A 65-61 road win over the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels on Saturday improved the Cincinnati Bearcats to 7-1 overall. As expected, this team is still one that can compete even after losing big-time players like Gary Clark and Jacob Evans. The victory over UNLV was UC’s seventh-straight and sets them up nicely as they prepare for the biggest game of the year this weekend. Before we start dissecting the Crosstown Shootout, however, let’s examine some of the lessons sinking in after those first eight contests.
Defense is still great
This isn’t a surprise as much as a lesson we are reminded of every year. Mick Cronin just doesn't coach teams that don’t defend. The offensive strategies of Cronin’s teams have shifted over the years, especially as he’s recruited more versatile volume scorers, but the emphasis on defense has never changed.
While this year’s Bearcats have some veterans, a new starting lineup and some greener guys made it seem like Cronin might have a challenge in getting the same level of defensive intensity and success. That has not been the case. Acording to KenPom, the Bearcats are ranked 17th in the country in defensive efficiency while allowing only 57.5 points per game. Only a handful of teams in the country are allowing fewer.
The key to the unit is pressure and rim protection. Foes aren’t actually shooting that terribly against the Bearcats, at least when they get clean looks. That might seem obvious, but UC is 40th in the country in opponent effective field goal percentage (44.8 percent) and 114 in non-blocked two-point percentage (53.5 percent), according to TeamRankings.com. However, clean looks or looks at all are not that prevalent because UC is 15th in opponent turnovers per possession (23.5%) while ranking seventh in block percentage (10.3%) and eighth in opponent floor percentage (39.1%). Add in a pace that grinds the shot clock down to the nub and the Bearcats are a team that don’t finesse past as much as bludgeon opponents.
Nysier Brooks and Trevon Scott are a formidable frontcourt duo
Brooks has been an especially important part of the defensive dominance. He makes it tough for anyone to get into the painted area and get an open shot. With a block percentage of 8.6, Brooks leads the team, doing so both in man-to-man situations and in rotating on help defense. Blocks alone don’t tell the story, as Brooks leads all Bearcats with at least 100 minutes in defensive rating (83.9).
But Brooks has been more than a shot-blocking defensive force. He is also rebounding at a high level and providing relatively efficient offense from the frontcourt. Averaging career-highs of 7.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, Brooks has already posted two double-doubles this year and has a player efficiency rating of 20.4. He isn’t about to become the focal point of the offense, but his strides forward make him an even more valuable player than if he was just a defensive specialist.
Brooks’ offensive improvement is nothing compared to what Trevon Scott is doing. The 6’8” stretch forward is scoring 9.6 points per game while putting up way more shots than ever before (7.4 field goal attempts per game). He still needs to be a bit more efficient, but with Scott making 54.2 percent of his field goal tries and adding the threat of a three-point shot, the Bearcats’ offense is more multi-faceted.
There are other scorers besides Jarron Cumberland
Speaking of Scott’s offensive rise, how the Bearcats would find offense outside of Jarron Cumberland was one of the great questions of the offseason. That question has been answered.
On Saturday, Cumberland played his worst game of the season, scoring only three points on 1-for-5 shooting before fouling out with only 25 minutes played. Despite losing their leading scorer, the Bearcats were just fine. That’s because of Keith Williams and Cane Broome, who have fit in beautifully as the No. 2 and No. 3 scoring options.
What Broome is doing as a venerable sixth man is not unexpected. He has a long track record of being a big-time scorer, especially when he was at Sacred Heart. He started this year slow (five points on 1-of-13 shooting in the first two games), but has turned it on since then. In the last six games, Broome is averaging 14.3 points per game on 58.6 percent shooting.
When Broome was demoted back to the bench following a start on opening night, Williams was the man called to become a starter. He has rewarded Mick Cronin’s faith by shooting well, playing great defense and providing unheralded value on the glass. By making 50.8 percent of his shots (including 41.7 percent from beyond the arc), Williams isn’t just throwing the ball at the basket and seeing what sticks. He’s taking smart shots and making them. Averaging 10.1 points per game, Williams dropped in 15 against UNLV, marking his fourth double-figure scoring game of the season and giving the Bearcats someone else to lean on when the time calls for it.
Logan Johnson is already distributing at a high level
One of the newest Bearcats is Johnson, a 6’2” freshman point guard from Mountain View, California. Johnson seemingly won a job in the UC rotation despite being third on the depth chart at point guard behind Broome and Justin Jenifer. Despite that, Johnson has earned time, with all three point guards learning to play off the ball. Johnson can score, but he’s being asked to be more of a distributor this season. There are still lessons to learn, as evidenced by his zero-assist effort against the Rebels and a few too many turnovers overall, but Johnson is averaging more assists per 100 possessions than Broome and playing the seventh-most minutes per game on the roster. Cronin now has another ball-handler who can run the offense, which could lead to a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen situation, but its working for now.
Free-throw shooting is a problem
All these positives are great, but the Bearcats still have weaknesses. One of the most alarming is shooting at the charity stripe. It’s not a particualrly novel issue for the Bearcats, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing. They are making only 68.8 percent of their foul shots this season, with Cumberland (81.8 percent), Broome (80.0 percent) and Johnson (75.0 percent) the only players above 70 percent. Cumberland Broome get to the line pretty frequently, so that’s a positive, but guys like Brooks, Williams and Scott are getting too many free chances to be shooting as poorly as they are.
Shooting from beyond the arc isn’t a high priority .. yet
The free-throw shooting really needs to be better if the Bearcats continue on the offensive path they’ve paved so far. This is not a team that relies heavily on shooting from long range. Aside from Cumberland, who is averaging 5.0 attempts per game, the rest of the team is not getting up as many threes. UC is 342nd in the country in three-point rate (27.4 percent) with only 22.8 percent of its points coming from distance.
There are good three-point shooters on this team. Cumberland is making 42.5 percent and Williams and Justin Jenifer are both hitting on more than 40 percent. It’s the other shooters like Broome (23.8 percent shooting on 2.6 attempts per game) and Trevor Moore (20.0 percent on 1.4 attempts per game) that need to start being more effective.
So there you have it. We’ll certainly learn a lot more about this team during Crosstown Shootout week and the weeks to come, but these are the most important lessons of right now.