This preview/prediction is conducted assuming that the Cincinnati Bearcats will play all their games with a mostly full roster. No one can predict what’s going to happen this season, so I’m just going on this assumption.
I’m fairly bullish on the Bearcats in the non-conference portion of the schedule. I think Brannen’s squad will go 4-1 against Lipscomb, Furman, Xavier, Tennessee, and Georgia. UC will lose in Knoxville. The Vols have an exceptional combination of returning players and talented incoming freshmen (top 5 recruiting class) that will just be too much for the young Cats. Xavier and Georgia both lost a lot from last season. No more Anthony Edwards, Naji Marshall, or Tyrique Jones. Both of these games will come down to coaching chess matches and I’m taking Brannen over Tom Crean (good recruiter, not a great coach) and Travis Steele (too defensive minded like Mick Cronin).
The Sweeps/The Must-Haves
If the Bearcats are going to have success in this conference, they must go 8-0 against USF, ECU, UCF, and Tulane or Temple. As long as the Bearcats are healthy, they will beat up on the dregs of the American. USF and ECU don’t have a lot of talent and they will make the game a rock fight and foul as much as possible because that’s the only way they can beat a better team. UCF is without their best player from last year in Collin Smith since he opted out for the season. Johnny Dawkins did get the highly touted Louisville transfer Darrius Perry, but one guy is not going to beat the Bearcats. UCF is another team that doesn’t cross 65-70 points very often but they play very stout defense so offensive efficiency and execution is key.
Tulane and Temple present growth opportunities for UC. The Bearcats notoriously play terribly when traveling to Philadelphia, but the Owls were not good last year and they lost two of their top three scorers, Quinton Rose and Alani Moore. They are extremely young and inexperienced coming off of a 14-17 campaign in 2019-20. This is the time to exorcise those demons at the Liacouras Center.
Tulane is another team that isn’t very good, but Ron Hunter is a great coach that gets the most out of his players as we all saw when the Bearcats experienced a brutal loss in New Orleans last year after surrendering a double-digit lead. They lost a boatload of players from last year’s team from graduation, transfers, and dismissals. However, Coach Hunter brought in five transfers, three of whom will play immediately. Former Alabama guard Jaylen Forbes is the highest-rated of the transfers, but his time at Tuscaloosa resulted in low productivity as he averaged less than three points per game. Hunter will do his best, but the Green Wave has very little experience and almost no chemistry.
Against these five teams, I expect Coach Brannen and the Bearcats to go 9-1. We will probably lose a game we shouldn’t but I would attribute that to our own roster turnover and the fact we are still early in Brannen’s tenure especially in terms of implementing his system with his preferred personnel.
The Splits - Good and Bad
I expect the Bearcats to split games with SMU, Tulsa, and possibly Wichita State. Road games at Moody Coliseum are difficult games for UC and Tulsa normally presents a challenge because we always seem to play them on a Wednesday night at 9 pm. Cincinnati shouldn’t have a problem holding serve at home against these teams. While Wichita State is in massive disarray with the Greg Marshall scandal and resignation along with player departures, the Bearcats are young and susceptible to let downs especially during road games in the middle of nowhere. I don’t expect us to lose in Wichita, but without much of an offseason and a lot of new faces, anything can happen. The Bearcats likely go 4-2 in these matchups if all the games are played.
The Bonus Wins
You probably already knew the two teams in this category before you clicked on this article, but it’s no secret that Memphis and Houston will be favored in their contests against the Bearcats. Houston is the preseason favorite to win the conference as they return their top six scorers which are headlined by their trio of guards Caleb Mills (CPOY favorite), Quentin Grimes, and Nate Hinton. Kelvin Sampson has built himself one of the best versions of a Mick Cronin team. The Cougars play stifling defense, forcing turnovers and creating chaos, but they aren’t the most efficient team on offense. They are probably more adaptive than a Cronin-coached team in that they execute fairly well in the half-court while also being capable of getting up and down the court with just about anyone.
Houston draws fouls and converts from the free throw line at a high team rate (almost 75%), but their depth is what kills teams in the end. Dejon Jarreau and Marcus Sasser provide almost no drop-off when they come in the game which results in continued fluidity in the offense so the team doesn’t lose rhythm. If the Bearcats keep turnovers at a minimum and hit their free throws (Houston averaged 20 fouls a game last year), they can suffocate the Cougars.
The Memphis Tigers are one of my least favorite types of teams in college basketball. They have a ton of talent, but Penny Hardaway is not a good enough coach to properly utilize it. Even without James Wiseman, the Tigers had no business going 21-10 (10-8 AAC) last year with all those highly-rated recruits. The Tigers added top 10 high school recruit Moussa Cisse and highly regarded Virginia Tech transfer Landers Nolley II to a roster that is returning Alex Lomax, Lester Quinones, and Boogie Ellis.
John Brannen is a great X’s-and-O’s coach that makes adept halftime adjustments. Expect him to lean on those skills heavily when playing the Cougars and Tigers. If the Bearcats can go 2-2 in these four games and everything else goes according to plan, that is a huge step forward for Brannen, the team, and the program. Realistically, we probably go 1-3.
That leaves the 2020-21 Cincinnati Bearcats at 18-7 (14-6 AAC). I would not be too surprised if we are 17-8 or 16-9, but 18-7 is definitely within reach IF we stay healthy AND we play every game.