Being a fan of the Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball team has usually been a fairly solid proposition. That is particularly true in the last decade, with the Bearcats making nine-straight NCAA Tournament appearances including last year’s trip. That’s about as consistent you can get in terms of success.
Unfortunately, things can’t stay the same forever, and drastic changes to the coaching staff and the roster last spring and into the summer created variables not seen at UC for quite some time. With the season tantalizing close, we are finally about to see if all that change will affect the Bearcats’ long run of success or if they’ll keep on trucking and, if everything breaks right, be even better than ever.
Today we’re going to assess the extremes of outcomes for the Bearcats, while trying to remain within reason, by envisioning how well things could go and how poorly they could go in the opposite direction. I’m a Randall Pearson stan for a reason.
For all the roster turnover, there are still some very key players on this roster. Any best case outcome starts with those guys. Jarron Cumberland is obviously the most important of those returning players. The defending American Athletic Conference Player of the Year produced at a level that hasn’t been seen at UC in quite some time last season. He scored at will, distributed better than anyone on the roster and was an all-around force. The assumption is that he will match that type of work this season, but what if he gets even better. What if he shoots 40 percent from three? What if John Brannen’s offensive system leads to more efficient offensive work? What if Cumberland’s work on defense matches his work on offense?
If all that comes to pass, the Bearcats will be in incredible shape without even thinking about anyone else on the roster. However, Cumberland can’t do it alone. For the Bearcats to reach the peak of their potential, it would require Trevon Scott to play like he did during the last six games of last season (13 points and 8.7 rebounds per game) on a regular basis and for Keith Williams to use last year as a launching pad and become the type of all-around scorer that can take some of the pressure off of Cumberland. The Bearcats will also need new guys like Jaevin Cumberland and Chris McNeal to step in right away and not shy away from the competition of the AAC. Brannen has his role to play as well, as he must push all the right buttons and figure out how to effectively optimize all the depth he spent the last few months creating.
All of these developments are attainable and if unleashed on UC’s schedule, you can start to see the blueprint for an incredibly successful season. If you’re having trouble, let me lay it out for you.
With Cumberland and Scott both picking up right where they left off, the Bearcats collect a statement win at Ohio State in the season opener and that fuels an 10-2 or even 11-1 start to the season. As good as the Bearcats could be, its tough to imagine them going perfect through the 12 non-league games, which also features matchups with Xavier, Tennessee, Iowa, Vermont and Colgate, with those last four all teams from last year’s NCAA Tournament pool.
With a national ranking likely in hand as the AAC schedule starts, the Bearcats coast through the first four games of league play against UConn, Tulane, Tulsa and UCF before a huge showdown with Memphis. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the hype surrounding them turns out to be overblown and Houston, the Bearcats’ other primary challenger for the AAC throne, regresses after the departure of Corey Davis. This paves the path for a regular season title and another AAC tournament crown for the Bearcats. Cumberland, Scott and Williams all earn all-league honors and Cumberland goes back-to-back as the AAC’s Player of the Year and the Bearcats’ depth proves to be a major asset in their ascent.
With the regular season conquered, the Bearcats earn a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and finally make good on years of promise and make a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament where they fall short against eventual national champion Michigan State.
This may seem like the rosiest outlook and it is. Everything would have to break right both inside the program and outside of it, but there is a real possibility that the Bearcats as currently constructed could be one of the best Bearcat teams in recent memory.
If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, here it is. A team instituting a new scheme under a new coach with a ton of new players means that everyone has to be on the same page right away. That is far from a guarantee despite all the talent both of the returning variety and the newcomer variety on the Bearcats’ roster. It’s entirely possible that Brannen will struggle to get the team to mesh and the depth that could be an asset turns into an albatross with no true rotation really developing.
Looking at an individual level, even in a worst case scenario, there’s no way Jarron Cumberland is anything less than a first-team all-conference player. However, if teams sell out to stop him and his efficiency suffers, the Bearcats will be in trouble. That will become even more distressing if Williams plays like he did during the last two months of last season, when he shot 37.8 percent from the floor, if Scott can’t take the next step and consistently threaten to put up 12 and eight or so per game and if no other distributors develop to replace Cane Broome and Justin Jenifer.
Speaking of Scott, the frontcourt has received quite an overhaul and that could be an issue. The Bearcats tied for the 19th-best block percentage in college basketball last season, but gone are rim protectors like Nysier Brooks and Eliel Nsoseme. Scott and Mamoudou Diarra are both capable defenders in the paint and the Bearcats will get help from new guys, but if the defense starts to crumble on the inside, it will make it tougher for a team that has always been predicated on getting stops to find success.
It’s also possible that a lack of experience could take a toll, especially with an injury to Trevor Moore potentially putting a lot more responsibility on the rest of the roster. For the returning guys, that could mean they get overworked and for new guys, the pressure could be too much to ask for players in their first season with the program.
If we apply these potential doomsday scenarios to the schedule, the Bearcts would struggle in their difficult non-conference slate, with a few easy wins interspersed with difficult losses against teams like Ohio State, Tennessee and Xavier, which are all top 20 teams by KenPom’s estimation. However, even in the worst of cases, the Bearcats can more than likely fight to a 6-8 wins by the end of the non-league slate.
The real difficulty starts from there. The Bearcats navigate through a relatively easy slate to start but they lose at UCF and at Memphis in back-to-back games in mid-January. They ultimately fall in both contests with the Tigers as well as two tests against Houston, as both of those teams are as good as advertised. Meanwhile, some of the other teams near the middle of the league take steps forward and the Bearcats drop several winnable game along the way. They finishing seventh in the AAC and fail to make much noise in the league tournament before seeing their nine-year NCAA Tournament streak come to a close. The blow is softened by a bid to another postseason tournament but is still quite a regression from the norm.
Phew. Well that was pretty bleak. However, like I said, both these imagined outcomes are extremes. How the season actually finishes probably falls somewhere in the middle. However, this illustrate the incredibly high ceiling and relatively low floor for this Bearcats team.