Ever since the final seconds of Cincinnati’s last game of the 2017-18 season ticked off the clock, the wait has been on. It’s felt extra long because of how that last game ended. A devastating collapse at the hands of Nevada in the second round of the NCAA Tournament washed away all the good of an otherwise stellar campaign and made the whole summer afterward taste sour.
The wait to get rid of that pain is finally over. This year’s Bearcats are in no way the same team as last season, so the wound left by a loss in the last game with Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington will never fully heal, but at least there will be new Bearcats basketball to enjoy once more.
All of this is a melodramatic way of welcoming you back to college basketball, as the Bearcats will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes at Fifth Third Arena in the regular season opener for both programs tonight.
Who are the Ohio State Buckeyes?
The Buckeyes are a team on the rise. After luring former Butler head coach Chris Holtmann to their side before last season, they enjoyed an eight-win improvement over the previous year, going 25-9 and ending a two-year NCAA Tournament drought. Holtmann has now had an additional year to shape the roster and the strategies of this team, so it stands to reason that the Buckeyes are only going to get better.
What will stand in the way of any potential improvement is the departure of Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop. Now a member of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Bates-Diop was the top scorer, rebounder and defender for the Buckeyes last season. His departure leaves them with quite a bit of replacing to do, especially when you throw in the additional departures of wing Jae’Sean Tate and three-point dynamo Kam Williams.
The player who is most critical to Ohio State’s 2018-19 season is C.J. Jackson, a senior guard from Charlotte, North Carolina, who is the team’s best scorer, three-point shooter and playmaker. He led the team in assists per game last year (3.9) and will need to get some developing players involved to take some of the pressure of his own shoulders. Then there’s Kaleb Wesson, who is a 6’9” forward who did a lot of good things as a freshman, averaging 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. However, he doesn’t have the offensive versatility of Bates-Diop and is still developing as a defender.
The New Bearcats
Mick Cronin is not new to starting over after the departure of program-defining players. He did it when Sean Kilpatrick graduated and again when Troy Caupain followed. What will be more difficult is constructing another league-championship caliber squad without Clark, Evans and Washington.
Jarron Cumberland, Cane Broome and Justin Jenifer will lead a new reliance on the perimeter after Clark and Washington were pillars in the frontcourt a year ago. Cumberland announced his impending stardom during the NCAA Tournament and is now the de factor No. 1 option on offense. Broome and Jenifer will have to learn to work together as Cumberland’s flankers. Both are undersized point guards, but they are very different players otherwise. Broome has the superior scoring talent, while Jenifer is better at distributing. It will be interesting to see if they can work in concert or if Cronin has to try out a different starting lineup and bring Broome off the bench like he did a year ago.
While those three are the most experienced returning players, the Bearcats have plenty of additional depth. Trevor Moore and Keith Williams are two 3-and-D style wings who can defend multiple positions and knock down shots. Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks are likely the next guys up in the frontcourt and have already been key reserves, while Eliel Nsoseme and Mamoudou Diarra are poised for largely expanded roles. Then there are new guys like Rashawn Fredericks and Logan Johnson, who will give the roster a 10- to 11-man rotation if Cronin so chooses.
The New Fifth Third
The Bearcats are returning to their new (and old) home arena this season. They played all their home games at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena last year while Fifth Third Arena was renovated. Now they get to play their games back on campus and at an arena that has received quite a face lift. That should add a little extra juice to this opening night matchup.
There are a lot of similarities between these two teams, and not just because they’re both from Ohio. Each one had the player of the year in their respective conference a year ago and both are NCAA Tournament teams in transition. The Bearcats may take a little while to figure out the best mix of players and playing time, but they should be able to make enough adjustments on the fly to top the Buckeyes, if only because losing the first night back at Fifth Third Arena would be a letdown.
Cincinnati 74 Ohio State 71