Losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament is not what the Cincinnati Bearcats wanted this year. It’s not what they want any year for that matter, but that was the fate they suffered this season. It was a familiar story for the program, which has not made it to the second weekend of the tournament since 2012. Since they’ve been to nine-straight NCAA Tournaments, that’s a whole lot of disappointment. This year’s setback against the 10th-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes may not have been as especially disastrous as 2018’s loss to Nevada in the second round, but it will certainly leave a mark as the offseason begins.
The 2019-20 season is still a long way away, however, which means this loss will hang in the air for the next few months. Baseball and football seasons will make us forget, but it will still be there. Since the wait for recompense in the form of the next game will be lengthy, let’s take a look at some of the reasons to be hopeful that next year’s Bearcats might just be the ones to break this second weekend curse.
Jarron Cumberland. Period.
This could all change if Cumberland decides to go pro, but for now, let’s live in a world where the defending American Athletic Conference Player of the Year decides to stick around for his senior season. Cumberland was incredible in is junior year as he took up the mantle left behind by Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington. He was the team’s No. 1 scorer by a mile, averaging 18.8 points per game, including a 33-point outburst in the AAC Tournament title game. His scoring increase coincided with a huge boost in his usage rate, which ultimately led to more shots from three and at the foul line, where he connected on 38.8 percent and 77.3 percent, respectively. Then there’s the playmaking ability, the rebounding and the more than serviceable defense. As long as Cumberland is still on the roster, the Bearcats can compete with anybody.
The Next Step for Trevon Scott
During the last week or so of the season, Scott flashed the type of star potential that could make him an all-conference contender next year. In the four games he played between the AAC and NCAA Tournaments, Scott averaged 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46.3 percent from the field. That mark included a 37.5 percent success rate on two three-point attempts a contest. Although the soon-to-be senior may never be able to carry the offense for weeks at a time, the fact that he has turned himself into a stretch four who can make shots from anywhere speaks to his potential in his final season, especially since he was the only Bearcat to post at least two win shares on both offense and defense in 2018-19. Another major step forward following this past career year would make the Bearcats exceptional.
How Keith Williams Follows Up His Breakout Season
Speaking of steps forward, Williams definitely made some this season. After a freshman campaign in which he hemorrhaged playing time down the stretch, Williams became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup as a sophomore. Along the way he ranked second on the team in scoring (9.9 PPG) while shooting 51.4 percent from two-point range. He still has some work to do as a long-range shooter and his production did dip some in the final month, but Williams flashed star potential. If those flashes can be sustained, the Bearcats will be in business.
Nysier Brooks’ Defense
There’s no question that UC’s loss on Friday was at least partially due to foul trouble for Brooks. The 6’11” center is the focal point of the Bearcats’ usually effective defense. He led all Bearcats who played at least 400 minutes in defensive rating (94.6) and block rate (8.4 percent). He was also a critical contributor to UC’s impressive offensive rebounding attack, topping the roster in offensive rebound rate (13.8 percent) while averaging 11 total boards per 40 minutes. As if that weren’t enough, Brooks rounded out his offensive game with the second-highest true shooting percentage on the team and a PER of 21.0, which was just two points below Cumberland’s team-leading mark. Although Brooks’ shooting is limited to attempts in and around the paint, the fact that he has become more reliable offensively only helps to strengthen his importance to this team.
The Potential of Players Like Logan Johnson, Eliel Nsoseme, Mamoudou Diarra and Rashawn Fredericks
Even if Cumberland stays, the Bearcats will still be saying goodbye to two key contributors in Justin Jenifer and Cane Broome. The best way to deal with roster turnover is to have guys ready to step in. Johnson is now the top point guard on the roster and how he improves after being given inconsistent playing time as a freshman will go a long way in dictating how good the Bearcats can be. Additionally, Nsoseme (team leader in rebound rate), Diarra (six points, six rebounds and a block against UConn) and Fredericks (11 points on 5-of-6 shooting against George Mason) all had moments of greatness. The key will be turning those moments into entire seasons.
The Next Wave
Whether or not he plays much as a freshman, 2019 recruit Samari Curtis is a four-star prospect who has earned multiple accolades in the Buckeye State for his play at Xenia. He is ranked as the No. 4 recruit in Ohio and No. 28 shooting guard in the 2019 class, according to 247 Sports, with his scoring ability unquestionably a major strength of his game. In addition to Curtis, two freshmen from this last season have still yet to get on the floor, with LaQuill Hardnett and Prince Gillam Toyambi both potential scoring sources. After the Bearcats’ offense stumbled too often this season, getting some more offensive power could go a long way.
All of this is still just hope. If Cumberland decides to go pro and the players behind him don’t make the adjustments necessary to improve, the Bearcats could be in worse shape than they are even after losing another first weekend NCAA Tournament game. However, based on the track record this program has, its tough to imagine that they won’t be able to give themselves an opportunity to correct what’s been going wrong in March the last few seasons.