Based on league awards, the Cincinnati Bearcats have had the best player in the American Athletic Conference in each of the last two seasons. Last spring, Jarron Cumberland earned the league’s Player of the Year honor roughly 12 months after Gary Clark took home the same hardware for his work during the 2017-18 campaign. However, Clark graduated soon after collecting the honor. With Cumberland, the Bearcats have the good fortune to enjoy his talents for another season.
Of course, that was far from a certainty right after last season ended. Cumberland had a real decision to make about his future. The head coach he had played for left for UCLA and, considering how well Cumberland played last season, his chances at playing at the next level were as high as they’d ever been. Ultimately, Cumberland opted to stick around in Cincinnati which was great news for the Bearcats and terrible news for everybody else.
The hype around Cumberland is much more far reaching entering this season, but there were lofty expectations placed on his shoulders last autumn as well. He was tasked with the difficult job of taking up the mantle of leadership from departing players like Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington. He wasn’t without experience in that regard. After providing a spark as a much touted freshman during the 2016-17 season, the 6’5” wing worked his way into the starting lineup for the 2017-18 campaign and flourished as a complimentary player to the veterans already installed in the starting lineup. However, with his 27-point outburst against Georgia State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and a another strong showing in a devastating loss to Nevada in the second, Cumberland announced that he could lead the Bearcats once Clark, Evans and Washington were gone.
Cumberland did that and more. Of all the stats you can marvel over from his junior season, the one I keep coming back to is his usage rate, which finished at a sky-high mark of 32 percent. He led the entire AAC in the category and was the first Bearcat since Sean Kilpatrick in 2013-14 to log at least 30 total minutes and end a season at 30 percent or higher. That meant Cumberland was constantly playing with the ball in his hands while carrying an immense amount of the offensive responsibility, both in terms of scoring and creating.
Luckily for the Bearcats, he was great at both of those things. As a player with an already well-developed offensive game, there was every reason to expect that Cumberland would become one of the best individual scorers in the AAC last season but he squashed what we now know were meager expectations. He posted a career-high of 18.8 points per game and reached the 20-point plateau 17 times, including 33 points in the AAC title game against Houston. He was able to get buckets in all manner of ways. He scorched nets from three-point range, making a career-high 38.8 percent from distance on 5.9 attempts per game. He also continued to build on his repertoire and put the ball on the floor and will himself to the rim or the free-throw line, hitting a personal-best 77.3 percent at the stripe, while posting marks of 53.7 percent in true shooting rate and 48.2 percent in effective shooting rate.
Considering teams always knew he would have the ball, it was even more impressive that Cumberland was able to score like he did. However, he brought his offensive game to an entirely new level by displaying elite playmaking skills. He averaged 3.6 assists per game, which was the best mark of his career and his assist rate jumped from below 20 percent to 25.6 percent, which led all Bearcats who played in at least 10 games. As he began dropping dimes more, his ball security remained steady. Yes, his volume of turnovers increased, but his turnover rate dropped slightly from 14 percent in 2017-18 to 13.6 percent. Essentially maintaining the rate he had the previous season while experiencing a tremendous increase in touches was an impressive feat.
With all the stress he dealt with on offense, Cumberland did take a bit of a step back on defense. His defensive rating finished at 98.6 and he had 1.9 defensive win shares, which were both below the totals he had produced the prior season. However, both of those statistics show that he was a slightly better than average defender while he also made improvements on the glass, setting a personal-best rebound rate of 8.2 percent. That type of work on defense and the boards is nothing to scoff at especially when you combine it with his offensive dominance, even if its offensive rating stayed relatively the same.
When you add it all together, Cumberland finished with 5.5 total win shares and a player efficiency rating of 23.0, ranking third and tying for third in those categories, respectively, in the AAC. Such production allowed Cumberland to lead last year’s team to a second-straight AAC tournament title and a ninth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The roster around Cumberland will be much different this season, but as long the defending AAC Player of the Year is around, the results the Bearcats produce should remain the same.