Considering that they won 25 games this season and finished as the No. 2 seed in the upcoming American Athletic Conference Tournament, it may seem a bit strange that the Cincinnati Bearcats didn’t have a huge presence in the league’s end of year honors. While other teams like Houston, UCF and even USF had multiple players on the all-conference teams, the Bearcats had only one. In addition, the Bearcats were shut out of nearly every individual award with one exception. It’s a pretty big one as well. Jarron Cumberland, the team’s lone representative on the all-conference first-team (or any all-league team) was named the AAC’s Player of the Year on Wednesday.
Cumberland now stands alone at the top of the AAC, at least on an individual level, and its a fitting peak for him to have reached. There is no doubt that the Bearcats earned their success as a team this season, but without Cumberland, that success would have been greatly diminished. There is no better evidence of that than Cumberland’s league-leading usage rate (31.5 percent). No other player in the conference reached the 30 percent mark, as Cumberland did absolutely everything for the Bearcats. He was the primary ball-handler, scorer, distributor and even a productive contributor on the boards.
Now, leading the team in a bunch of statistical categories isn’t inherently award-winning, but its impossible to ignore the volume and efficiency that Cumberland has brought to the table. Starting with his offensive game, the 6’5” junior took over the top scorer role as if it belonged to him all along. After being a secondary option behind guys like last season’s AAC Player of the Year, Gary Clark, and Jacob Evans during his first two seasons, Cumberland built on a brilliant finish to the 2017-18 campaign by piling up bucket after bucket all year. He finished the regular season third in the league in points per game (18.4) and field goal attempts (435) and did so with impressive marks in true shooting percentage (54.4) and player efficiency rating (22.9).
Cumberland’s development as a scorer has been built on improved efficiency from beyond the arc and at the free-throw line. He is shooting a career-best 40.4 percent from three on another personal best of 5.7 attempts per game. The three-point shooting has been fantastic, but his free-throw improvements have been even more critical. Although he is always comfortable letting it fly from long range, Cumberland’s greatest scoring tool is his ability to put the ball on the floor and power his way to the rim. That creates a lot of contact and free point opportunities. Until this year, however, he had struggled to be more than an average foul shooter. That has all changed this season despite far more opportunities. He is making 78 percent of his attempts while setting a career-high free throw rate of 42.8 percent. He has already had at least 10 foul shots in seven games and made at least 10 in five of those.
As much as we could talk about Cumberland’s impressive scoring, his offensive game doesn’t stop there. Since he constantly has the ball in his hands and because opposing defenses are determined to stop him, Cumberland has dedicated himself to becoming an excellent passer. His assist rate skyrocketed from 18.9 percent as a sophomore to 25.4 percent as a junior. He is one of only two players in the league to be among the top 10 in points per game and assist percentage in the AAC and he has accounted for nearly half of UC’s assists as a team.
That last point really speaks to just how important Cumberland is to the Bearcats. He is all things for this team. Even though his defensive game has taken a step back, he has still been solid, leading the team in steals and tying for first in defensive win shares (1.8). His 97.2 defensive rating is still closer to the middle, bu that defensive regression can be partially explained by just how much of a burden he is carrying on the other side of the court.
The Bearcats have still been a good team when Cumberland has struggled. When he has gone through rough patches, guys like Keith Williams, Justin Jenifer, Trevon Scott and Nysier Brooks have picked up the slack. For example, during a five-game stretch from Feb. 17 to March 3, Cumberland averaged just 15.7 points on 36.2 percent shooting. The Bearcats still won all five games during that run. Of course, Cumberland produced 5.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 84.8 percent from the foul line during that time, proving that he’s still pushing the Bearcats to victory even when he isn’t at his best. When he is, however, there are very few players who can match him.