Anyone who has watched even a few minutes of Cincinnati Bearcats basketball during the last decade knows that they play a very distinct style. Games are won by hammering teams defensively, grinding out possessions on offense and making as few mistakes as possible. You can’t really argue with the results. Back-to-back 30-win seasons over the last two years and eight-straight NCAA Tournament appearances don’t just happen to everybody. With that kind of success, it might seem foolish to try to make changes, but this year’s Bearcats might need some.
UC has won four-straight games, but each one has been an absolute fist fight, marked by less than ideal offensive work from the Bearcats. While they’ve managed to escape with victories each time, there will come a point when the coin flips to the other side. That’s why they should consider making a few adjustments. Here are five that could change their offensive look and give them more room to breathe in these games.
Play with more urgency
Quick pace has never been the Bearcats’ thing, especially under head coach Mick Cronin. They have ranked outside the top 300 teams in possessions per 40 minutes in each of the last six years. This season, they are down even further than usual, with only 63.6 possessions per 40 minutes, which ranks 348th out of 353 teams at the Division I level. As more and more teams are picking up the pace, the Bearcats are standing still. That change of pace can sometimes work to their advantage, as opponents are not prepared to move so slowly, but there are times when the Bearcats look too archaic to really compete with the best of the best.
But what if they started pushing the tempo more often? They have a number of very good ball handlers in guys like Jarron Cumberland, Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome who are all capable of blitzing down the court to get to the rim. They also could stand to try to get shots off earlier in the shot clock, rather than deliberately dribbling around before trying to make something happen at the last second. The 30-second shot clock has already forced them to pick up the pace to a degree. Why not try to push it even further?
More movement, both of the ball and by players off of it
This goes hand-in-hand with speeding up their tempo. Many Bearcat possessions follow the same blueprint. Taking their recent game against Wichita State as an example, a lot of the time, the primary ball-handler, whether it’s Cumberland, Jenifer, Broome or someone else, takes the ball up the floor and then dribbles around near the top of the key or the elbow. While the guy running point scans the floor, the other Bearcats don’t do a ton in terms of movement. Although the Bearcats aren’t blessed with a ton of catch and shoot dynamos, they have guys who can finish. Cutting and screening more may take some energy that Cronin wants his team to conserve for defense, but it could also lead to easier looks.
In addition to more movement from the players, the Bearcats could use a bit more action with the ball itself. Against Wichita State, sometimes possessions would feature nothing more than passes back and forth between two players from beyond the arc, with each player looking for an entry pass before sending the ball back. In that game, the lack of ball movement led to just five assists on 18 made field goals.
On the season, the Bearcats rank 55th in the country in assists per possession (0.213) and 90th in assists per field goal made (0.553), according to Team Rankings. However, since American Athletic Conference play began, they are averaging only 13 assists per game, which would rank somewhere around 180th for the entire season.
All together, the Bearcats could stand to get more easy shots and moving off the ball and passing it more frequently could help in that area.
More driving from Justin Jenifer
In his senior season, Jenifer is playing the best offense of his career. He is scoring 20.7 points per 100 possessions while shooting 45 percent from the field. One of the primary improvements has been in three-point shooting. Jenifer is taking more threes than ever (8.7 per 100 possessions) and he’s also sinking them at a career-best rate of 44.6 percent. So why should Jenifer start going to the rim?
Firstly, Jenifer has the skills to excel when he puts the ball on the deck. He has excellent handles and the speed to go from halfcourt to the painted area in a flash. His dribble moves can put opponents on ice skates and he is a pretty skilled finisher near the rim. Just look at this drive against Wichita State if you need more proof.
The second reason Jenifer should drive more is because it could create more opportunities for threes and for his teammates to get open shots. If defenses are forced to defend against Jenifer cuts to the rim, they may take a few steps back when he’s beyond the arc, opening up space for him to let it fly. In addition, Jenifer is an excellent passer. When defenses collapse on drives, he has the skill to kick out to the open man and give the other Bearcats better shots.
Let Keith Williams create, but avoid the long twos
In a breakout season, Williams has really stepped up his game offensively. Some of the most impressive aspects are his footwork and his instincts for when to attack. He can hesitate, jab step and spin his way to layups, while also having the wherewithal to get his defender leaning one way before splashing a step-back jumper in his face.
With a growing toolbox of offensive moves at his disposal, Williams should be allowed to freelance a little more, as long as he doesn’t rely too heavily on mid-range jump shots, which he has shown a tendency to take. While they will fall at a respectable rate, the Bearcats would probably prefer to see him getting in close and not spending too many attempts on the long two.
Run the pick-and-roll with Jarron Cumberland and Nysier Brooks
Nysier Brooks has really come into his own as an offensive player. The Bearcats could stand to feed the post more often because of it. However, Brooks could be an even more devastating offensive finisher as Cumberland’s pick and roll partner. He isn’t a perfect pick and pop guy, since his mid-range game isn’t particularly strong, but he doesn’t need to be in this configuration. Cumberland is the team’s best scorer and an improved distributor. Teams are going to collapse on him when he has the ball in his hands, which could open up space for Brooks on the low block or create mismatches when teams fail to switch effectively. More pick and rolls with these two could mean more easy buckets for Brooks and more mismatches for Cumberland to exploit. What’s not to like about that?
None of these adjustments is guaranteed to work, and adjusting on the fly mid-season may not be the smartest move. However, if Cronin wants to experiment and try to avoid the type of offensive molasses his team produced against Wichita State, some of these changes might be useful. Or he could just keep doing what’s gotten them to eight-straight NCAA Tournaments. That could work, too.