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Bearcats Laid The Groundwork For Something Special In 2014-15

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The 2014-15 season was always going to be a bit of an uphill climb for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Down the otherworldly contributions of Sean Kilpatrick, the defensive prowess of Justin Jackson and the toughness and rebounding of Titus Rubles this had the look of a rebuilding year in the fall. Then the San Diego State game happened, and everything turned upside down.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Really, you have to start with that, because losing Mick Cronin for the year completely altered the tenor of the season. It is not that the Cincinnati Bearcats would have accomplished something radically different with Mick, something they could not have accomplished with Larry Davis. The ceiling of this particular team doesn't change much this season based on who is the head coach. You could argue that this team got 85, maybe 90 percent of the way there. That is amazing when you think about it.

The Cincinnati Bearcats brought back 6 players from the 2013-14 team, they brought in 7 brand new players, though I guess only 6 of them were truly brand new. From those raw materials they created a 23 win team that made the dance for the 5th consecutive season. Of those five teams this group was objectively the weakest. Take College Basketball Reference's SRS* and Kenpom's Pythagorean rating

*A Sports Reference metric denominated in in points above and below average. For more on the methodology go here.

SRS National Rank Pyth National Rank
2014-15 10.72 54 .8072 37
2013-14 15.26 26 .8700 23
2012-13 14.46 26 .8257 42
2011-12 12.93 31 .8543 26
2010-11 15.41 21 .8779 21

There is some noise in the data, as there always is when you have a sample size this small. But based on these season long numbers you wouldn't be incorrect in arguing that the Bearcats probably over achieved in the NCAA tournament this season, and under achieved in years past. UC put together a resume that was definitely worthy of inclusion in the big dance, but they needed a really freaky final minute against Purdue to avoid a third straight one and done.

I get that Bearcat fans feel disappointed with how the Kentucky game turned out, or even that Kentucky wound up being the match up, but there is no reason to feel disappointed about how this season turned out. The reason for that optimism has nothing to do with this season, its about next year.

The Bearcats bring back everyone of note except for Jermaine Sanders. There are rumblings that Deshaun Morman might seek a transfer, but for the sake of the exorcise lets say that he comes back. That would be 9 of the top 10 from this team will be coming back for 2015-16. Think about that for a second. You have to go back to the late Huggins era to find a team that won a game at the NCAA tournament and then brought back this much talent to run it back for another year.

Think about the implications of that for the offense in particular. For the vast majority of the season Larry Davis was struggling to find ways to put his guys in the right roles. He tried different starting line ups. He tried different rotations. He tried going big. He tried going small. Only towards the end of the year did he finally figure out how to get his best five guys on the court for the majority of the game.

The move that made the difference was not inserting Jermaine Sanders into the starting lineup as I, wrongly, predicted. The true turning point was when Larry Davis inserted Farad Cobb into the starting lineup over Kevin Johnson. That one change made a world of difference for the Bearcats. It allowed Troy Caupain to move off the ball on some possessions and enabled the Bearcats to make use of Troy as a three point shooter/floor spacer. it also had the added bonus of conserving some of his energy. With Cobb and Troy on the floor UC was able to feed Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis more effectively* which facilitated some of the inside out game that will be the hallmark of next years team.

*Remember, UC's most efficient players were Gary and Tay. That was true in November and its true now. The Bearcats had two guys on this team who could consistently make good entry passes to the post, Cobb and Troy. For most of the year they were being played one at a time. Playing them together makes everything easier. Smoother.

These are the kind of things that can really only be figured out by playing games. By trying things, and UC tried a lot of things this year most of which did not work, they found things that did work. Playing Cobb and Troy together worked. Gary Clark and Octavius Ellis compliment each other pretty naturally. Putting Troy Caupain and any of UC's bigs in a pick and roll situation worked. The Bearcats have already figured out who should be playing, and in what roles as they head into next year. The top five won't be changing at all unless Jacob Evans turns out to be some sort of Cajun Thor who takes Shaq Thomas's seat at the table*.

*Possible, but that would be the surprise of next years season if it were to happen

There are no big picture question marks about this team as we head into next year. They will have one of the top 20 defenses in the country falling out of bed. The question is how much do they grow as an offense? Without question the raw materials are there to craft a top 50 offense, and a top 50 offense with that defense is enough to make UC a real tournament threat.

You might be laughing at the potential of this team to be a top 50 offense when they finished 105th according to Kenpom, and 181st in offensive efficiency, but you really shouldn't be. Continuity in and of itself might be enough to see a major bump. Its impossible to overstate how big of an impact familiarity can have in creating an efficient offense. Bringing back everyone helps, everyone having more experience helps, bringing in two really good offensive players in Jacob Evans and Justin Jenifer will help. This team can make a major leap offensively next year, and they have to.

This season really hammers home the limitations of the Bearcats defense first second and third approach to the game. Defense is as much a part of the UC culture as Down the Drive* is. That will never change, nor should it. But there is a ceiling to that approach, and UC has ran into it three years running. The bottom line is that for Cincinnati to ever have a chance to make a deep NCAA tournament run or, heaven forbid, win the damn thing they need to be able to play more than one way.

*the cheer, not this site, though if you want to lump them together I won't stop you.

Right now the Bearcats have one style of play. Its two guys, locked in a quarry, bored out of their mind and throwing boulders at each other. That is the only way they can play good teams and hope to have any chance of success. That works fine for conference play, but there is no plan B for the Bearcats. The teams that succeed in March always have a plan B at the very least, the very best have a plan C and maybe even a plan D. Until the Bearcats develop more varied ways to play the game March is always going to end the same way for UC, in sadness.