During the Cincinnati Bearcats’ unfortunately short run in the NCAA Tournament, there seemed to be a changing of the guard. While Gary Clark, Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans all played their hearts out, it was another player who seemed to take control and be the steady hand the team needed. That was sophomore Jarron Cumberland. The man affectionately known as Teddy Graham averaged 22 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and even if things didn’t work out the way they wanted, the Bearcats would have been much worse off without him.
It wasn’t just that he scored so many points, or brought the ball up the court and initiated the offense. It was the confidence with which Cumberland carried himself. With every shot and dribble, he stood taller than ever before. It was a big reason why there’s still hope to be found following a rather difficult end to the 2017-18 season.
But now Cumberland’s title as leader is no longer a conversation to be debated. Clark and Washington were always going to be gone next season, but now that Evans has declared for the NBA Draft, Cumberland’s ascension to the throne is no longer in the discussion phase. This is his team now. There’s no question about it.
But there are still questions. Primarily, can Cumberland be the best player on a contending team? We won’t know the answer until next fall, but there’s every reason to believe that it will be yes. Although Cumberland had his fair share of sophomore slump stumbles, he was still a strong contributor as he made the move from sixth man to starter. He ranked third on the team in scoring (11.5 PPG) and second in assists (2.9). He only shot 33.9 percent from three-point range and 40.9 percent overall, but he did improve his free-throw shooting and, ideally, another year of experience will yield more efficient results.
But he’s not going to be asked to just score next year. We got a glimpse of what’s to come for Cumberland during his sophomore season, as it appears that Mick Cronin will lean on him to be a ball-handler, distributor and scorer. To his credit, the former four-star recruit has already developed skills in that regard. During the last eight games of the season, Cumberland averaged 4.1 assists per game. He also shot .442/.390/.786, giving him momentum heading into the offseason.
Cumberland can also be a leader on the other end of the floor. You can’t be a standout for the Bearcats without playing defense and Cumberland can certainly do that. He has shown a knack for interrupting passing lanes and keeping his man in front of him. He posted a 91.1 defensive rating this past season, which was a more than five-point improvement from his mark as a freshman. Similar improvements for next season will make him all the better.
Now, for all that Cumberland can do, he can’t win games entirely by himself. That’s gotten some to think that the Bearcats are in for some tougher sledding in the years to come. That is a fair assessment. You don’t lose a trio like Clark, Evans and Washington and just magically stay the same or get better. But with Cumberland now the focal point for the team, the Bearcats are still going to be contending in the American Athletic Conference. How they do beyond that will depend on what the rest of the roster brings to the table.