It's been a couple weeks since Cincinnati's basketball team concluded their 2015-16 season at the hands of Saint Joseph's in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and with the rumors quickly swirling around head coach Mick Cronin shortly after that, we haven't had much time to dive into the season that was. Let's begin by unpacking that NCAA tournament exit by doing our own "Final Four" points from Cincinnati's brief NCAA tournament appearance.
The possible storylines from the early-exit
I've had over a week to wrap my head around Cincinnati's 78-76 loss to Saint Joseph's and I still can't get over how the Bearcats lost. Teams have lost in worse ways and lost by more in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, but with Cincinnati, it felt like there were so many storylines that were overshadowed by the overturned dunk call. Instead, Bearcats fans were immediately thrown into a coaching search drama and hardly had time to dissect the way Cincinnati's season really ended. If not for the late non-dunk, we could have been focusing on so much more following the final whistle.
- Jacob Evans, a true freshman, was willing a team that didn't get it's standard production from primary players by scoring 26 points, including scoring bursts that kept Cincinnati from fading down the stretch.
- Coreontae DeBerry, a senior playing in his last game, played the best game of his career, scoring 18 points, again, just when the Bearcats needed them.
- The sparingly used Quadri Moore scored six points in eight minutes after playing very little over the course of the season.
And then you had Ellis. A senior, who has gone through so much over his college career, and was a fraction of a second short of continuing his final season into at least an overtime period. Ellis struggled for much of the game offensively, committing fouls, being unable to make much of an impact on the boards and he wasn't playing sound offense with the ball in his hands.
Still, the senior, despite the struggles, bounced back in the closing minutes with two huge blocks, one on a gimme layup attempt, and another on a three-point attempt. Both of which resulted in Cincinnati points and leads in the final two minutes. However, the dunk attempt is how his collegiate career ends. After a season where everyone clamored for him to finish strong around the hoop, he did and he ran out of time.
This game had a chance to be an exciting story about unlikely heroes and a senior who bounced back from his struggles early to make big plays late, but it's not about that. After a season like Cincinnati's, that's the most painful part of this. There were seven games, this one included, that were decided against Cincinnati in dramatic fashion. Sometimes it was just a lapse (see: 59-57 loss to SMU), and sometimes there was some controversy (how long is 0.8 seconds?), but regardless, it's a shame to get a glimpse at what the storylines could have been heading into the offseason, and what they ultimately are.
The Final Four is set with No. 2 seeds Villanova and Oklahoma, No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 10 seed Syracuse. All four teams are certainly deserving in their own right and have earned their chance at a National Championship appearance, but how could things have been different?
If Cincinnati ties the game, heads into overtime and pulls off the upset, what happens? No. 1 seed Oregon felt like a bit of an unknown and ultimately squeaked by a Hawks team that Cincinnati nearly took into overtime with uncharacteristically quiet performances from Caupain and Clark. While Cincinnati has been a team bitten bad by poor luck all season long, the one constant was that Cincinnati could keep games close, even against top opponents.
When you look at the remaining four teams, it's very hard to say that Cincinnati would be left standing instead of the Buddy Hield-led Oklahoma Sooners, but could Cincinnati have beaten Oregon? Could they have beaten Duke? Of course we will never know for sure because the Bearcats didn't win the first one they needed to win, but at the end of a season of so many heartbreaking,"just a second off" losses, it's important to remember that Cincinnati wasn't far off from a very different looking season. They had the talent but, for one reason or another, seemed to come up just short on more than one occasion.
Mick Cronin's Back
It's only been a little over a week and a half since Cincinnati's season ended, but the Mick Cronin-UNLV saga seemed to consume Cincinnati news so quickly that it now feels like mid-May already, months into the nationwide coaching searches.
Nonetheless, Cincinnati's head coach of 10 seasons is back in the fold and ready for another chance at a deep NCAA tournament run. Many UC fans were happy to bring the Cincinnati native back who has led the Bearcats to six straight NCAA tournament appearances and a 207-129 record. Another contingency wasn't so concerned about UNLV's courting of Cronin, feeling Cronin had reached his ceiling, so to speak.
Personally, I am happy to see Cronin back on the Cincinnati bench, but that doesn't mean there isn't some level of urgency to take the next step with this program in the postseason and worth asking; is Cronin a coach you can see taking Cincinnati deep in the tournament? Could you see Cronin prowling the bench against the likes of Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Lon Kruger and Jay Wright? Cronin's resume speaks to a step below the company of those four coaches who have combined for 2,835 wins over their collective careers (we're including all of Boeheim's), but with the right players and a couple breaks that go against the laws of the "Cincinnati curse", I don't think it far-fetched to see him amongst those coaches.
Next season has the look of a promising season when you look at the anticipated roster, but it will be up to Cronin to coach them into the later rounds of the tournament. The question becomes, how does he stack up with current Final Four coaches?
Speaking of next season, Cincinnati's roster looks promising and more than capable to make some noise in the AAC and perhaps even beyond that. Caupain is back and should only build upon a great season where he stood out as a key scorer in late-game situations. Clark was a major stat-stuffer all season who likely would have make a significance difference in Cincinnati's final games, if not for his ankle injury. Throw in the likes of Evans and Kevin Johnson, and you have some key returning contributors.
Not to mention, Justin Jenifer, Tre Scott and Moore will have another year in the program. NC State transfer Kyle Washington will be available and highly-recruited five-star Jarron Cumberland will be added, offering a talented scoring guard to the mix. Inevitably there will an adjustment period, but does next season's unit have the chance to make a run? On paper, that talent is intriguing, particularly with multiple players offering the sort of game-changing ability that the current Final Four teams have.