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UC on the Right Path Under Cronin

The Mick Cronin experience continues this season. Let’s review year 10 and look forward to year 11.

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NCAA Basketball: Memphis at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Last spring was an odd one for Mick Cronin, or at least for those who follow Mick Cronin’s exploits as head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team.

Despite a decade’s worth of success at UC, rumors swirled that he was considering packing his bags and heading to the Sin City to coach the UNLV Rebels. Cronin went so far as to visit with UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, who went even further in saying in a radio interview that Cronin had accepted the job.

Cronin denied that claim and obviously he didn’t take the job since it was announced on March 25 that he would remain in place at UC. Then, just a few weeks later, Cronin, along with football coach Tommy Tuberville, signed a two-year contract extension. The extension stretched out Cronin’s deal with UC, which he signed in 2014 and was to run through the 2020-21 season.

That is all old news at this point, but that roller coaster month brought up some questions about whether or not Cronin was the right guy for the job, just as those same inquires popped up about Tuberville. While Tuberville was clearly under-performing prior to the extension, and has done no better since, Cronin deserved every bit of his extension and will prove it once again this season.

In his 10th year as head coach, Cronin returned to the sidelines full-time after a health issue kept him away from the team for some time in the previous season. He inherited a roster bursting with depth thanks to returning players Troy Caupain, Gary Clark, Farad Cobb, Coreontae DeBerry, Octavius Ellis, Kevin Johnson and Shaq Thomas along with the infusion of new talent brought by Justin Jenifer and Jacob Evans.

Cronin, known for his uncompromising dedication to defense, continued that tradition, but what was perhaps more interesting was how he adapted his offensive game plan. Even though there were times when the Bearcats still looked like the same stagnant group that dribbled and passed the shot clock away before hoisting a less than ideal attempt, there were clear signs that improvement is being made on offense. Cronin deserves credit for seeing the game changing around him and implementing some strategies to keep UC caught up. The Bearcats attempted 725 3-pointers and shot .348 from such distance. In the previous season, they attempted only 507 and made 32.9 percent. Blame it on Steph Curry or whoever you want, but the 3-point shot has become increasingly important at both the collegiate and professional levels. Cronin’s willingness to work that into his offensive system shows an ability to recognize a trend and go with it, not staunchly stand by old strategy.

UC’s offense was also helped by some increase in pace, partially due to the shortened shot clock. In 2015 the Bearcats were ranked 95th by KenPom in adjusted offensive (106.0). That number jumped to No. 69 in 2016, with UC ranking No. 32 in KenPom’s overall rankings. That efficiency allowed them to score 73.3 points per game, a marked improvement from the 62.1 they recorded during the previous season and easily the highest mark of the Cronin era. In fact, the last time UC averaged more than 70 points per game was during the 2005-06 campaign when Andy Kennedy was at the helm.

NCAA Basketball: Barclays  Classic-Cincinnati vs Nebraska Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Another thing Cronin deserves praise for is his work with Evans. A recruit with plenty of hype, Evans was more scorer than defender. However, Cronin was able to make Evans commit on both sides of the floor, as he posted a defensive rating of 95.9 and actually had more defensive win shares (1.6) than offensive (1.5). Not only did Cronin help Evans develop as a freshman, he correctly began relying on him more down the stretch, rather than staying firmly entrenched with the season’s initial starting lineup.

Evans was part of a strong recruiting class for Cronin in 2016, which also included Jenifer and Tre Scott, who redshirted. Cronin has continued to show strength on the recruiting trail, adding four-star recruit Jarron Cumberland, a top 100 player nationally, as well as big-man Nysier Brooks for this year. The 2017 class is also starting to fill out, with three commits already including Keith Williams and Trevor Moore.

Of course, improving the offense, guiding Evans and recruiting well doesn’t mean all that much without an accompanying helping of wins. UC did just fine there, going 22-11 overall and 12-6 in league play, good enough to earn a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Late-game issues kept UC from rising even further, ruining upset bids against Butler and Iowa State and crushing the Bearcats in the American Athletic Conference tournament and the NCAA tourney as well. Cronin will need to find a way to reverse those types of results this season.

Another knock against Cronin, fair or not, is that he has not been able to figure out the secret formula to March success. UConn has stood in the way frequently, knocking UC out of the AAC tourney in each of the last three seasons. During that same stretch, UC has made it no further than the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, twice getting bounced during the first two days. The Bearcats did make the Sweet 16 in 2012, but they haven’t gotten close since.

In all, Cronin has been a coach who brings in good talent, gives the program a strong identity, consistently delivers 20-win campaigns and NCAA Tournament appearances, plus he’s even shown some ability to evolve. While he hasn’t replicated the Bob Huggins era, he has overseen an extremely successful time in UC basketball. Here’s hoping year 11 is the best one yet.