season. Here are a few things to keep an eye on.
1. How Do the Pieces Fit?
At this point, saying that the Bearcats have a ton of depth is about as meaningful as saying the Atlantic Ocean has a ton of water. Everyone knows it and anyone that doesn't, probably doesn't care to know. With a roster that is stuffed with talent and proven commodities, finding time for all the players on the roster will be a difficult puzzle to solve. Well, call Mick Cronin jigsaw and no, not because he is going to set up elaborate torture traps in the name of some convoluted mission. Octavius Ellis, Troy Caupain and Gary Clark are all guaranteed to be on the court for 30 plus minutes all season. The rest of the lineup is less of a certainty. Shaq Thomas, Farad Cobb, Kevin Johnson and Coreontae DeBerry have definite roles as well, but just how many minutes will each eat up? Can Quadri Moore be consistent enough to stay on the floor for longer stretches? Will newcomers like Jacob Evans III and Justin Jenifer work into the rotation often?
While tonight will not give definitive answers to these questions, as the starters will likely see limited minutes against an inferior opponent, it will at least shed some light on how each man on the roster will be used.
2. First Look at the Young Guns
The crown jewel of the 2016 recruiting class, Evans III has a great deal of hype surrounding him, and with how well Gary Clark played as a freshman, it is reasonable to assume the 6-foot-6 wing from Baton Rouge, Louisiana will be given a chance to be a major contributor right away. Tonight will go a long way in illustrating just how ready Evans III is for the next level and if he can handle being more than a guy that comes in to mop up the decimation the older starters lay down on the opposition.
In the same vein, seeing what the Bearcats have in Jenifer and Tre Scott will also be huge. Jenifer has had all summer to work with Caupain, so the hope is he is on his way to becoming the next point guard for the team. If the second unit has a guy that can distribute like Jenifer did in high school, Cincinnati may finally knock off its reputation as a non-offensive entity, or at least dilute it a bit.
Scott stands at 6-foot-8 and has the type of length and athleticism that Cronin treasures. He is a rawer talent than Evans III and Jenifer, so an immediate impact shouldn't be expected this season, but tonight could offer a glimpse into the future.
3. Pace and Space
With a new 30-second shot clock in effect this season, Cincinnati will have to be a quicker team on offense. Less time to shoot will lead to more possessions, but it could also be dangerous for the Bearcats, who have traditionally worked as quickly as a snail in frozen molasses on offense. Cronin told GoBearcats.com that one of the focuses of this offseason has been on picking up the tempo and "creating a better offensive flow." Adjusting to the new shot clock will take some time, but an uptick in speed could really help save Cincinnati from its bad habit of spinning the wheels until the shot clock is nearly dead, necessitating a contested shot.
4. Cronin's Comeback
The Bearcats really showed what they were made of last season, doing more than survive when Cronin was forced to sit out due to a vascular condition. They won 23 games, made it to the NCAA Tournament and almost knocked off Kentucky in the Big Dance. Now, with Cronin back in the saddle full time, the Bearcats have a chance to really be special. On top of it all, it will just be nice to see Cronin and his fiery attitude back on the sidelines, even if he has to tone it down a bit for health reasons.
5. Style, Man
Cincinnati has long been known for its phenomenal color scheme and its sometimes audacious uniforms. The school switched from Adidas to Under Armour this past summer, and the results on the football field have been hot fire. While we've already gotten a look at the new duds, a final reading can't really be made until we see them in action.