As with the beginning of every sports season, hope permeates the air. That is especially true for the Cincinnati Bearcats, who once again enter a season coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance with a squad stuffed with returning talent and exciting newcomers.
They were picked to win the American Athletic Conference by the league coaches and are at least on the fringe of most national rankings, if not entirely included. Preseason platitudes mean little once the rubber hits the proverbial road, but they do help construct expectations, sometimes ones that may be more lofty than possible. What this means is we need to take a good honest look at what the realistic best outcome will be for UC and each of its players, as well as the opposite end of the spectrum.
Best case: The coaches of the AAC already gave us a blueprint for Caupain’s best case season, as they picked him to win the league’s player of the year award. The prognosticators prove correct, as Caupain takes a Sean Kilpatrickian leap forward and pushes for national honors by once again improving as a scorer and distributor. After all, as a junior he set career-highs in scoring (13.0 PPG) and assists (4.8 APG).
Worst case: Caupain is still the leading scorer for the team but his efficiency makes that more of a negative and not a positive, as he shoots below 40 percent from the floor for the third time in four seasons.
Best case: Last year’s AAC Defensive Player of the Year earns his second-straight honor, blocking 2.5 shots per game while posting a defensive rating in the 80s. Meanwhile, Clark becomes the two-way player that makes him leapfrog Caupain for AAC POTY, showing dynamic scoring ability in becoming the first Bearcat since Dwight Jones in 1983 to average a double-double for the whole season.
Worst case: Without Octavius Ellis and Coreontae DeBerry to help him, Clark struggles to be as assertive in the paint on defense and continues to show an inability to be a volume scorer, even as the Bearcats turn to him more frequently.
Best case: Evans scores 20 points per game through non-conference play in taking the greatest sophomore leap in recent history. He is slowed some once league play begins, but he finishes as the AAC’s top scorer and is named an All-AAC first-teamer.
Worst case: The injury that kept him out of last week’s exhibition against Bellarmine lingers all season and deteriorates his ability to score and defend as he grinds through a medically induced sophomore slump.
Best case: Washington makes UC forget about Ellis, filling in all the gaps left behind by the 6’10” former Bearcat. The NC State transfer proves to be a great fit in UC’s system, scoring when needed but providing a ton on the glass and in defending the rim, even making some question whether or not he and not Clark is the team’s best interior player.
Worst case: Washington is constantly compared to Ellis and never manages to live up to the comparison. By the middle of the season he loses his starting job to an upstart like Nysier Brooks or Tre Scott.
Best case: With increased playing time, Johnson is better able to find his touch from 3-point range and ends up being the Bearcats’ most deadly sniper, nailing nearly two triples per game while shooting upward of .380 from distance. He also gets some push as an all-AAC defender for locking down up the perimeter, helping UC figure out its 3-point defense issue.
Worst case: Johnson isn’t able to be the offensive spark plug that Farad Cobb was last season and just keeps the status quo, netting six points or so per game while providing adequate, if not exceptional defense.
Best case: Even though it took a little longer, Jenifer catches up to Evans and works his way into a starting role as Mick Cronin decides to go guard-heavy more frequently as the season goes on. Jenifer fits in nicely as a play maker and distributor and helps UC push the pace offensively, while shoring up his own defensive issues.
Worst case: Jenifer does nothing more than serve as an OK backup to Caupain, once again appearing to be in over his head at the collegiate level.
Best case: The top 100 recruit does what top 100 recruits do and comes in and is immediately the best player on the roster. He scores like a two-guard, rebounds like a forward and gives the Bearcats the star power they have lacked since Kilpatrick graduated.
Worst case: Cumberland is more Jenifer than Evans in his first season on campus and struggles to find court time.
Best case: The Shaq Thomas clone does something Thomas never could and becomes a dynamic player on both ends of the floor, setting himself up for major success as a starter in 2017-18. Plus, his highlight dunks are consistently featured on SportsCenter.
Worst case: Scott plays like a poor man’s Thomas and is not the type of froncourt presence UC was hoping to have off the bench.
Best case: The next great shot-blocker in UC history is born, as Brooks sets a freshman record for rejections and plays well enough to push for starting time, especially when Cronin quadruples down on lineups that feature big men and a tenacious defensive approach.
Worst case: Brooks rarely sees the floor and is nothing more than a minutes eater at the end of blowouts.
Best case: His 13-point, eight-rebound effort against Bellarmine proves to be the sign that things have finally clicked for Moore, who becomes the first man off the bench for Cronin.
Worst case: Moore can’t compete with youngsters Brooks and Scott and falls back on the depth chart, eventually deciding to transfer by season’s end.
Best case: Caupain and Clark both live up to their potential as all-league performers, but Evans’ rise to stardom outshines them both as UC winds up with three players on the All-AAC first team. Cumberland gives UC an extra edge and is the unanimous rookie of the year pick. With important contributions from Washington, Johnson, Jenifer and Scott, the Bearcats feature a frightening amount of depth and roll through their non-conference schedule before posting a 15-3 record in league play, while rising into the top 15 of the national polls.
UC once again matches up with UConn in the conference tournament, this time in the final, where Caupain erupts for 33 points in lifting the Bearcats to their first AAC title. As a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament the Bearcats push into the Sweet 16 and come just short of earning a trip to the Elite Eight.
Worst case: Caupain and Clark have to do everything alone. Evans crashes into his ceiling, which is much lower than expected and the rest of the youngsters lack polish. UC manages to grind out 18 wins but suffers an early exit from the AAC tourney and is relegated to the NIT.
For just about all of these projections, what will come to pass is likely somewhere in the middle, but its nice to dream isn’t it? Check back in later this week when we’ll have our predictions for the season.